Life's a little different in the AFC South this season with the limelight all on Andrew Luck. But that probably won't change much in the standings.
It’s been over six months since anything even remotely resembling football has been on television (unless, of course, you live in Canada, where their bastardized rendition of the Great American Game starts in July, has three downs, 10 extra yards and literal acres of end zone). It’s August and we’re all tired of the 162-game baseball slog; it’s time to start talking football again, and this week we're talking AFC South.
See the AFC East and AFC North previews.
Houston Texans (10-6)
Despite dropping the final three games of the season and a seemingly endless string of injuries to offensive cogs like QB Matt Schaub, WR Andre Johnson and RB Arian Foster, the Texans managed to go 10-6 last year, a testament to their talent, depth and offensive line.
That talent and depth returns in 2012, but the offensive line doesn't. They lost four key members to free agency so expect some early-season confusion up front, which of course could open up Schaub and Foster to more injuries. But no matter; the Texans have changed their game plan in recent years, shifting from a top four passing game to almost exclusively a run offense, making Schaub something of an afterthought, and they found a suitable replacement or rather substitute for Foster in Ben Tate. Andre Johnson at 31 (but looking older) might be done as an everyday threat but should still settle to keep defenses honest downfield, but as we said, the Texans' game is ground and pound; most of their receiving targets will be running short slant routes in the chic new tight end tandem offense.
2012 Expectations: If this team stays healthy they could be a monster; Foster averaged 153 yards and 14 TDs in his final 11 games; Schaub, though he might be underused, is still a legitimate top-ten QB and even Andre Johnson showed signs of life in the postseason, putting up 201 yards, 59 more than the rest of the team combined. Healthy Texans are happy Texans, and considering their competition in the AFC South, this should be a lock. 12-4, first in the AFC South.
Indianapolis Colts (2-14)
The last time the Colts drafted a quarterback of Andrew Luck’s caliber he went on to win four MVPs, two AFC conference titles, six AFC Player of the Year awards, eight division titles and a Super Bowl. Peyton Manning is numbered among the best play callers of all time, so expectations are high.
But Luck looks up to the challenge. In fact, his numbers at Stanford over the last two years (68-18 TD/INT and an astounding 71 percent competition rate) are better than Manning’s were in his final two years at Tennessee (56-23 and 61 percent). Granted, we're dealing with different eras and different conferences, but it’s worth consideration, especially considering that the Colts are looking for any light at the end of the tunnel after going 2-14 in 2011.
It’s actually mind-boggling how bad the Colts were without Peyton patrolling center. Wideouts Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie were rendered obsolete under some combination of Painter and Orlovsky and the whole offensive line looked like a mess. On the ground the Colts finished outside the 25 for the fourth year in a row, and after a week six blowout by New Orleans (62-7) they just threw in the towel. Suck for Luck was on.
2012 Expectations: It’s a long way up from 2-14. A lot of new talent has come in and after over 10 years of only minor tinkering with the playbook, the Colts have overhauled everything so it’s tough to peg how all that will affect 2012. We expect Luck to be great, but it might take a year or two to get everything back on track in Indianapolis. 6-10, third in AFC South.
Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)
The Jags had a sneaky good defensive plan last year and that kept them in a lot of games, but on the other side of the ball they put up one of the worst statistical seasons in recent memory (only 12 passing TDs on an average of 157 yards per game). They were bailed out on numerous occasions by backfield monster Maurice Jones-Drew, but any back that takes on that kind of workload runs the risk of breaking down, and if that happens, the Jags will really be up the proverbial creek.
Part of the problem (a big part of the problem) is quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who barely broke even on both his competition percentage and his TDs to interceptions in 2011. He was sacked a stupefying 40 times, which is terrible for a QB not known for his mobility (telling that he’s probably holding on to the ball too much) and will have an even shorter leash this season with the signing of Chad Henne.
Downfield, not a single Jaguars receiver broke 500 yards last year, so drafting Justin Blackmon made sense. The problem is that his game is in large part a luck-of-the-draw type deal; he fought defenders downfield for the ball in college but everyone’s bigger in the NFL so he’s far from a sure thing. Laurent Robinson put up good numbers in Dallas last season, but there’s a big difference between passes from Tony Romo and passes from Blaine Gabbert; expect a decline there.
2012 Expectations: Unless Blaine Gabbert’s rookie season was just a casual case of getting used to the pros, shadowed obviously by big seasons from Andy Dalton and Cam Newton, the Jags must be worried that they made the wrong choice. With this season’s crop of quarterbacks and Matt Barkley still kicking around in college, drafting Gabbert is starting to look like a head-scratcher. 4-12, fourth in the AFC South.
Tennessee Titans (9-7)
Tennessee somehow managed to go 9-7 last year despite a below-average defense, unproductive seasons from both Chris Johnson and Kenny Britt and finishing next-to-last in time of possession. If the red flags aren’t flying, they should be; 9-7 looks a lot like a fluke, but that’s not to say the talent isn’t there.
Changes to the offensive scheme probably hurt Johnson; the Titans only ran the ball inside the five last year on 8 of 26 trips, and Johnson only got 6 of those carries compared to 19 in 2010. As for Britt, he’s coming off an ACL tear so if the Titans are switching to an air offense (as the decrease in Johnson’s rushing numbers would suggest) they’re putting a lot of eggs in the surgically repaired knee basket. Then there is the question of Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker; the former is well into the twilight of his career while the latter might not be ready to start his. Either way, for the Titans to be relevant one of them will have to step up, be it the veteran throwing for one more standout season or the rookie coming into his own in the pros.
2012 Expectations: Look, 9-7 isn’t outrageous, it’s just that given their statistical credentials from 2011 it seems unexpected. If Johnson is used properly and Britt returns to 100 percent the Titans might be able to get back to that number, but it really doesn’t matter; outside the Texans, the AFC South is incredibly soft so anything over 7 wins should secure them second in the division. But they’ll need nine again to be considered for the postseason. 8-8, second in the AFC South.