To round out our NFL predictions, we turn our attention to the AFC and NFC South divisions. One of these divisions provided endless story lines in 2011: the shattering of NFL records, rookie sensations and multiple playoffs teams. The other was the AFC South.
Follow along as I explain why, even though things have changed, things will stay very much the same.
The Houston Texans, America's darlings, claimed their first division title and first playoff appearance in franchise history.
Arian Foster emerged as a star running back and rushed for over 1,200 yards in just 13 games. Quarterback Matt Schaub, receiver Andre Johnson and defensive end Mario Williams all missed significant time due to injuries, but the Texans were able to hold on to the lead in the weak division and finished 10-6.
They crushed a completely underwhelming Cincinnati Bengals team in the playoffs before dropping to Baltimore. But remember that it was third-string QB T.J. Yates that led the team into the playoffs.
Many believe that a healthy Texans team could have made much more noise in the postseason, but I suppose we'll never know, will we?
The Tennessee Titans were very quietly a pretty good team. Despite Chris Johnson's best efforts to ruin their season, they notched nine wins and barely missed the playoffs, losing a tiebreaker to Cincinnati.
Thirty-six-year-old Matt Hasselbeck saw the vast majority of snaps, but rookie Jake Locker also got some decent playing time. Kenny Britt was on an early season receiving tear until he experienced one in his MCL, leaving Hasselbeck with nothing more than Nate Washington and Damian Williams to pass to. It is surprising that that lineup was able to stay competitive, but alas, it fell short in the end.
Oh boy, where to start with the Jaguars.
The good news is that Maurice Jones-Drew led the league in rushing and single-handedly earned five wins for his team. He was an average running back, and this team could have been 0-16.
Blaine Gabbert had one of the worst rookie campaigns in recent memory. His passing high for the season was 221 yards, and he failed to break 150 in eight of his 14 starts. It's not all his fault though. His receiving corps was easily the worst in football and created a horrific combination of ineptitude.
If anyone was skeptical of Peyton Manning's worth, we confirmed last year that it is unmeasurable.
A complete and utter mess of a roster without him, the Colts must have been set on Andrew Luck from the moment they knew that Peyton wouldn't be coming back. A carousel of lousy quarterbacks got this team off to an 0-13 start, including a massive 62-7 loss to the Saints. And a mess of underachieving running backs didn't help anything.
The only bright spot on offensive was breakout wide receiver Pierre Garcon, who became a helpful target in the lowly passing game. The Colts did finish 2-14 with late season wins over Tennessee and Houston, and they held off a surging Rams team for the No. 1 draft pick.
No surprise here.
The division is still going to be weak, and I don't think that the Texans are going to have any trouble grabbing the title again. Matt Schaub and Arian Foster are a strong 1-2 punch, and you have to think that Andre Johnson will be able to catch more than two TDs this season.
The defense was very impressive last year, and although it lost Mario Williams, it still has a strong core with linebacker Brian Cushing, defensive end J.J. Watt and cornerback Johnathan Joseph.
There isn't really a lot to say about Houston. It is not going to be the highest scoring or most exciting team in the league. It will win a bunch of ugly 16-14 games. And it doesn't face a lot of competition from its division rivals, so look for the team to lock up a No. 3 or No. 4 seed and attempt to delve deeper into the postseason if it can stay healthy.
I actually like the Titans a little bit. I think Chris Johnson will bounce back from last year. I mean, two years ago, he held out through the preseason (a la MJD), and last year, the preseason was only a month long. He has had more time to prepare this year than in years past.
I also love Kenny Britt (although he is suspended for Week 1, and off the field issues threaten his productivity), as well as tight end Jared Cook. Jake Locker should have some solid targets to help him acclimate to the starting role.
The big problem for the Titans is their schedule. Aside from their six division games, they play the loaded NFC North and the AFC East (which basically means that they will lose to the Patriots). Additionally their first four games are as follows: home for New England, at San Diego, home for Detroit and at Houston. This has a very real chance of being an 0-4 start. They would be extremely lucky to split that run 2-2.
If they can somehow stay afloat in the beginning of the year, they will be rewarded with games against Minnesota, Jacksonville (x2), Buffalo, Miami, Indianapolis (x2) and the New York Jets. The Titans have the talent and ability to win most or all of those games. So I don't think a repeat 9-7 finish is unthinkable.
They say that Andrew Luck is a "once in a generation" type of player. Let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Luck has looked pretty good in preseason action, but I find it very unlikely that he could turn around a team as decimated as the Colts right away. Their quarterbacks were not the only problem, and I'm not sure how much work has been done to address weaknesses in other areas.
The run game is still going to be bad. Joseph Addai is out after six seasons (the last four of which were pretty mediocre). But Donald Brown has accomplished very little since being drafted three years ago, and Delone Carter, who saw 100 carries last year, has fallen to the bottom of the depth chart behind 30-year old Mewelde Moore and no-name Vick Ballard. It doesn't look like Luck will get much relief from the ground unit.
Pierre Garcon left for the greener pastures of Washington (that's sarcasm), but Luck still has Reggie Wayne and Austin Collie at receiver. I expect a better season from Wayne; we all know he has the ability. As for Collie, he missed half the season in 2010 and was getting balls thrown to him by Curtis Painter in 2011, so we aren't really sure. I like him though, and the passing offense should be much improved.
Andrew won't be able to take the Colts back to the promised land in one season (who do you think he is, Tebow?), but we should see progress from 2-14. And maybe in a few years, he'll have them back in the mix of things.
Please forgive me for doubting you, Maurice. I swear I didn't mean it.
If you haven't heard, ESPN.com reported today that Maurice Jones-Drew ended his holdout with Jacksonville.
He claims to be in good shape and 100 percent healthy (because apparently he was still smarting from a knee injury last year, while leading the league in rushing by 250 yards). The only worry is that he won't have time to learn the playbook...Are you kidding me?
He isn't a wide receiver who has to learn routes. He doesn't need to know defensive packages. All he needs to know is that if he gets the ball, he needs to run forward with it, and if he doesn't then he needs to block someone so that Blaine Gabbert doesn't get his head knocked off. Seems pretty simple to me.
I know that Rashad Jennings is the starter for Week 1, and that's fine. But there is no way that MJD won't get at least a handful of carries. And there is no way he won't be back as the starter soon after.
I feel so much better about everything. Ain't life grand?
Now, my rankings were thrown off a bit because that 3-13 record was calculated when I thought it might be a long time before we saw MJD in the lineup. Without him, they are the worst team in football hands down. With him, they might deserve a few more wins, but I still anticipate less than six wins and a fourth-place finish.
Everyone in Jacksonville is claiming that Blaine Gabbert made huge progress over the offseason. I am highly skeptical. I want to see him complete three straight out routes before I believe anything. Even if he is better, who is he throwing to?
The Jags drafted Justin Blackmon with the sixth pick in the draft, and they picked up Laurent Robinson who overachieved last year in Dallas, but it still seems shaky. There is no experience in the lineup, and you never know what kind of growing pains Blackmon might be going through.
Did the Saints really go 13-3 last year? Didn't they lose to the 4-12 Buccaneers and the 2-14 Rams?
It feels like every year, we expect them to regress, but Drew Brees just keeps going out there and putting up wins.
Much like the Packers, the Saints were not particularly strong on defense, which cost them dearly in a playoff game against San Francisco in which they simply could not stop Alex Smith. And much unlike the Packers, their running back rotation actually worked, coming in at sixth in the NFL in rushing offense.
I'll give you three guesses as to who was the only Saints RB to break 100 yards in a game last year? ... All wrong, it was Chris Ivory. Weird huh?
The Falcons, while being completely unspectacular to watch, finished a strong season at 10-6 and claimed the first NFC wild card.
However, they completely imploded in their playoff game against New York, losing 24-2 (only scoring on an Eli Manning intentional grounding call in the end zone). Matt Ryan and Michael Turner, who had been solid all season, fell to pieces under the pressure of New York's defense.
On the bright side, Julio Jones had a great rookie season, and Roddy White was a top 10 receiver. There should be good things to come in the Falcons passing game.
Cam Newton absolutely electrified Carolina last year. Despite a disappointing 6-10 record, there was nothing disappointing about his performance. He broke 4,000 passing yards, good for 10th in the league. He also ran for 706 yards and added 14 TDs in the ground. Of course, he still has growing to do, and his team still needs to be rebuilt around him. But gosh, what an introduction to the NFL.
The Buccaneers were 4-2 after their first six games of 2011. They had beaten both New Orleans and Atlanta. They were in first place in the NFC South.
I don't know what happened. I don't think anyone does.
They lost 10 straight games to close out the season. In the four division games following the aforementioned victories over the Saints and Falcons, the Buccs were outscored 158-75. Blaine Gabbert dropped 41 points on them! It was unbelievable. Their complete and utter collapse was enough to get terrible head coach Raheem Morris fired.
I'm not really buying the whole "Saints can't function without Sean Payton" argument. I do think it makes a small impact, but Drew Brees can handle the team without Payton holding his hand the whole time.
The comparisons to the Packers will continue here. I feel like in one of these years, the Saints are going to start to decline. Obviously the pass offense is going to be potent, but the rushing offense is uncertain, and the defense is going to allow a lot of points. All it takes is a few bad games out of Brees (I watched him for years in San Diego, trust me, they exist) for the Saints to drop down to 10-6.
Take a quick look at their schedule. There are a lot of big offenses on that list. You have the Packers, the Chargers and the Peyton Manning-led Broncos—all in the first half of the year. Plus, two games against Atlanta, the Giants, San Francisco and Dallas.
The Saints will win the South again because the rest of the division is still working its way up, but it won't be such a "Brees" this time around.
We got to shake things up a little bit. Try to forget that the Buccs went 4-12 last year. They were better than that.
A few losses and some disgruntled players launched them into a downward spiral and the season got away. Not this year.
Josh Freeman has looked good in the preseason and has already built a rapport with new receiver Vincent Jackson. Some critics have knocked Jackson because he doesn't always put up premiere numbers, but I've watched his progression in the league, and he is going to give you a few 10 reception, 150 yard, two touchdown games throughout the season. He'll also go over smaller defenders and snag passes, which might be good for a not-so accurate Freeman.
A running game that was weak last year has been revamped with rookie Doug Martin, who I absolutely adore. You still have the big bruiser, LaGarrette Blount, in short yardage situations—and possibly to give Martin a breather once in a while. I don't expect a 30th place finish in this category like last year.
Their offensive line has also received a big upgrade in the form of Carl Nicks at left guard, who was a major reason the Saints had a successful ground game last year. He should open up holes for Martin, and there is no better friend to a young RB than a fantastic run-blocker.
Overall, I think that the team is just a little above average, which is why I'm giving it a 9-7 record and an outside chance at a wild-card berth. Remember, the 2010 Buccaneers (who had a very similar roster—minus the aforementioned 2012 additions) went 10-6 behind Josh Freeman.
Sometimes the Falcons are just so... blah. Maybe it's just because I can't get that playoff game out of my head. Maybe I'm being unfair.
The receiving corps is great on paper—Julio Jones, Roddy White and even Harry Douglas. I like the possibilities there.
For everything we say about Michael Turner, he is just consistently good.
Since he moved to Atlanta in 2008 and got out from behind LaDainian Tomlinson's shadow, he has been in the top three in rushing yards three out of four years. The only year he wasn't was in 2009, because he was injured.
He still amassed 864 yards in 10 games before getting hurt that season. And at that rate, had he been healthy, he would have finished with approximately 1,382 yards, good for sixth in the league. It's hard to argue with numbers like that.
Their defense is pretty good, especially against the run. They have a solid line, and their cornerbacks are decent. For some reason, I expected Keith Brooking to still be kicking around at linebacker, but I'm probably just having flashbacks to the Eisenhower administration.
I guess the main point is, I just don't like Matt Ryan that much. Shocker right? I'm not sure that he has it—whatever "it" is. He just seems to crumble under pressure, which is not something you want the leader of your team to do. He still hasn't won a playoff game, and he has never really put together a big season.
It's funny how every September I'm usually spouting some nonsense like "Watch out for Atlanta, this is going to be Matt Ryan's year." Maybe I've just lost too much faith.
Gosh, just look at him. What a physical specimen. Cam Newton is wonderful. I want to be friends with him. I want to have lunch with him. I want to have late night conversations about cover 2 defenses in our shared bunk bed. Whatever blessed person got to be his roommate at Auburn, I hope you made the most of your opportunity.
Cam is not the problem with the Carolina Panthers. Everything else is the problem with the Carolina Panthers.
Their running back situation is the bane of any fantasy football player's existence. Will it be DeAngelo Williams? Will it be Jonathan Stewart? Who knows? Newton will probably just run it in himself. They keep throwing gobs of money at both of them. Do you realize that they signed Stewart to a five-year contract this year, and they signed Williams to a five-year contract last year? Can you really not just pick one of them, Panthers?
Wide receiver Steve Smith (the original Steve Smith) is great and all, but can you name their next receiving option? I certainly couldn't without ESPN's help. It's Brandon LaFell. And after him is ex-Raider Louis Murphy. When you have to settle for receivers that weren't good enough for the Oakland Raiders, that's not a great sign.
And the defense, oh the defense. Last year, the only team it held under 20 points was the Jaguars. Nice job, there. I gave up at least 28 points in nine games. If you do some quick mathematics, you'll realize that that is more than half the season. Their record in those nine games, you ask? 0-9. This isn't rocket science, kids.
Cam Newton cannot do enough by himself to keep up with all the points they allow on defense. He is an amazing player and is the most exciting prospect in the NFL today. But his team just isn't there yet.
Come back again tomorrow, when I break down the Wild Card and Divisional Rounds of the 2012 NFL playoffs.