2011 NFL Previews by Division: AFC South
I outlined how much the division rivals hate the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers for their dominance of their division In my AFC North preview. (A link there will take you to an AFC East preview, and the following one to the AFC West preview.)
Some of their dominance predated the realignment in 2002. But what the Indianapolis Colts lack in long-term preeminence within their division, they make up for in total control.
The Colts have won this division in six of its nine years, made its only two Super Bowl appearances and earned its only title. They have won at least 10 games for a full decade, and in many years were four games better than the second-place team.
In those years they did not win the division, they had either an equal number or one win fewer than the Tennessee Titans. The entire rest of the division has not combined for more playoff wins than the Colts got in their one Super Bowl title season.
That is dominance.
Still, there are questions arising about the Colts and enough changes made around this division to make 2011 an interesting year to watch develop.
Jim Caldwell took his team to the Super Bowl in his rookie season. He was immediately viewed as one of the league's elite coaches.
His team had a lead well into the second half, and he had the most prolific passer of all-time under center. He was primed to be the third rookie coach in NFL history to win a Super Bowl.
But his team had not been ready for the onside kick following halftime, could not stop Drew Brees in the second half and watched as that quarterback threw an interception returned for a touchdown to lose.
Last year, the Colts struggled through the regular season and did not even win on their home field against the New York Jets. If they cannot turn it around this season, will Caldwell's status as an elite coach come into question?
It should not.
The Colts suffered as many injuries in 2010 as any team in the league outside of the Green Bay Packers. Sure, the Pack won the Lombardi Trophy, but it is not Caldwell's fault he did not have as much depth to work with as Mike McCarthy did in Titletown.
The reality is that Indianapolis is so far ahead of its division rivals that they usually earn a top seed in the conference. But the best record in the AFC does not equate to the best team; even that divisional edge will be mitigated this year by a tough non-divisional schedule.
Their offense was incredible last season considering the injuries to their receiving corps, and the losses this team suffered do not even match the talent returning from injury. That speaks to Caldwell's coaching.
Indy has major defensive liabilities whenever Bob Sanders is not on the field, and his career is marred with injury. New England, Pittsburgh and the New York Jets have been, and will continue to be, better, and they may well face one of them in their first playoff game.
Even though his team has been favoured and in position to win in each of his last two playoff losses, the victor was the better team. The same is likely to happen when the Colts get into the coming postseason, where a dozen wins and a first-round bye will likely not be enough to help them win in January.
The Tennessee Titans are the only team outside of Indianapolis to win this division. Just two years ago, they won nine of their last 10 games. The season before that, they went 14-2.
That was then, this is now.
The Titans have a new coach for the first time since the franchise was in Houston. They let go of their enigmatic and inconsistent franchise quarterback.
The trouble is, he had a winning record in each of his seasons. New (old) quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has not been able to say that since 2007.
Tennessee will soon find that Hasselbeck cannot stay healthy. Behind them is Jake Locker, who was overrated when he did not come out after his junior year and underrated when he did after his senior year.
He is a leader, playing through injury last season and leading a team with little talent to an upset win against Nebraska. He may well turn out to be the best quarterback taken in the 2010 draft. But he is still a rookie who will not be ready when Hasselbeck goes down.
The Titans have a solid defense and a fantastic running back in Chris Johnson, but this is a quarterback-driven league. They will not be able to win with either a breaking-down veteran nor a raw rookie under center, and will do well to finish in second and avoid double-digit losses.
The Houston Texans have an amazing offense. In fact, they look much like a championship offense from a couple decades ago and a couple hours away.
Much like the Dallas Cowboys of the early 90s, the Texans have a big three: Pro Bowl quarterback, receiver and running back. The offensive line is good enough to fully utilize their talents, and the coach is an offensive mind who can get the most out of his personnel.
Yet they have not even sniffed the playoffs. Why? The defense stinks.
They have the 2009 defensive rookie of the year in Brian Cushing (despite him being caught for steroid use—why is it accepted in football where it gives the biggest edge but reviled in baseball?). They have former No. 1 overall pick and Pro Bowl defensive end Mario Williams.
But they have among the worst secondaries in the league. They made a play for and failed to get Nnamdi Asomugha, who would only have solved one-fourth the problem anyway.
Now their major defensive boost will be from Wade Phillips, who is as competent defensively as he is incompetent as a head coach. But he is trying to change this 4-3 defense to a 3-4, and converting the All Pro defensive end to a linebacker position he is physically unsuited for.
It may only take seven wins to finish in second place in the AFC South in 2011. Every team but Indianapolis is a mess, and with the AFC North and NFC South on their docket, most teams in this division could have double-digit losses.
If you have a spectacular offense and a terrible defense, that averages out to a mediocre team. But with a tough non-divisional schedule outweighing a relatively easy divisional one, Gary Kubiak will either be fired or an obvious lame duck by Christmas, and this team falls to third.
Jacksonville was a very competitive team for most of last season.
They have an underrated quarterback and one of the better all-purpose backs in the league. There is some talent on defense, and their coach has a good defensive mind to bring out the most in them while still handling his entire team well.
But disorder will unravel everything.
No one comes to the games, and they might not even be in Jacksonville beyond this season. The coach is inexplicably on the hot seat given how little he has had to work with.
At some point, that uncertainty affects human beings. Once the team is no longer in contention for a playoff spot, the walls will come tumbling down.
Jacksonville will be tough early, but pushovers late in the year. They will have double-digit losses, and be in the division cellar, if only by tie-break.