The AFC South spent last year in Bizzaro world.
After several consecutive seasons of utter dominance on the part of the Colts, this division was finally competitive.
The Titans got off to a strong start, plowing through teams with their running game and pile driving QB’s with their aggressive front four.
The Colts got off to a very slow start, but turned it around in time to make the playoffs.
Jacksonville still hung around, but were crippled by their lack of depth on the offensive line.
Houston was, well, Houston. They put up a lot more points than years past, but still seem to lack that “it” factor a truly competitive team must possess to make a title run.
Let’s go over who will be the clear winner of this division by season’s end, and some reasons why the other three teams will fail to make the cut.
The Texans really didn't do much to improve from their disappointing 2008 campaign. They signed Rex Grossman to replace Sage Rosenfels, which I’m sure was what every Texan fan was praying for. Nevermind the defense is still a couple playmakers short, and the offense line continues to be average at best. What the team really thought they needed to shore up was inconsistent backup QB play? And they think Good Rex/Bad Rex is the solution?
Rosenfels proved he could step in for the oft-injured Matt Schaub and even had the Colts backed into a corner until he decided a helicopter jump over Gary Bracket was a bright idea. Two minutes and 21 points later Peyton Manning was breathing sigh of deep relief. Take that one play back, Sage wins the game, and probably doesn’t get traded.
Grossman had trouble elevating Florida to SEC glory during a stretch of years that saw Eli Manning garnering Heisman hype. This guy was given the keys to the Gator’s spread offense and had many 200+ yard games, but several of those games were asterisked by 2+ INTs.
Grossman has been inconsistent his entire playing career. Want a good example? Check his stats from the 2006 season, the only season you will find that shows him playing in 16 total games. He had one the craziest roller coaster seasons I have or ever will see. He would toss 3 TDs and 300 yards one week, then fail to complete 50 percent of his passes and commit four turnovers the next week. Case and point? The famous “WE LET EM OFF THE HOOK!” game against Arizona.
Grossman tried time and time again to hand the Cardinals the game, only to have his defense win it for him. Still not convinced? Go back and watch him against Indy in the Super Bowl. Grossman commited five turnovers.
The bad news is that Rex is bad news, he will get rushed a lot if given playing time and that will result in a lot of blind deep balls to Andre Johnson. Plays like that work against cupcake teams in college, but not in the pros. Sign Michael Vick and if Schaub gets hurt then Vick can run option plays with Steve Slaton, doing his best Pat White impression.
Long story long, Houston doesn’t stand a chance. Even if Schaub stays healthy and Andre Johnson continues to perform at a high level, this team doesn’t have that killer instinct. They might win half their division games, but don’t count on it. Lack of depth all around and not enough playmakers on either side of the ball make this team the weakest link. They may squeak out a winning record, but no playoffs. At the very least fans of Houston can find solice in that fact that no one’s talking about not drafting Reggie Bush anymore.
I am honestly surprised Jack Del Rio and Mike Tice are still employed. Del Rio keeps making bonehead changes to both his staff and players.
Benching Mike Peterson in the middle of a struggling season? Boneheaded.
Not signing or trading for big run blockers when your best ones go down with injury? Boneheaded.
Bringing in such big name talent as Dennis Northcutt and Troy Williamson to team with coke-head Matt Jones to try and replace Jimmy Smith? Boneheaded.
Failing to draft or sign any proven receivers to add a passing game to a great running game? Boneheaded.
The Jaguars’ 2008 campaign was littered with disaster, and Del Rio can be the one to absorb the blame. His team collapsed, he lost his cool, as well as his grip on the team. Apparently all that talk that Mike Smith was just a coordinator, and that the defense carried him was a load of crap. Smith’s new team led by rookie sensation Matt Ryan flew high all season, and even made the playoffs. The Jaguars couldn’t really get going in any facet of the game, and fell face first into a season long collapse from the previous season’s playoff run.
Management may have forgiven Del Rio and chalked it up to bad luck, but truth be told I wasn’t very impressed with the way Jack ran this team in the best of times either. Mark Brunell, Byron Leftwich, and David Garrard would all be backups on any other team, in fact two of the three already fit that criteria.
There is a major difference between having a great playmaking QB, and believing you have one. Giving Garrard that big contract extension after one year of handing off to two Pro Bowl caliber backs and rarely passing the ball downfield probably inflated the collective head of the team and may have planted them into impossible expectations.
There is no reason to believe the offense will be worlds different from the last several, which means smash mouth running, short passes, and a stalwart defense.
This team faces a tough test and even the addition of Torry Holt and drafting two lineman will not change their fate.
Rookie lineman and an aging receiver? Sounds like Jimmy Smith’s last couple years all over again, and none of that went particularly well for Florida’s third team. They might break .500 and they might not, even if they make the playoffs and get a good first round matchup, this team will crumble against first rate competition.
They let Brady complete 26 of 28 passes, and they have the audacity to say their defense is top notch.
Brady played in 18 other games that year, and never had that kind performance. (No one in the history of the NFL has had a game that good, before or since.)
The Titans will do more soul searching than winning this year, as the disappointing end to the 2008 season left many questions to be answered.
The first of which is how do you replace a player like Albert Haynesworth?
I am not sure you can, and none of the Titans’ offseason moves indicate that they have any better of an idea. The running game began to dwindle late in the season, as defenses crept up because they became less and less concerned with Kerry Collins or his short list of receivers.
That begs the question, who will step up on offense?
Will Vince Young reclaim his starting spot, forcing defenses to fear the run, the pass, and how to contain a very mobile QB?
Only time will tell.
I will say this, the Vince Young led Titans seemed a lot more promising than with Kerry Collins under center. Kerry is not a long term solution, and Jeff Fisher knows it. What he also knows is that he cannot publicly state that fact, as it would give Vince the idea the spot is his no matter what his latest shenanigans are, and at the same time give Kerry less motivation to play his game manager role.
One of the more important questions this season is how much of an impact will a new D-coordinator have on a team that just seemed to find its identity?
The Titans always had a good defense, but Jim Schwartz upped the ante last season. He had guys like Nick Harper and Courtland Finnegan looking like Pro Bowlers. Javon Kearse and Keith Bullocks returned to their previous dominance, and then you had Albert Haynesworth playing as though Mark Strong pulled on a Titans jersey.
Haynesworth is a Redskin now, and I have to say that the defense looked very mortal those weeks he was out with injury last year. Now they have to compete in 16 games without their big run stuffer. Makes things look mighty bleak.
Chris Johnson and LenDale White will continue their lightning and thunder attack, and whoever starts at QB has one heck of line blocking for them. That means that even if the defense sinks to an above average level, the Titans should be okay.
If Vince Young comes out and plays like he has something to prove, much like he did his first two years, the Titans should be good. I cannot come up with a real good reason for them to be great, not until they find some playmaking wideouts.
Until then, Vince Young will have to forgo his Steve McNair impression for now and do his best Randall Cunningham. The Titans should start and finish strong, perhaps even secure a wild card berth, but probably exit behind the curtain after that. No one at the skill positions has been deep in the playoffs, and lack of experience is only trumped by true talent, which the Titans have found to be lacking.
The Colts own this division.
Let's face it, the they had one crazy year last year. Peyton Manning comes off the first injury/surgery of his professional career, then Joseph Addai is hurt more often than not, and Marvin Harrison has the lowest production of his career, not counting injury shortened seasons. All of that should be in the past.
Peyton is at back at elite status, Joseph Addai should start off healthy, (and if he does go down look for Mike Hart or newly acquired Donald Brown to step in and produce in much the same way), and the Colts front office decided Marvin’s paycheck was no longer worth loyalty without stats.
This actually might help Peyton out. In years past when Marvin was struggling or not playing, he would get Reggie Wayne the ball more, and spread it around to the backs and tight ends, all along just biding his time for Marvin’s return. He no longer has that option, but it won't work out negatively.
Peyton spent the past two seasons getting better timing with Wayne and third-year man Anthony Gonzalez, which should equal out to just about what he had with Harrison and Wayne. Dallas Clark is still among the best pass catching tight ends in the league, and whichever back is in the game should produce with swing passes. Long story short and in Peyton’s own words, “this team should hit the ground running”.
The Colts have produced three straight 12-win seasons, an NFL record. They kept that streak going last year on Manning’s bum knee, a lousy and oft-injured offensive line, and lets not forget Joseph Addai getting hurt early and often. That left Peyton to run a spread offense of only one Pro Bowl talent, which probably reminded him of his rookie season.
The defense was dismal just for continuity purposes, even in their 2006 Super Bowl win, the Colts had the worst run defense in the league. This did not stop Peyton hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, and you can bet he wants ring No. 2 before he hangs 'em up.
A new coaching staff should only help this offensive juggernaut, as we all probably noticed the Colts still put up yards, but not nearly as many points. Peyton is as close to having the O-Coordinator on the field with you as it gets, so whoever is calling the plays should do just fine as long as they can stay out of his way.
The Colts drafted a couple of behemoth sized defensive tackles to go with their new defensive style, which is to stop the run. They already had a very young and talented secondary, but a secondary is only as good as its pass rush, which means you need interior lineman that can get penetration.
The Colts will not improve on their 12-4 record from a year ago, but they will improve on how close and costly some of those wins came. No more last second comebacks against Minnesota and Houston, but more of those 20 point 4th quarter coasting wins, like the ones we grew so accustomed to in Harrison’s hayday.
The Colts will be a good pick to win it all, and that starts with winning your division. Wild card teams have won before, but it is so much easier to play at home in the postseason. Peyton will renew his rivalry with Tom Brady, and after the fireworks fly in the regular season, we should all be rewarded with a championship game rematch.
Colts are the 2009 AFC South Division Champions, final answer.