Over the next few weeks I will preview each NFL division from an over/under season win total perspective. All totals and odds to win division are courtesy of Bowmans.com, as current as the date the article is published. For additional division previews, please find links at the bottom of this article for previews of the NFC North, NFC South, NFC West and NFC East divisions.
With Peyton Manning getting virtually no practice time last offseason due to his bursa sac injury, Manning entered Week One rusty and the Colts lost easily to the Bears 29-13. The rocky start continued through Week Eight when Indy sat at an unimpressive 3-4. However the Colts flipped the switch starting the next week with a home win over New England, and then proceeded to follow up with eight more straight wins, to finish the season with a nine game winning streak and a 12-4 record. That magical streak came to an abrupt halt in the postseason though, as they fell in overtime to the Chargers.
Indy hasn’t had fewer than 12 wins in any of the past five seasons, and haven’t had as few as 10 wins since 2002; however, that number, 10, is exactly what bookmakers have lined them at for this coming season. In the eyes of some, that number may actually be too high. About a month ago, making a bet on over 10 wins was the more popular choice, at -135, with the under coming in at a plus price, at +105. Since then, money has been coming in on the under, with the under now sitting at -120, and over at -110.
Going into 2009, Indy returns basically the identical cast of '08 to the field. However, gone are RB Dominic Rhodes and future hall-of-famer Marvin Harrison. While Harrison has been Manning’s favorite target since '96, his production and health have slipped while his contract was going to be too expensive this year. Even with Harrison only receiving 636 years last year, the Colts' passing attack still ranked fifth in the league, in part due to the ample amount of options Manning still has in Reggie Wayne, Anthony Gonzalez, Dallas Clark and Gijon Robinson, to name a few. Also accounting for the Colts' high pass totals was the solid job the offensive line performed in pass protection, ranking third in sacks allowed.
The rushing attack ranked a measly 31st last year and will surely miss Rhodes. However, Indy will be hoping rookie Donald Brown will be an adequate replacement and someone who can push starter Joseph Addai for playing time. Defensively, the Colts will have to tighten up their play versus the run, as they were a dismal 24th, though they were very strong versus the pass, ranking sixth. If Bob Sanders, who only played in six regular season games last year, can remain healthy, his presence will help elevate the whole defense.
Of course, while the roster looks much the same as the '08 version, the coaching staff has undertaken a complete makeover. Tony Dungy has decided to pursue other interests at this stage of his life and both coordinators have also been replaced. Ron Meeks left for Carolina, and Tom Moore was forced into a consultant position to avoid losing his pension. The whole confusing situation saw the often reserved Manning speak out about his displeasure at the the lack of communication with the new coaching staff this offseason. New coach Jim Caldwell and offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen have been promoted from within, which should provide some stability; however, if the whole staff can’t come together collectively, Indy could be in for a frustrating year.
While this season’s schedule ranks slightly tougher at 13th than what Indy ended up with at the end of '08, if you take a closer look, it’s certainly not daunting. Getting off to a decent start will be important as Indy plays two of their first three games, and four of the first seven, on the road. However, after a road game in St. Louis in Week Seven, Indy returns home for three straight weeks, then hits the road for games in Baltimore and Houston. Then again, each of those teams will be coming off short weeks having played on the Monday prior. The Colts then play two more straight home games, and finish the year alternating road and home dates, finishing with a season finale in Buffalo, which if this year is anything like recent years, may be a rather meaningless game for both teams, just for different reasons. One final point of the schedule is that they will have a very light travel schedule, only having to make one trip out of the Eastern or Central time zones, and that is in Week Three when they visit the Cardinals.
In my opinion, the Colts are still a very strong and dominant team. However, some of their luster has slowly been wearing off over the last couple years and some players have been wearing down with injuries. Stopping the run has been a consistent problem lately in Indianapolis and a completely new coaching staff can only be a hurdle, and not a blessing, when you consider who their predecessors were. The conference and division are no longer Indy’s for the taking, with lots of competition from perennial powerhouses, as well as improved play from several other teams. Even within their own division, the Titans and even the Texans, can now go punch-for-punch with the mighty Colts. While I don’t see Indy running away with anything and a repeat of last year’s 12 wins may be a tough sell, it’s hard to imagine a Peyton Manning lead Colts team failing to reach at least the 10 win mark.
Prediction: Over 10 wins
After bottoming out in the middle of this decade in 2005 with four wins, the Titans have been on a steady ascent towards becoming one of the league's elite teams. Tennessee has improved their win totals to eight, ten and finally 13 during the last three seasons respectively.
All the pieces came together during the regular season in 2008, as the Titans roared out of the gates going 10-0 and laid claim to the league's best record, behind a strong run game, a phenomenal defense which allowed the second fewest points in the league and efficient, yet unspectacular play from QB Kerry Collins.
2008 saw the Titans rank in the top 10 of many major statistical categories on both sides of the ball, while also producing a +14 turnover differential, ranking only second behind the +17 of the Steelers. With Vince Young being either injured, depressed or uninterested to begin the year, Collins stepped in admirably, producing offense through the air was never the Titans' strength, as evidenced by their 27th ranking in passing offense. While Tennessee was able to get by with their other strengths during the regular season, the lack of a passing game proved to be their undoing in the playoffs. Despite thoroughly outplaying the Ravens in the AFC Divisional round, they could only manage 10 points in falling 13-10.
While they did face many quality opponents in the Steelers, Ravens, and Colts twice, to name a few, overall their opponents in 2008 only combined to win the fourth fewest games. This season, however, they are lined up to face a slightly tougher schedule, as theirs ranks 14th in difficulty.
Looking down their schedule, it would appear the Titans will need to be in top form early on, in order to remain near the top of the AFC standings. They will begin the year playing three of four on the road and the only time they face a team with a losing record from last year before Week Nine, will be the two times they face the Jaguars in Weeks four and eight. Three times this year they will also play teams coming off a bye and once, in Week 11, they will play on a short week on a Monday night in Houston with the Texans coming off their bye. It would be worth noting that while they kept it close in losing 13-12, Tennessee was completely outplayed in Week 15 last year in Houston. Things do get a bit better in the last month of the year as they play three in a row at home before closing out the year in Seattle.
Duplicating last year's results may be tough, as Tennessee will be without standout DT Albert Haynesworth, who signed a lucrative contract in Washington and Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz who took the head coaching job in Detroit. Some key additions will be DT Jovan Haye who'll look to fill Haynesworth's spot, and WR Nate Washington who'll look stretch the field the same way he did in Pittsburgh, to try and spark the passing attack. He could be helped by first round pick WR Kenny Britt who has the potential to start right away.
The Titans aren't going to sneak up on anybody in 2009, as they finally unseated the Colts as the top team in the AFC South. Losing Haynesworth and Schwartz are big losses, and in my opinion they've done little to improve the passing game. That being said, the Titans are still loaded with talent, and even with a slight dropoff from last year, they should still be in line to cover the number.
Prediction: Over 9 wins
2008 was very much a season of ups and downs for the Houston Texans. Houston finally finished with a .500 record in 2007 and were hoping to improve by taking the next step forward last season. However, you could argue that the Texans were doomed from the get-go as they had to deal with Hurricane Ike. Players had their families and homes on their mind, and the team was evicted from Reliant Stadium for a home game in Week Two as the stadium was damaged and needed repairs. This meant that Houston was forced to take their bye week in Week Two and play 15 games in a row thereafter. It also meant that Houston wouldn't play their first home game until Week Five, which at that point they were already 0-3.
After losing that home game vs. Indy, the Texans went on a three game home winning streak, before dropping their next three, and then finishing strong winning four of five. That strong finish brought the Texans even at 8-8, however of their eight wins, only three of them came against teams with winning records.
This year, their schedule comes in at the middle of the pack ranking 15th in degree of difficulty. The Texans will have a good opportunity to get off to a good start as three of their opening four games will be on their home turf. If Houston can't put a couple wins together during that stretch, they may fall out of contention early on as four of their next five games will be on the road, where Houston's 2-6 road mark from last year, was in stark contrast to their 6-2 record at home.
Looking at which divisions they are lined up to face this year, they obviously play in an ultra-competitive AFC South, but they will also have to face all the teams from one of the most successful divisions last year, the AFC East. On the plus side, when they play out of conference, they will take on one of the softer NFC divisions; the West. Finally after having one of the earliest bye weeks ever last year for reasons mentioned previously, a bye week during Week 10 may come at the perfect time in order for Houston to rest up before entering the second half of the season.
Offensively, Houston has become one of the more potent units in the league, ranking 13th in rushing and fourth in passing. Led by QB Matt Schaub, standout WR Andre Johnson and rookie sensation Steve Slaton, the Texans should have the cornerstones of the offense in place. Unfortunately, Schaub has found it difficult to stay healthy and should he miss any significant amount of time the team could be in trouble. While in 2008 they had a turnover-prone, yet highly effective Sage Rosenfels at backup, he was not retained in free agency and has been replaced by Dan Orlovsky. Orlovsky couldn't cut it with the Lions and can be best remembered for forgetting how big the end zone was and running out of bounds last year.
Houston's crutch continued to be their problems with turnovers, finishing with a -10 differential, as well their overall play on the defensive side of the ball. The secondary ranked a marginal 17th yet cut ties with several players this offseason, but the team was still 23rd vs. the rush and also 23rd in producing sacks.
They will look to improve things on this side of the ball with the several new additions to the front seven including Shaun Cody, Buster Davis and Cato June. Their prized free agent addition was DE Antonio Smith, who was lured away from the Super Bowl runner-up Cardinals, to provide more pressure opposite Mario Williams on the defensive line.
Last year the Texans split their divisional games with Tennessee and Jacksonville, but lost both to Indy, yet kept both games close. If they can look to improve to at least splitting these six games or potentially sweeping a team like Jacksonville who could struggle, they could already be halfway to equaling their projected win total. Even after dealing with Ike, no home games for a month and an awful start, Houston still rebounded to have a respectable year. The playoffs may still elude this squad in 2009 as unless you were the Broncos as winners of the AFC West with an 8-8 record, it took 11 wins just to qualify for the Wild Card last year. However, this year's schedule looks manageable in my opinion and I think we may see some improvement here.
Prediction: Over 8 wins
Entering last season the Jaguars were full of confidence and supposed to contend among the top teams in the AFC and challenge for the Super Bowl. Instead, the Jaguars took a huge step backwards by having their worst season since 2003. After winning three games and sitting at 3-3 going into their bye week, the Jags went completely in the tank by only winning two of their remaining 10 games to finish at a dismal 5-11.
Much of this could be attributed to widespread injuries, especially on the offensive line. The offense ranked fairly middle of the road both on the ground and through the air. In addition, they suffered in turnover differential at -7 and got scorched through the air when defending the pass, by ranking 24th.
Many changes have been made this offseason, with the team cutting ties with several players on both sides of the ball. The Jags have suffered without any big play receivers and the team finally showed the door to underachievers Reggie Williams and Matt Jones. Dennis Northcutt has also been traded to the Lions, which leaves you to wonder if the best this unit can hope for is addition by subtraction. WR Tory Holt was signed and will immediately become QB David Garrard's number one target, but he will be 33 and has been battling knee injuries at this stage of his career.
Mel Tucker comes over from Cleveland to become the Jags third defensive coordinator in as many years, and he may incorporate some of the 3-4 defense into a unit which struggled under Greg Williams 4-3 last year. Safety Sean Considine has also been signed to help in the secondary.
After seeing how much the offensive line struggled when injuries hit last year, new GM Gene Smith has tried to provide depth by signing OT Tra Thomas and drafting two O-linemen in the first two rounds of the draft in Eugene Monroe who could start at LT and Eben Britton.
Another reason Jacksonville may have struggled in '08 could be that their opponents had the fourth most wins in the league. Despite the Jags' poor results in '08, '09 still sees them playing the 11th toughest schedule with their opponents posting a .516 winning percentage. The Jags will need to be geared up and ready to go as soon as the season starts—as in their first four games—they will play all three of their divisional rivals, in addition to hosting the Cardinals in Week Two. Other points of interest are three straight games versus teams coming off bye weeks starting in Week Seven, and then three straight home games from Weeks 13-15.
Running back Maurice Jones-Drew will now be the main man running the ball in Jacksonville after Fred Taylor wasn't resigned and he may be the only star on this team right now. The Jags probably aren't too far removed from their 11-win campaign in 2007 and should bounce back a bit from last season barring another onslaught of injuries. However, there is little behind MJD in the backfield, the Jags will most likely start a rookie at LT, its anyone's guess who’ll emerge as the top receiving target, and the defense will be breaking in a new coordinator. The Jags should improve from last year, but to think they are going to improve by at least three to four wins seems far-fetched.
Prediction: Under 8 wins
Best bet to win division: This is a tough call in my opinion. The Colts and Titans should battle it out all year, but both have lost some key parts to their teams. Indy doesn’t offer much value at +162 and I think it’s kind of a toss-up between these two. However, at +300 I will go out on a limb and call out the Texans as the best “value” bet to win the AFC South. Personally, I’d proceed with caution and I think you can probably find better values in other divisions (like those in my gambling previews for the NFC, which you can find below).
NFC North Preview
NFC West Preview
NFC East Preview
NFC South Preview
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