AFC South Team Previews and Predictions

Matt Barbato@@Matt_BarbatoCorrespondent ISeptember 1, 2012

AFC South Team Previews and Predictions

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    A power change occurred last season in the AFC South division. The Houston Texans, who had never been to the playoffs since the birth of their franchise, won the division with a record of 10-6. Nipping at their heels were the surprising Tennessee Titans, who went 9-7 despite a disappointing season from star running back Chris Johnson. The Jacksonville Jaguars struggled to score points all year despite getting more than 1,600 yards on the ground from Maurice Jones-Drew. The Indianapolis Colts won the Andrew Luck sweepstakes with a 2-14 record after Peyton Manning missed the entire season with a neck injury. The Colts were deeply exposed without their franchise quarterback, and it resulted in head coach Jim Caldwell getting fired at the end of the season.

    The AFC South has a lot of interesting questions this year. Can Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson stay healthy and make this team a legitimate Super Bowl contender? Can Chris Johnson rebound from a setback season to help Jake Locker on the offense? Can Jacksonville get anything going with Blaine Gabbert as the signal caller? Will cutting loose one of the best quarterbacks in the game pay off for Indianapolis as they move into the Andrew Luck era? I will look into my crystal ball to see how these and other questions will play out during the upcoming season.

Houston Texans

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    The Houston Texans clinched a playoff berth for the first time in franchise history last season. The offense had one of the best running back and wide receiver combinations in the league with Arian Foster and Andre Johnson. Foster rushed for more than 1,200 yards and had 10 scores despite missing three games last season. Johnson caught only 33 passes last season and played in only seven games for the Texans. Another key blow to the offense was losing quarterback Matt Schaub after 10 starts due to a foot fracture.

    These injuries made a difference, but thanks to Houston's excellent defense, the Texans were able to hold onto the division crown. But the defense will lose linebackers Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans this season. Williams signed with the Buffalo Bills during the offseason, and Ryans was traded to Philadelphia. With the key members of their offense returning healthy, and a defense that is stacked even without Williams, can Houston repeat as division champion?

    Offense: The Houston offense was very good last season even when Schaub, Foster and Johnson were out of the lineup. They averaged just over 370 yards per game and scored a little over 23 points per game. Schaub was on pace to throw for almost 4,000 yards, and the running back duo of Foster and Ben Tate made the Texans offense a very balanced attack. Tate ran for almost 1,000 yards even with a healthy Foster back in the lineup.

    The Texans' passing game was very solid to go along with the running game. Schaub threw for just under 2,500 yards and had 15 touchdowns last year before he was injured. After Schaub got hurt, the Texans went through a carousel of quarterbacks including T.J. Yates, Matt Leinart, and Jake Delhomme. The leading receiver last season for Houston was tight end Owen Daniels, who caught only 54 passes. Outside of Johnson, the Texans wide receiver group isn't very talented. Kevin Walter and Keshawn Martin will compete for the starting duties opposite Johnson, but don't be surprised if Foster catches more passes out of the backfield than either of them.

    If Schaub, Foster and Johnson can stay healthy all season, they can easily make their offense one of the top five in the league.

    Defense: The Texans defense was formidable last season under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. They gave up fewer than 300 yards per game and allowed only about 17 points per game. Brian Cushing was the leading tackler, but Mario Williams, rookie J.J. Watt and Connor Barwin were a big part of Houston's beastly front seven. The Texans were also solid in the turnover department, forcing 16 fumbles and intercepting 17 passes. Houston also had a fierce pass rush and recorded 44 sacks last season.

    The Texans secondary was impressive last season as well. The Texans secondary, led by Jonathan Joseph, gave up just over 200 passing yards per game. Joseph was tied for the team lead with four interceptions, and Houston also got contributions from Danieal Manning, Jason Allen and Quintin Demps.

    Losing Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans could have a negative impact on the Texans defense early on, but as the season progresses, the talent on this defense will prevail. The Texans defense will be just as ferocious as last season, with Cushing and Watt having defensive player of the year caliber seasons.

    Prediction: The Texans are one of the most talented teams in the NFL. Their schedule outside of the division isn't too tricky, but they do have games against Green Bay, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, and New England to deal with. If the Texans are in the playoff race they play their last three games against Indianapolis and Minnesota.

    Led by Foster and Johnson, the Texans have an offense that can win on the ground and through the air. If Schaub has a good season, this team has the potential to have a remarkable year. The wide receivers outside of Johnson are weak, but Daniels provides a good safety valve for Schaub to rely on. Foster and Tate could both run for over 1,000 yards next season, which would take a lot of pressure off of Schaub and Johnson.

    The Texans defense is still one of the best in the league despite losing two of their stars. The Texans have great depth on defense, and first round-draft pick Whitney Mercilus could make an important impact on Houston's front seven. The secondary is only getting better and has a shutdown corner in Jonathan Joseph.

    Overall, the Texans are still a tremendous team and are one of the few teams with both a strong offense and defense. I expect the Texans to have a great season with a record of 13-3

Indianapolis Colts

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    The preview continues by shifting from the best team in the AFC South to the worst, the 2-14 Indianapolis Colts. The Colts were in trouble once Peyton Manning went down for the season, but nobody thought it would be as bad as it got. Jim Irsay immediately fired Jim Caldwell and hired Chuck Pagano.

    The Colts struggled to find a suitable replacement for Manning, using Curtis Painter, Dan Orlovsky and even Kerry Collins. The loss of Manning destroyed the Colts offense and Pro Bowlers Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark both had their worst seasons in receptions and touchdowns in five years.

    The Colts defense did not help the offense in any way and gave up 143.9 yards per game on the ground. Their bookends on the defensive line Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney both had over eight sacks, but the other nine players around them struggled.

    After a controversial offseason during which Colts owner Jim Irsay let one of the best players in franchise history walk, the Colts start the 2012 campaign with Andrew Luck as their starting quarterback. Can Luck make enough of an impact take the Colts out of the cellar and back into the playoffs?

    Offense: The Colts offense last season highlighted just how important Manning's presence was on the field. People were calling for Manning to win the MVP without even playing a game. Painter, Orlovsky and Collins all struggled to pace the offense, and the running game was just as bad, if not worse than previous seasons. Donald Brown led the team in rushing with only 645 yards, and Joseph Addai disappointed once again with only 433 yards rushing.

    The only receiver on the Colts who flourished was Pierre Garcon. Garcon caught 70 passes for 947 yards and six touchdowns, which led the team. Austin Collie struggled to stay healthy, and Wayne and Clark were not themselves. Now, Garcon and Clark are gone, and Luck's teammate at Stanford, Coby Fleener, joins the Colts and will start at tight end.

    Defense: The Colts defense last year was just as bad as the offense. Indianapolis gave up more than 370 yards per game last season and surrendered almost 27 points per game, not a good combination with Curtis Painter as the quarterback.

    The Colts' defense has undergone numerous changes, the first of which was bringing in defensive coordinator Greg Manusky. Manusky switched the defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and moved Freeney and Mathis from defensive ends to outside linebackers. Freeney and Mathis will have to adjust to rushing the passer without having their hand on the ground. This is a very risky move made by Manusky because it could greatly change the way Mathis and Freeney play. Although their size fit the label for a linebacker, they will have to adjust from performing spin moves to playing zone coverage and occasionally matching up on a tight end. Indy also won't have its top linebacker Pat Angerer, who was fourth in the NFL in tackles, because of a broken foot suffered in Week 1 of the preseason.

    The Colts secondary was pitiful last season, the Colts were in the middle of the league in passing yardage allowed but recorded only eight interceptions, second-to-last in the NFL. The secondary got a big boost by acquiring Vontae Davis from Miami a few days ago. Davis has nine interceptions in only three seasons with Miami and should bring an immediate impact to a secondary that needs some turnover potential.

    Prediction: The Colts offense has made as many changes as any team in the NFL. It has a mixture of players who are new to the organization and guys who have been there for several years. The biggest question is how Luck will perform as a rookie. Despite being a first-year quarterback, Luck has the talent and the intangibles to be a great player. But he certainly could throw for 3,500 yards and 25 touchdowns in his first year. Reggie Wayne has more left in the tank, Austin Collie, when healthy, is a very good option, and the reunion with Fleener can only help Luck. Also, the Colts probably won't have much of a running game because Brown and Addai have failed to show any progression, and why would they now?

    The defense also went through a big renovation. Freeney and Mathis are now outside linebackers, and the addition of Vontae Davis will make their secondary a bit more formidable. Losing Angerer for at least a few weeks will hurt the defense, but if the new defensive line can play well and Freeney and Mathis can get accustomed to their new positions then the Colts could have a decent defense under Manusky.

    The Colts have gone through one of the biggest makeovers in the NFL. New head coach Chuck Pagano will have his hands full with a rookie quarterback and an entirely different defense to teach his team. The Colts' schedule isn't too difficult, they play only six games against teams who made the playoffs last season. Andrew Luck can play the game, and I think he will have a lot of success in his first season in the league. If Donald Brown can step it up, they could have a pretty decent offense. If Freeney and Mathis can be just as productive as linebackers, then the Colts could be one of the most improved teams of the year. In the end, I think this team will be better, but they won't shock anyone with a 5-11 record.

Jacksonville Jaguars

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    The Jacksonville Jaguars are the next team up on the AFC South preview. The Jaguars finished 5-11 last season and fired Jack Del Rio. Mike Mularkey is the new guy at the helm of the Jags, but he isn't inheriting a very talented team. Other than Maurice Jones-Drew, who is currently holding out, the Jaguars had absolutely nothing on offense. Blaine Gabbert struggled mightily in his first full season as the starter and raised questions of whether he can be a starting quarterback. The Jaguars drafted wide receiver Justin Blackmon, who is a freakish athlete, but has major character issues.

    The Jaguars defense was actually pretty good last year, ranking in the top 10 in the league in both average rushing yards and passing yards allowed per game. Paul Posluszny anchored the defense that was the only bright spot, other than MJD.

    Will Gabbert be able to develop enough to carry an offense that might not have its star running back? And can the Jaguars defense perform well enough to carry the team?

    Offense: The only player that really made an impact on the offense was Maurice Jones-Drew. It's amazing how Jones-Drew managed to stay healthy for the entire season with his almost 350-carry workload that Jacksonville gave him last season. It paid off as Jones-Drew ran for 1,600 yards and eight touchdowns, but it wasn't enough to carry the rest of the offense. If Jones-Drew holds out, that means Rashad Jennings would be the starter. Jennings showed potential a couple of years ago when MJD was hurt, but Jennings blew out his knee and missed the entire regular season a year ago.

    The biggest problem on the Jaguars' offense was Blaine Gabbert. Gabbert threw for only 2,200 yards last year, and threw 12 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Although Gabbert was horrible, I can't entirely blame him. Look at the receivers he had last season. Mike Thomas led the team in receptions with 44—MJD had one less than that—and only one touchdown. How can the No. 1 receiver on a team have only one touchdown catch? What makes it worse is that their second-best receiver, Mercedes Lewis, didn't catch a single touchdown pass! Guess who the Jaguars' leader in touchdown catches was? MJD and Jason Hill with three. The Jaguars brought in Blackmon and Laurent Robinson through free agency, and both should be a considerable improvement over the pass catchers from last season.

    Defense: The Jacksonville defense was very good last season. They gave up only 313 yards per game and allowed only 20.6 points. Posluszny was the team's star, but guys like Daryl Smith, Dawan Landry and Rashean Mathis also made great contributions to a team that earned 28 turnovers last year. Posluszny led the team in interceptions as well, but the Jaguars had five players who recorded two interceptions, which shows the balance in production.

    The weakness of the Jacksonville defense is its defensive line. The Jaguars sacked the quarterback only 31 times. Jeremy Mincey led the team with 8.5 sacks, but after him, nobody had more than 3.5 sacks all season. If the Jaguars defense wants to become elite, it must get better at rushing the quarterback.

    Prediction: The Jaguars are a tough team to predict this season. What I mean by that is they will be either somewhat bad or really bad. A lot of it hinges on how Gabbert plays with his new weapons, and whether MJD ends his holdout. Blackmon is an incredibly gifted talent, but when I look at his character, Dez Bryant comes to mind. I don't trust him to stay disciplined during the entire season. I look for Laurent Robinson to be a bit of a sleeper this season. Robinson showed promise last season as he caught 54 passes and 11 of those were touchdowns. Granted, he had Tony Romo throwing to him; now he has Gabbert.

    The Jags defense is one that does not get a lot of credit. Paul Posluszny is a stud, and guys like Daryl Smith and Mincey could develop into very good players. I highly question their pass rush other than Mincey, and their lack of penetration could give opponents too much time to throw. 

    Jones-Drew is going to miss at least the first few games of the year, and it could be a rough adjustment back into game shape and back into a new offense (i.e. Chris Johnson). Regardless they need their guy back, Jones-Drew accounted for 48 percent of the Jaguars offense. Rashad Jennings is good, but mojo is indispensible. I don't think that Gabbert will improve drastically, but if Blackmon can stay on the field, he and Laurent Robinson could provide a decent presence in the passing game. The defense will be better, and if the pass rush improves it would become a force to be reckoned with. The schedule isn't very favorable, and Jacksonville could start the season 0-8 if things don't go smoothly. I think MJD will end his holdout eventually, but it definitely won't be enough, and Jacksonville could be one of the worst teams in the league. I have them at 4-12.

Tennessee Titans

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    The Tennessee Titans were quietly impressive last season. The Titans were led by Matt Hasselbeck last season, but rookie Jake Locker also got into five games during the season. Chris Johnson was very disappointing after a holdout in the offseason with only four scores. Kenny Britt missed most of the season with a knee injury, but Nate Washington stepped up in his place to have one of the best seasons in his career.

    The Titans defense was average in regards to yardage allowed, but only allowed 19.6 points per game. The defense was very balanced and didn't have many standout players. The defense was solid and consistently kept the Titans in games.

    The biggest difference between last season and this season is that Jake Locker will now be taking the reins. Locker will also have a healthy Britt (even though he's suspended for the first game of the year), and will have rookie wideout Kendall Wright to gain chemistry with. The Titans went 9-7 last season, but can Locker put them over the edge and get them into the playoffs?

    Offense: The Titans were below average in passing and rushing yards per game, and averaged only 20.3 points per game. Hasselbeck played well as the starter, but Chris Johnson's slow start was the biggest reason the Titans offense struggled at times. Johnson had his lowest yardage total in his career, and averaged only about 65 yards per game.

    The Titans' offense will look a lot better this year if Locker can play well enough. Chris Johnson will surely bounce back, maybe not to an elite level, but I think he will score more than four touchdowns this season. Britt will miss the first game of the season, but if he can stay healthy he is one of the best receivers in the game. The addition of Kendall Wright could also play a large role in the Titans' passing game.

    Defense: The Titans defense was just all right last season. They don't have much star power, but the defense is led by Jason McCourty, Jordan Babineaux and Akeem Ayers. The Titans didn't give up a lot of points, but their defense was nothing special in the sack and turnover department. The Titans were second-worst in the NFL in sacks and generated only 23 turnovers. A player to look out for is defensive tackle Karl Klug, who led the team with seven of their 24 sacks last season.

    The Titans defense may not give up a lot of points, but it's not very good. It's a balanced unit but needs to get much better at sacking the quarterback and also at generating turnovers.

    Prediction: The Tennessee Titans are not a very flashy team. Other than Chris Johnson, the Titans do not have much star power on either side of the ball. The Titans' schedule isn't very favorable, and this team could get off to a slow start. Locker will be given a chance to start, but I am not convinced that he will perform very well right away. I think he still needs some time to develop and needs Chris Johnson to carry the load for the offense.

    This defense also isn't very good. The Titans will not get away with giving up only 19 points per game if they fail to improve in the sack and turnover department. The Titans need a couple of players to emerge on that unit if they want to be considered a good defense.

    The Titans are just an average team, and their schedule could bury them early. Do I think they are a bad team? No. But I think there are a number of teams who are slightly better than them. If Locker can have an Andy Dalton-like season, then maybe this team can make the playoffs, but I don't think the defense is good enough to beat the tough schedule. I have the Titans finishing 6-10 this season.

AFC South Overview and Prediction

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    Here is a recap of how I see the AFC South shaping up this season.

    1. Houston Texans 13-3

    2. Tennessee Titans 6-10

    3. Indianapolis Colts 5-11

    4. Jacksonville Jaguars 4-12

    I was pretty harsh on this division, but clearly the Texans are the most talented team in this division. They have two of the best offensive players in the NFL in Arian Foster and Andre Johnson, and their defense is stacked across the board even without Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans. If Schaub can stay healthy and pick up his play, this team won't only win the division, but it could win the AFC.

    Like I said in the preview, I don't think Tennessee is bad, I just don't think the Titans are very good. The defense was statistically unimpressive last season, and I haven't been convinced by Jake Locker yet. Would it surprise me if Britt and Wright become one of the scariest wide receiver duos in the league? Not at all. Do I think it will happen this year? Probably not.

    The Colts are developing but are still not very good. Luck and Fleener could be a Manning and Clark combination in the future, and despite the lack of a running game, the offense will be better. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis can play at any position they are put at, and I expect them to perform well in their new spots.

    Jacksonville is going to be fighting to stay out of the cellar all year. If Gabbert and Blackmon can develop some sort of chemistry, it could get that passing game rolling. The defense is very good and needs to find a pass rusher outside of Jeremy Mincey to make them an excellent defense.

    This division is the Texans' to lose. They won't just win this division but they will win it convincingly, and it could be the starting point for a Super Bowl run.