After a tough 2008 season, the Jacksonville Jaguars are looking to make it back to a playoff-caliber level in 2009. But that will be no easy task considering that the Jags play in the always-tough AFC South. Here’s a look at the teams that will attempt to halt Jacksonville’s rise to prominence.
Houston Texans (8-8 in 2008)
Key additions: LB Brian Cushing (first-round draft pick), LB Cato June (free agency), DT Shaun Cody (free agent), QB Dan Orlovsky.
Key losses: OT Ephraim Salaam (still a free agent), LB Morlon Greenwood (still a free agent)
Overview: Historically, the Texans have given the Jaguars fits. In the last six meetings between the two teams, Houston has won four times.
It’s important to note that Houston’s 42-28 win in 2007 came in Jacksonville’s final game of the season. The Jaguars had already locked up a playoff spot and rested most of their starters, but it’s still a surprising track record.
It looks like the Texans are poised to become a thorn in the side of other AFC teams this year. Under Coach Gary Kubiak, who is entering his fourth year at the helm, Houston has shown steady improvement. The team went 6-10 in Kubiak’s first year, but has posted consecutive 8-8 seasons.
The Texans have built an impressive offense that is centered around Andre Johnson. Considering the numbers he puts up, he doesn’t get some of the exposure of the bigger-name (and bigger-mouthed) wide receivers, but I would take Johnson over just about anybody, save Larry Fitzgerald. Johnson caught 115 passes for 1,575 yards and eight touchdowns last season.
Complementing Johnson is wide receiver Kevin Walter and tight end Owen Daniels. Walter, who has been called a poor-man’s Wes Welker, has benefited from the constant attention Johnson draws.
He posted career highs in receiving yards (899), yards per catch (15.0) and touchdowns (8). Daniels, one of the most-underrated tight ends in the game, is as steady as they come.
I’m not convinced that Matt Schaub is the long-term answer at quarterback, but he is serviceable and won’t cost Houston many games.
The big surprise last year offensively was Steve Slaton. A third-round draft choice out of West Virginia, Slaton burst on the scene with 1,659 yards from scrimmage and 10 total touchdowns. While defenses won’t be surprised by Slaton this year, he should continue to do big things.
Take that explosive offense and pair it with a young, up-and-coming defense that includes Mario Williams (12 sacks in 2008) and DeMeco Ryans (112 total tackles last year), and Houston has all the makings of a playoff team. The addition of Cato June and Shaun Cody will only help, and Brian Cushing could make an immediate impact. It might not happen in 2009, but the Texans are definitely a team worth watching.
Indianapolis Colts (12-4, Wild Card playoff loss to San Diego, 23-17 in OT)
Key additions: RB Donald Brown (first-round draft pick).
Key losses: WR Marvin Harrison (expected to retire), RB Dominic Rhodes (Buffalo).
Overview: Everyone knows that Indy is stacked on the offensive side of the ball. They still have Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark.
The Colts did lose Marvin Harrison, but he is getting long in the tooth. With all the legal issues, it’s probably just as well anyway.
It looks like Anthony Gonzalez is ready to take over as the No. 2 receiver. There were games when he was stellar (nine catches, 137 yards against Minnesota Week 2; six catches, 95 yards, one touchdowns) and others when he disappeared (he had three games where he only caught one pass). He must become more consistent for the Colts to keep clicking on all cylinders.
Perhaps the most glaring deficiency last year was Indianapolis’ lack of a running game. Four-year RB Joseph Addai was a major disappointment.
There were four weeks that he didn’t play, but he still only ran for 544 yards for a measly 3.5 yards per carry. Statistically, Dominic Rhodes had a better year, but he bolted for Buffalo.
To help pick up the slack, the Colts drafted UConn RB Donald Brown. Statistically, Brown was one of the best ball carriers in Division I last year. Personally, I would have taken Beanie Wells, but we’ll see how Brown pans out.
The question with Indianapolis is always about the defense. It is a unit that has been labeled soft in the pass and doesn’t always hold up well against the run.
There have been numerous occasions that Jacksonville has gashed Indy, played ball control and pulled out a win. The Colts addressed the defense in the draft with DT Fili Moala (second round), CB Jerraud Powers (third round) and DT Terrance Taylor (fourth round).
The fact that the Colts drafted two defensive tackles with their first five picks would seem to indicate that the team is making an effort to get tough against the run. We’ll see if Moala or Taylor can accomplish that.
Tennessee Titans (13-3, Divisional playoff loss to Baltimore, 13-10)
Key additions: WR Kenny Britt (first-round draft pick), WR Nate Washington (free agency), DT Jovan Haye (free agency).
Key losses: DT Albert Haynesworth (Washington)
Overview: In 2008, the Titans were anchored by the RB tandem of Chris Johnson and LenDale White. The NFL’s lightest edition of “Thunder and Lightning,” Tennessee successfully ran the ball down its opponents’ throats all year. The duo combined for 2,001 yards and 24 touchdowns.
With Kerry Collins as the signal caller, the Titans’ passing game was pretty pedestrian. But it didn’t really hurt the team until the playoff game against Baltimore. The Ravens’ run D was stout enough to keep Johnson and White in check, and the Titans couldn’t loosen Baltimore up with the passing game.
Even though Collins is coming to the end of his career, Tennessee realized that they had to give him more targets to throw to. Justin Gage led the Titans with 651 receiving yards, while tight end Bo Scaife had a team-high 58 catches.
Not exactly earth-shattering numbers. The Titans picked up deep threat Nate Washington from Pittsburgh and drafted Kenny Britt out of Rutgers.
If they can get the passing game going, Tennessee will be the most dangerous team in the NFL. On defense, the Titans lost their anchor when Albert Haynesworth signed a bank-breaking contract with Washington.
To try and counteract his loss, they signed Jovan Haye from Tampa Bay and drafted Sen’Derrick Marks from Auburn. Even with those additions, it will be impossible to replace Haynesworth’s production from 2008 (especially considering that he was essentially playing for a huge payday). Tennessee’s defense will still be good, but I don’t think it will be dominant.
Of the six AFC playoff teams, two came from the AFC South last year. The Titans and the Colts should both be in the mix this year, and with the emergence of the Texans, Jacksonville will be hard-pressed to reach the playoffs in 2009.