Perhaps only the NFC East is comparable to the AFC South in terms of competitiveness from top to bottom. From the perennial contender in Indianapolis to teams with very strong offenses in the Texans and Titans. Even the Jaguars can prove to be a difficult opponent for anybody. Which teams have the edge in this division?
Houston Texans [Last season: 9-7, 2nd]
Last season was a first for the Texans: they finished above .500 for the first time in their short history. Now heading into their 9th season, Houston hopes to accomplish another first: a playoff berth, something the city of Houston hasn’t seen since 1993 when they still had the Oilers.
Houston’s passing offense was the best in the league in terms of yardage in 2009. Matt Schaub finally played a full season and took full advantage, throwing for 4770 yards and 29 Touchdowns. Andre Johnson has established himself as one of the elite wide receivers in the game. Houston’s weakness is in their running game, finishing 30th in the league in rushing yards. Steve Slaton regressed considerably in 2009, failing to break 500 yards rushing while doubling his fumbles. Despite that, there isn’t anybody really available to take his place, so Houston hopes that either he or somebody else can break out this year and complement their explosive passing game.
Houston’s defense is led by former #1 overall Mario Williams, alongside DeMeco Ryans at linebacker and the notorious Bernard Pollard in the secondary. This defense was rather average in most major categories and the changes made to the defense aren’t going to be enough to make much of a difference either way. Its a serviceable defense, though one prone to be overworked with Houston’s quick-strike passing offense which isn’t likely to drain clock and give the defense a chance to rest.
It is because of that passing attack that Houston has a real chance to make the playoffs. Last year, a few critical missed field goals spelled doom for them. If the Texans can win the close games that they couldn’t, they could even end up contending for the division if things fall the right way.
Indianapolis Colts [Last season: 14-2, 1st; lost to NO in SB]
The problems the Colts faced last season are problems that most teams would love to have. Should a team rest starters for the final two games of the season having everything essentially clinched even though the team is 14-0? To second year coach Jim Caldwell, the answer was yes. As a result the Colts lost those final two games but won their first two playoff games against Baltimore and the Jets, only to fall in the Super Bowl to New Orleans.
Its yet another year for a team in the Colts whose talent, whose success imply they have won more than the one single Super Bowl they have actually won. Peyton Manning is a constant in this success, having started every game in his career with the Colts. The running backs have changed, and even the receiving baton has passed on from Marvin Harrison to Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon, yet Manning has not changed one bit during the Colts’ success. He is still the cunning, accurate passer as he always has been.
If anything’s changed in Indianapolis, it would be the defense, a unit that isn’t getting any healthier. Bob Sanders have been constantly injured. Dwight Freeney has been a source of attention regarding his injury status in the past. Now Gary Brackett is joining the injury train. Its been a rare moment to see this entire defense healthy, and as a result they’ve been rather pedestrian in recent past, falling to the bottom third in the league in rush defense in 2009. For the Colts, the road to a better defense is just to stay healthy, something which proved vital in their Super Bowl run back in 2007.
Unless the age bug decides to bite down real hard, its hard to believe the Colts won’t exceed 12 wins again even in the ultra-competitive AFC South. Peyton Manning and his receivers will still put up excellent numbers, the defense will do just enough to secure victories and they’ll probably do well enough to have the comforts of resting in their final game or two again.
Jacksonville Jaguars [Last season: 7-9, 4th]
Its hard to talk about the Jaguars sometimes because they are so often ignored by the mainstream media and also by fans all across the nation that having information offhand regarding them is not always easy. For a team that managed 7 wins last season, Jacksonville has struggled mightily with attendance even after reducing stadium capacity. Even though the amazing Maurice Jones-Drew plays for the Jaguars, the team is just not a draw anywhere, not even in their home stadium.
David Garrard remains Jacksonville’s steady option at quarterback. He hasn’t exactly excelled at the position, but he hasn’t been bad either, which is good when the Jaguars have a back in Jones-Drew who looks to continue his gains now that he no longer shares the position with anybody else. Mike Sims-Walker emerged as a target for Garrard last season, though the offensive line was prone to giving up sacks especially since Garrard isn’t exactly fast.
Jacksonville’s defensive woes like primarily in the line, where it was dead last in sacks last season. This perhaps prompted Jacksonville’s decision to draft a defensive lineman with their first round pick but many felt they could’ve gotten more value than they did with Tyson Alualu, whose expectations would probably be pretty high if people cared about the Jaguars. Added to that is a pass defense among the leagues worst, due in part to a lack of pressure on the QB I’m sure, and Jacksonville has a lot of issues to address.
I do apologize to any Jaguars fan who are probably tired of the “nobody cares” mantra that has followed the team as of late, but facing rumors of being sold or moved while playing in the AFC South does not make things easy for a team trying to regain some kind of attention they once had a decade ago. Winning will help, but it probably won’t be happening this year.
Tennessee Titans [Last season: 8-8, 3rd]
Last year was a tale of two season for Tennessee. They started the year 0-6, seeing Kerry Collins completely fall apart after a decent 2008 campaign, all reaching a low after getting blown out in snowy New England 59-0. After the bye week, the Titans under Vince Young went on a roll, winning 5 straight and ultimately finishing the season on a 8-2 roll behind Vince Young and 2000 yard rusher Chris Johnson, who had at least 100 yards rushing in 12 of the Titans’ 16 games last year.
This year Tennessee looks to continue that late season surge now that they have their offense established. By which I mean: let Chris Johnson do the work. Johnson came out of nowhere to gain 2006 yards last season, but with that success came a lot of ego. A restructured contract and a lot of smack talk later, Johnson is riding into this season with a lot of expectations. Now heading into his third season, Johnson is primed for a career year in touchdowns and even surpassing his 2006 yards from last season. Hopefully that ego didn’t go to his head. Meanwhile, Vince Young has re-emerged as the franchise quarterback last season. With solid options in Nate Washington and Justin Gate at receiver, an excellent scrambling ability and the rather intangible ability to win games, Young will look to finally break through and become a great NFL quarterback.
Tennessee’s biggest flaw last season was their pass defense, where only Detroit gave up more yards passing than the Titans. With Kyle Vanden Bosch leaving to those same Lions, the Titans look to the newly drafted Derrick Morgan to fill his spot, but such a transition will take some time. Meanwhile, the Titans’ secondary has not improved much, which doesn’t speak well for their chances playing in a division that contains passing powerhouses in Indianapolis and Houston.
Division Predictions: even after all of these years its hard to believe the Colts won’t win the division but if any team can pass them, Houston can do it. So can Tennessee. All three of these teams will be competing for a playoff spot though I think Tennessee’s spotty defense will catch up to them and cost them a spot. Jacksonville could get 8 wins and still finish last.