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Can The Houston Texans Emerge From The Highly Competitive AFC South?

David HartnettCorrespondent IMay 11, 2009

HOUSTON - DECEMBER 14:  Quarterback Kerry Collins #5 of the Tennessee Titans throws a pass over defensive tackle Amobi Okoye #91 of the Houston Texans on December 14, 2008 at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

For the past two seasons, one could argue that along with the NFC East, the AFC South has been the best division in the NFL.

With five playoff berths these past two years (just as many as the NFC East), if anything is true of the AFC South, it’s that to earn a victory over a divisional opponent, you have to be at the top of your game.

The Houston Texans are in one of the toughest divisions in the league and with high aspirations in their eighth season.

Regardless of what hits the divisional opponents might have taken in the offseason, all three opponents (the Jacksonville Jaguars, Indianapolis Colts, and Tennessee Titans) present themselves as worthy adversaries.

The Leader in the Clubhouse

For the Colts, their biggest offseason news came as no real shock, as their much beloved Super Bowl-winning head coach Tony Dungy stepped down. Dungy’s successor, Jim Caldwell, has assumed control of a team that has made the playoffs the last seven seasons.

Caldwell is a rookie head coach, so there could be some rookie mistakes in terms of clock management among other things. But Caldwell was Dungy’s hand-picked replacement, so if Dungy thinks he's up for it, who can disagree with that.

However, if Caldwell loses offensive coordinator Tom Moore as expected due to the latest changes in the pension policy for assistant coaches, it could have a greater impact than Dungy's departure.

Speaking of Manning, the league’s reigning MVP is a year older, but he's still one of the top two quarterbacks in the league. It’s likely he’ll put up nothing short of 3,800+ yards and 25+ touchdowns this season.

Manning did receive some help on the offensive side of the ball via the draft, with the Colts’ first round selection of former University of Connecticut running back, Donald Brown.

Brown, a 2,000-yard rusher last season, was obtained to solidify the running game that was ranked 31st in the league last season. Joseph Addai, a Pro Bowl back in 2008, saw his production take a dive last year, as he was woefully unproductive during his 12 starts. Furthermore, he has the “honor” of having a lower yards per carry average (3.5) than Reggie Bush (3.8).

Marvin Harrison was released, but that’s not a big deal. He’s been a shell of his former self for the last two seasons, and if anything, the team is better off. Reggie Wayne is a solid No. 1 receiving option, and Anthony Gonzalez has the skills to be a solid No. 2.

As for the defense, as long as Bob Sanders, Dwight Freeney, and Robert Mathis stay healthy, they’ll be fine. 

However, Sanders’ injury history is long and noted, and despite missing 10 games during the regular season, the Colts’ defense ranked 11th in terms of yards per game (310.9).  So the idea that Sanders has to play for the defense to be productive is a misnomer. If anything, if he can play an entire season (or have a dozen or so starts), it can turn an above-average defense to among the league’s elite.

The Texans have claimed only one win against the Colts in their short history (the Christmas Eve game in 2006 during which Kris Brown hit the game-winning field goal as time expired). 

Thus, as, the Colts—namely Manning—continue to have the Texans' number, the Texans can claim one victory this upcoming season.

The Franchise Formerly Known as the Oilers

The Titans, good for them, made it to the playoffs last year. But will they make it back to the postseason again?

Their big off-season news was the departure of Albert Haynesworth. It’s hard to replace a player the stature of Haynesworth, who at 6'6", 320 pounds, was a matchup nightmare with whichever guard and center combination tried to block him.

Couple his departure with that of defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to Detroit, and what was a strong defensive group could fall from “elite” to “mediocre” in 2009.

However, the Titans could have a replacement, which won’t provide as impressive numbers as Haynesworth, but could potentially lessen the loss. 

Jason Jones, a rookie in 2008, had 3.5 sacks and three forced fumbles in Week 16 against the eventual Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers. A stellar performance, and considering it was done without Haynesworth in the lineup, it demonstrated Jones could potentially become that disruptive force on the interior.

But, Jones only had 1.5 sacks the other 16 games (including playoffs). If anything, his performance against the Steelers is something to look at and think maybe Haynesworth’s departure isn’t as consequential as one might think.

The Titans have a great secondary, as former University of Texas standout Michael Griffin quietly had a team-high seven interceptions. Though despite Griffin’s success, the group is anchored by Cortland Finnegan. The former seventh round pick in 2006 becomes arguably the team’s best defender (or linebacker Keith Bullock) with Haynesworth’s departure.

Offensively, they’re fine with running backs LenDale White and Chris Johnson. As for a passing game, it was already a bit lackluster last year, and with Kerry Collins, 36, a year older, it’s a fair assumption that his production might begin to slip.

Though to aid Collins, he has one of the best offensive lines in the league blocking for that allowed him to be sacked only eight times last year.

Their receivers aren’t household names, and while they aren’t necessarily bad, at the very least, there is room for improvement. First-round pick Kenny Britt is a step in the right direction, but considering the volatility of rookie receivers’ productions, it’s hard to gauge how much of an impact he’ll have. 

On paper, and in theory, Britt should stretch the field as he is fairly quick (4.47 40-time). However, as Homer Simpson once said, “In theory, communism works.” So who’s to say how much of an impact Britt can actually have.

In relation to the Texans, the new football franchise from Houston, they won 13-12 over the former Houston franchise in Week 15 (made memorable by Jeff Fisher’s decision to go for it on fourth down and not attempt a long field goal). 

Thus, one win is a fair estimation of the Texans’ success against the Titans this upcoming season.

Cat Nip

The Jaguars went from the playoffs in 2007 to the Top 10 in the draft in only a year. To be fair, the Jaguars had a Top-10 pick in the 2008 draft, but trading up 18 spots isn’t the same as “earning” the pick. 

But for a team that won a playoff game the year prior to fall so far, it’ll be interesting to see if 2008 was an aberration, or a pattern of things to come.

David Garrard, who despite signing a $60 million extension the offseason prior, in 2008 played nothing close to a quarterback who carried his team to a playoff victory in 2007.  Attribute it partly to an uninspiring group of wide receiver, but a similar group didn’t make Garrard look as bad as he did in 2008.

Their defense is still a bit suspect, and while they addressed apparent problems at the offense tackle spot, the team will go only as far Maurice Jones-Drew can carry them.

With the departure of Fred Taylor, now the Jags are forced to rely on the small and stout shoulders of the running back from UCLA to excel in an offense limited with talented skill players.

The offensive line (namely the tackle spot), which was an issue for much of last season,  was upgraded with the arrival of Tra Thomas (free agency), Eugene Monroe (first-round pick) and Eben Britton (second-round pick).

So with plenty of money tied up in the offensive line, the three aforementioned players are likely to provide more production that what was seen from the same position at the end of last season.

Torry Holt is a nice signing, but he’s 33, and considering his numbers took a dive last year, it’s hard to point to Holt and say he’ll revitalize one of the most uninspiring wide receiving corps in the NFL. Any estimation over five touchdowns and 800 yards might be a lot to ask from the former All-Pro.

As for the defense, a lot was given up to acquire Derek Harvey in the 2008 draft, and he provided only 3.5 sacks in his rookie season. Not a bust, but a lot is riding on him.

If Harvey can improve like Mario Williams did from season one to season two, then the trade could prove to be worth the picks forked over in that draft-day deal.

With the departure of Mike Peterson, the team’s leading tackler last season, it will be telling who takes over as the leader of the defense, a position Peterson has held the past few years.

As for the secondary, as long as Rashean Mathis and Reggie Nelson are back there, it should remain as the best group of defenders for new defensive coordinator, Mel Tucker.

But for some notion that the Jaguars are to nip at the heels of the Titans or Texans for second and third in the division, it seems unlikely, but it would have to show that they can play much better than they did in 2008.

The Jaguars could prove that their 5-11 record wasn’t indicative of things to come, and believe it was like Garrard’s 2008 play and simply an aberration. Or the 2008 season was just the beginning, and the Jaguars will look to be the cellar-dwellers of the AFC South again, and Jack Del Rio will be looking for a new job this offseason.

So for a team that was a coin-toss loss away from going 0-2 against the Texans last season, it seems reasonable that while the additions the Jaguars made improvements in spots they obviously needed, it’s hard to gauge how much better they are with a pair of rookie tackles, and their major free agent acquisition being an aging wide receiver.

The team lacks “playmakers”, outside of Jones-Drew, who is keeping defensive coordinators up late trying to conceive of a game plan to stop from this offense?

The Texans get at least one, but most likely two wins against the Jaguars in 2009.

Deep in the Heart of Texas

As for the Texans, there is an extensive look at the 2009 season (can be found here). However, if you haven’t had the chance to take a look at it,  here is the “cliff notes” version of it:

  • The Texans’ offense, ranked third in yards per game in 2008, should be as potent with new acquisitions.
  • The Texans’ pass rush has been upgraded with the arrival of Antonio Smith and Brian Cushing.
  • The season is dependent upon Matt Schaub’s health. If he stays healthy, he’s likely a Pro Bowler, and the playoffs are a real possibility. If he misses significant time, another 8-8 season or worse is likely.
  • The defense is still a bit suspect, and despite the apparent strengths (Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans, Dunta Robinson) it was a squad that finished 27th in points allowed per game.
  • The backup running back spot is a question mark. Even with three or four options, it’s hard to say there is an acceptable option to take carries away from Steve Slaton.

So how do the Texans compare with the rest of the division?  Last season the Texans were 2-4 within the division, but a few plays away from going 4-2.

How do they fare in 2009? It would be fair to stay that they split their two games against both the Colts and Titans, while at the very least wining one against the Jaguars, but more than likely sweeping the season series. 

Thus, a 4-2 divisional record is possible, as is the likelihood of a playoff berth.

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