2011 NFL Predictions: Houston Texans Will Stampede the AFC South

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2011 NFL Predictions: Houston Texans Will Stampede the AFC South
PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 02: Arian Foster #23 of the Houston Texans celebrates after he scored a 3-yard rushing touchdown in the third quarter against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on December 2, 2010 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Happy Thursday fellow football fanatics. 

Today we continue along our journey toward total football readiness. We’ve come a long way so far, we’ve talked about all of the NFC divisions and after today we’re halfway through the AFC. I’ve had tons of fun bring you these previews. I hope you're enjoying them as much as I am. 

I found a new TV show the other day, easily one of my favorite hobbies. This one is about these two guys who travel around the country buying abandoned storage units auction style, then go through them and try to sell the stuff they find.

The show itself is average at best; the two guys are so typecast I started to realistically believe they were hired actors and the items were obviously staged (they found an original rocket countdown clock from Cape Canaveral. Yeah, I’m sure stuff like that is just hanging around old storage units). 

The quality of the show notwithstanding, the one part that I found compelling was when they were allowed to look at the units before they had the chance to bid on them. They would be given what looked like a couple of minutes to crowd around the opening of the unit and shine flashlights into them to try and to figure out if there was anything valuable there.

They weren’t allowed to go in the unit or touch anything in the unit, so they were forced to make educated guesses based on past experience and what bits and pieces they could see from a distance. The best part was that some times things were pretty obvious (a good looking portable generator) and some you just had to take a chance on (say like an old piece of furniture). 

It hit me that this is a lot like what we do with NFL teams this time of year. We get to take quick looks at these teams, but what we’re seeing we can’t always trust. I just heard something on NFL network today that was interesting.

I’m paraphrasing here, but Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said that week three of the preseason is his favorite because that is the first week where they do any actual game planning for a specific opponent. So he’s basically saying that in all the preseason football we’ve seen so far none of the teams spent any time game planning for the football that we saw on our TV screens. 

That being understood, let’s all remember that we’re like those storage unit buyers, and we can only make educated guesses. Until the season starts and we get a chance to raid those units and see what is really inside. 

For now, let’s continue looking at these teams from the outside and trying to figure out what treasures we’re going to find in a couple weeks when the games start to count.

LANDOVER - SEPTEMBER 19: Matt Schaub #8 of the Houston Texans leads the huddle during the game against the Washington Redskins at FedExField on September 19, 2010 in Landover, Maryland. The Texans defeated the Redskins in overtime 30-27. (Photo by Larry French/Getty Images)

Today is the AFC South, a division that has been dominated by the Indianapolis Colts for years. Is this the year that roster attrition and the aging of their core superstars starts to catch up to them? I say yes, it is, but only because it’s going to happen sometime soon. Could Peyton and the Colts hold on to the division for one more year? Sure they could, but the smart money is on them slipping down to around .500. 

That leaves the Houston Texans as the team in the best position to step into the division driver’s seat. The AFC South is Houston’s division to lose in 2011. 

In case you missed it, here is Monday’s AFC West Preview


Houston Texans 

2010: 6-10

Better or Worse in 2011: Better 

The Houston Texans have been the trendy pick to unseat the Colts from the top of the AFC South for a few years now, so why do I believe that this will be the year? Because it’s going to happen eventually, and this year just feels like the right time. Real scientific like. 

Much like the trendy picks this year (Tampa Bay and Detroit) will have to, Houston had to pay it’s dues and take a few tough losses before they were finally ready to live up to the expectations. This year things have started to line up for them. The offense has been ready for a while, and this year the defense should be ready to step up.

Offense 

Important Acquisitions: Lawrence Vickers

Toughest Player Losses: Vonta Leach, Dan Orlovsky (Don’t believe me? Remember Matt Leinart is always one play away from being the starting quarterback)

Key Player: Matt Schaub

The “If” Factor: Huge

2010 Offensive Ranking: Fourth passing, seventh rushing 

This offensive group has been together for a few years now, and they have all the pieces together to be a playoff caliber offense. 

Matt Schaub is a prolific passer who now has the experience to perform when the pressure is on, Andre Johnson leads a deep and talented group of pass catching options that includes Kevin Walters and a healthy Owen Daniels, and Arian Foster is the No. 1 back in a group that includes talented backups like Ben Tate and Derrick Ward. I just got you thinking this was one of the best offensive units in the league, right? 

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - NOVEMBER 21: Mario Williams #90 of the Houston Texans celebrates a sack against the New York Jets with teammate Antonio Smith #94 on November 21, 2010 at the New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Jets defeated the Texans 30-27. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Well you wouldn’t be far off, they were in the top ten in both rushing and passing last year, but that group comes with lots of “ifs.” Andre Johnson and the receivers will be great if they stay healthy and Arian Foster has only been a top-flight NFL running back for one year. The only real known factor going into the 2011 season is Matt Schaub, who has been surprisingly consistent the last two seasons. 

This group was good last year, and could be even better this year.

Defense 

Important Acquisitions: Jonathan Joseph, Danieal Manning, Wade Phillips

Toughest Player Losses: Bernard Pollard, Amobi Okoye, Zac Diles

Key Player: Mario Williams

The “If” Factor: Low

2010 Defensive Ranking: 32nd passing, 13th rushing 

This is the side of the ball that has me believing in the Texans this year. They made significant improvements to their defensive backfield, as well as upgraded their ability to get pressure on the quarterback. 

The improvements to the defensive backfield come in the form of cornerback Jonathan Joseph, a Pro Bowl-caliber cover guy who would have been the most sought after defensive free agent this offseason if it wasn’t for that Asomugha guy over there in Philly.

They also added strong safety Danieal Manning, formerly of the Chicago Bears. Both of these guys are upgrades in talent over what they had in the defensive secondary last season, which is a good thing because they were terrible against the pass last year. 

But one thing we all know is that you can’t stop the pass unless you can disrupt the pass protection of the other team, and that’s where the Texans' most important addition on the defensive side comes into play.

The Texans made a savvy hire when they scooped up the ex-Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips. While Phillips may not have had what it takes to be a good head coach in the NFL (it’s tough to imagine NFL players having much respect for him, too mild mannered), he has had a seriously good track record as a defensive coordinator, most recently as the leader of the aggressive 3-4 defense of the San Diego Chargers from 2004 to 2006. 

Those Chargers teams played a fast, blitzing and disruptive style of defense. Phillips will bring these qualities to Houston this year, and this defense will be good enough to get this team to the top of the AFC South.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - JANUARY 08: Peyton Manning #18 of the Indianapolis Colts attempts to pass the ball to Jacob Tamme #84 against the New York Jets during their 2011 AFC wild card playoff game at Lucas Oil Stadium on January 8, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Jets won 17-16. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)


Indianapolis Colts 

2010: 10-6, AFC South champions

Better or Worse in 2011: Worse, but only by one or two games 

It’s becoming a yearly right of summer to predict the downfall of the Indianapolis Colts. I wish I could go against the grain on this one, but I just don’t see the Colts being able to hang on to the division again this year. I don’t think the fall will be as precipitous as some do, but I do see them sliding some. 

It’s no secret that Peyton Manning has been the one putting this team on his back these last few seasons and refusing to let them fall back to the rest of the NFL pack. It’s also no secret that he isn’t coming into the 2011 season at full strength. His health might be the biggest “if” we have in the league right now, but whether he misses time or not due to his neck surgery, father time is starting to catch up to one of the game’s all time greats. 

Peyton is so good that I’ll take him at 75 percent over all but a few quarterbacks in the league. I just don’t think we’re going to get that much out of him this year, and if we don’t the holes in this Colts team are going to become glaringly obvious.

Offense 

Important Acquisitions: Dan Orlovsky, Kerry Collins—yeah, one of them could be the starter in Week 1

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 26: Dwight Freeney #93 of the Indianapolis Colts celebrates after a sack against the Oakland Raiders during an NFL game at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on December 26, 2010 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

Toughest Player Losses: Old-school Peyton? Does that count?

Key Player: Peyton Manning, and believe me it’s just as strange for me to doubt what he’ll bring to the table as it is for you to read it

The “If” Factor: Just one, but it’s so big I can’t think of a word big enough to describe it (okay, if you make me I’ll go with “gargantuan”)

2010 Offensive Ranking: First passing, 29th rushing 

In case it’s not really obvious, the success and failure of this team is going to rest squarely on the shoulders of Peyton Manning this year. And it’s a testament to just how good he’s been that everyone already hasn’t written this team off as a bottom dweller. 

Consider that last year the Colts were 29th in rushing, had a below average defense, and somehow Peyton still lead them to a division title. He has a good receiving group, but Reggie Wayne’s best days are in the past and the success of guys like Dallas Clark, Anthony Gonzalez and Pierre Garcon has basically been all because of Manning. 

The running back position is deep, they resigned Joseph Addai, drafted Delone Carter, and have guys like Javarris James and Ronald Brown who have shown they can step in and get a few good carries. The running game was terrible in 2010, but that’s only because the Colts are smart enough not to take the ball out of Manning’s hands too often. They run well in the red zone, and if needed this group could put up decent yardage totals. 

But really, the success of this offense, and this team, comes down to Manning.

Defense 

Important Acquisitions: Ernie Simms, Jamaal Anderson

Toughest Player Losses: Kevin Hayden

Key Player: Pat Angerer, just because his name is seriously awesome

The “If” Factor: Low, you and I both know exactly what this defense is going to look like

2010 Defensive Ranking: 13th passing, 25th rushing 

Do I really have to waste my time on this perennially underachieving defense? I do? Fine, here goes. 

They’ll once again be terrible at all aspects of defensive football except one, pass rush. The good news is that having a top quality pass rush, without needing to take cover guys out of the secondary and bring them on a blitz, is the single most game changing skill that a modern defense can have. 

The Colts will again be bad at tackling, covering receivers, and will run the Tampa Two defense, which the good offensive play callers in the league figured out how to put up points against about a half dozen years ago. But that pass rush will make up for a lot of that. Again. 

ORCHARD PARK, NY - OCTOBER 10: Maurice Jones-Drew #32 of the Jacksonville Jaguars celebrates what he thinks is a touchdown that was called back for a penalty in the third quarter against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium on October 10, 2010 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

The Colts defense will look like it has in the past, which means it will be just good enough to keep them in games. It was good enough to win a Super Bowl back when Peyton Manning was at his apex, this year I don’t see it getting the job done.


Jacksonville Jaguars
 

2010: 8-8

Better or Worse in 2011: Worse 

Another team that will be a contender for the Andrew Luck sweepstakes, the Jacksonville Jaguars are going to struggle to get wins in 2011. The only difference for them is that they already have a top 10 pick quarterback on the roster, so they might actually use what will likely be a top draft choice on another position. 

The Jaguars have been hanging around the middle of the league for a while now. They haven’t been great but they haven’t been terrible either. David Garrard is a decent enough quarterback, but the drafting of Blaine Gabbert with the 10th overall pick in this year’s draft shows pretty clearly that they don’t believe Garrard is the guy to take them to a championship. 

The defense, which has long been the strength of this team, has gotten old and seen its once dominant defensive line struggle to get pressure. They upgraded at some of the spots on the defensive side of the ball, but nothing game changing, and it will take a while for those new pieces to find their groove in Jacksonville. 

Things are going to get worse for the Jungle Cats before they get better.

Offense 

Important Acquisitions: Jason Spitz, Blaine Gabbert (R)

Toughest Player Losses: Mike Sims-Walker, Vince Manuwai, Trent Edwards

Key Player: Eugene Monroe

The “If” Factor: None, unless they get more modern in their scheme, which I’ll believe when I see it

2010 Offensive Ranking: 27th passing, third rushing 

The problems for this offense started the second Roger Goodell said Blain Gabbert’s name on that podium in New York this past April. 

Not that Gabbert wasn’t a good pick; as a matter, of fact I think he has all the tools needed that you can measure. He’s tall, can manipulate a pocket, has a strong arm and can make all the requisite throws. What we don’t know is whether or not he has the football IQ, but you can never really know that about a quarterback until you see them do it against NFL defenses. 

Gabbert’s got a chance to be a top flight quarterback, the problem is that he’s not good enough to lead this team to wins this year. David Garrard is the best option they have, but how can you expect the other players in the huddle to buy into him?

JACKSONVILLE, FL - DECEMBER 26: Quarterback Rex Grossman #8 of the Washington Redskins is pressured by Tyson Alualu #93 and Jeremy Mincey #94 of the Jacksonville Jaguars during the game at EverBank Field on December 26, 2010 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

It’s obvious that Gabbert is going to be the guy in the years to come. You just don’t spend a top-10 pick on a quarterback and sit him on the bench for more than one year. A guy in the bottom of the first, maybe. But not a top-10 guy, and certainly not for the likes of the immortal David Garrard.

So this year the Jags offense is in no-man’s land. Garrard is a lame duck quarterback, everyone knows his days are numbered, but if they start Gabbert right away they’re basically throwing in the towel for this season.

I say you go with the latter option, which gives you a better chance next year and just like the Denver situation your're really only talking a difference between bad and really bad. But, you never know if a guy comes in before he’s ready you can just destroy any chance he had to be good. 

It’s a sticky situation in Jacksonville to be sure, but either way there’s really no silver lining here. 

Maurice Jones-Drew, if he can stay healthy with the workload he’s going to need to carry, is going to be the only thing keeping this offense moving at all.

Defense 

Important Acquisitions: Gerris Wilkinson, Paul Posluszny, Matt Roth, Drew Coleman, Dawan Landry, Clint Session

Toughest Player Losses: Sean Considine, Derrick Harvey, Justin Durant

Key Player: Paul Posluszny

The “If” Factor: Lots of ifs here, too many to be a good thing

2010 Defensive Ranking: 28th passing, 22nd rushing 

In a case of the defense mirroring the offense, the Jaguars have some decent talent on this side of the ball, they just don’t run a system that will allow them to be successful. 

They run a super old-school version of the 4-3, and without a dominant defensive line the scheme breaks down against the modern spread offenses. They don’t have the talent on the line to get it done, and their secondary, while decent, is going to spend the majority of the season being left out to dry. 

The two impact additions to this squad come in the form of free agent linebackers Paul Posluszny and Clint Sessions. Posluszny is the better of the two, and is really good at stuffing the run from his middle linebacker position. He was an impact player in Buffalo; you probably didn’t hear though because you probably forgot they still have a team in Buffalo. He had 151 tackles last year, but only racked up a total of three sacks in his NFL career this far. 

It’s that inability to get to the quarterback, not just by Posluszny but by the defense as a whole, that will keep them from stopping the better offenses in the league.

NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 29: Kenny Britt #18 of the Tennessee Titans celebrates with teammate Jevon Kearse #90 after catching the game-winning touchdown to give the Titans a 20-17 victory over the Arizona Cardinals during their game at LP Field on November 29, 2009 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Tennessee Titans

2010: 6-10

Better or Worse in 2011: Worse 

It’s easy to start talking yourself into this Titans team being a sleeper this year and sneaking into the playoffs. A lot of the pundits already have. 

But talking yourself into this team being even a .500 team is like talking yourself into a salad when there’s a steak and cheese sub on the menu. Sure, the lettuce could be really fresh, the dressing could be really good, maybe it even comes with some kind of cheese that sounds fancy. And I mean, sometimes that steak is chewy, the bread could be stale and all that grease—who wants that? 

See! I almost got you there, you’re ready to go with the salad! But come on, we all know that the salad is going to be mostly cheap lettuce, the dressing is going to be from a jug with no name on it, and you’re just going to be hungry a couple of hours later. 

So remember, when in doubt go with what looks like a winner, and remember that you will most likely lose with the salad. 

This Titans team is going to be bad, real bad.

Offense 

Important Acquisitions: Matt Hasselbeck

Toughest Player Losses: Vince Young (hey it counts. If it wasn’t for his baggage on this team I’d say he’s a better option than anyone they have on the roster right now), Bo Scaife

Key Player: Does it matter? Alright, I guess if Chris Johnson doesn’t totally submarine this team they can win a few games

The “If” Factor: Really high, if you believe the hype that this unit can actually be good

2010 Offensive Ranking: 25th passing, 17th rushing 

Most of that aforementioned sleeper buzz is coming from the trendy thought that this offense may be more productive than it seems. And it’s easy to talk yourself into it. 

If he comes back and plays, and most likely he will at some point before the real games start, they have one of the most dynamic runners in the game in Chris Johnson. They have a good young wide receiver in Kenny Britt. They went out and got a veteran quarterback in Matt Hasselbeck. The division is weaker than it has been in years. All things that make you think this team could have some serious sleeper potential. 

Don’t let yourself be fooled. Chris Johnson is the biggest “if” I’ve seen in years, I wouldn’t be shocked in he pulls a Logan Mankins and sits out until something like Week 10. Kenny Britt needs someone to throw him the ball, and will be double- and triple-teamed all year long. And for that quarterback situation? 

HOUSTON - NOVEMBER 23: Kick returner Michael Griffin #33 of the Tennessee Titans returns a kick against the Houston Texans at Reliant Stadium on November 23, 2009 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

I used to like Matt Hasselbeck. As in I used to like him four years ago. Father time has taken his toll on Hasselbeck, and it’s just too much to expect him to stay healthy and productive for all 16 games. That means at some point, whether either because of injury or just plain old poor play, we’re going to see Jake Locker running this ship. And while Locker may eventually prove to be a capable starter in the NFL, he sure won’t be doing it this year with this type of talent around him. 

The Titans offense is going to struggle to gain yards and score points, the only thing that will keep it from being one of the worst offensive units in the league will be if Chris Johnson comes back and performs like he thinks he deserves to be paid.

Don’t count on it.

Defense 

Important Acquisitions: Anthony Smith, Jordan Babineaux, Barrett Ruud, Frank Walker

Toughest Player Losses: Stephen Tulloch, Jason Babin, David Thornton

Key Player: Jason McCourty

The “If” Factor: Seriously Low

2010 Defensive Ranking: 29th passing, 20th rushing 

The Titans defense was one of the worst units in the league last year, and they may be even worse in 2011. 

They got no pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and will have even more trouble doing so this year with the loss of outside pass rusher Jason Babin. They added a good linebacker in Barrett Ruud, but he’s more of a run stuffer than he is a guy who can disrupt an offense by getting in the backfield.

The secondary is good, and young, but they won’t be able to be effect because of the lack of a regular pass rush. Jason McCourty, twin brother of Patriots rookie standout Devin McCourty, has quickly established himself at the corner spot opposite everyone’s favorite agitator, Cortland Finnegan. The safeties, Chris Hope and Michael Griffin, are both good and the defense will get contributions from the new addition of Jordan Babineaux. 

That secondary would be scary on a team that could force some bad throw, but that won’t be the case here. This defense is going to be put in some tough situations this year because of the pedestrian offense. 

Without a dominant pass rush, the Jacksonville defense is going to lead them all right—lead them right to a top-five draft pick.

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