Saturday, September 5, 2009

AFC South Preview

How do you take the next step when there are two obstacles already standing on it?
Now you know how the Houston Texans feel.
They enter the 2009 NFL season trendier than a $400 pair of jeans, with many pegging them as the team that will have a playoff breakthrough. Two consecutive 8-8 seasons and a nucleus of top-tier talent have made them a preseason darling among many prognosticators.
Did they forget about the Indianapolis Colts and the Tennessee Titans, the two teams already standing on the higher step?
"One thing we know is we can't wait for those teams to come back to us," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said.
The Titans won the AFC South with a 13-3 record last season, while the Colts earned a wild-card berth with their sixth consecutive season of 12 wins or more. Tennessee returns much of that deep lineup while the Colts, despite a coaching change, will be a lot like their last six teams: loaded on offense.
The key for the Titans in their quest to repeat will be quarterback Kerry Collins. Was his surprise season an aberration or can he still play at a high level at age 36? He has more weapons outside, which will help, and he played well in the preseason.
It helps that he has a 22-man depth chart that has few holes -- if any. The Titans do have a new defensive coordinator in Chuck Cecil, but that transition from Jim Schwartz shouldn't be a problem.
The biggest transition, at least on paper, for any division team comes in Indianapolis. Colts coach Tony Dungy retired, leaving Jim Caldwell as the new coach. He is cut from the same cloth as Dungy -- only a little louder -- and the Colts players say they don't expect any troubles in the transition.
With Peyton Manning keying the offense, they will score a lot of points again. They do want -- and need -- to run the ball better.
That brings us to the other two teams, the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Texans. The Jaguars had a disappointing season in 2008, finishing 5-11, and they are in a rebuilding mode.
Coach Jack Del Rio's team will get back to playing a more physical style and you can bet teams that play them will feel it on Monday. But they are a year away.
Predicted Order of Finish
1. Colts
2008 standings: 12-4

Pts Scored: 377
Pts Allowed: 298
Off. Yds/G: 335.5
Def. Yds/G: 310.9
2. Titans
2008 standings: 13-3

Pts Scored: 375
Pts Allowed: 234
Off. Yds/G: 313.6
Def. Yds/G: 293.6
3. Texans
2008 standings: 8-8

Pts Scored: 366
Pts Allowed: 394
Off. Yds/G: 382.1
Def. Yds/G: 336.6
4. Jaguars
2008 standings: 5-11

Pts Scored: 302
Pts Allowed: 367
Off. Yds/G: 319.1
Def. Yds/G: 330.9
The Texans have the division's best pass rusher (Mario Williams) and best receiver (Andre Johnson). They have a star-in-the-making runner in Steve Slaton and quarterback in Matt Schaub, who played well down the stretch last season, although he does need to stay on the field. If the secondary can come together, who knows how good they can be on defense?
"We're on the brink, but what do we do next?" Kubiak said. "You see some teams take the next step. You see teams go backwards. We can't go backwards."
Yeah, but pushing one or two of those other guys from that step won't be easy.

Indianapolis Colts
Significant additions: RB Donald Brown, DT Fili Moala and WR Austin Collie.
Significant losses: Coach Tony Dungy, WR Marvin Harrison and DT Darrell Reid.
Biggest offseason move: The retirement of Dungy with Jim Caldwell taking over. When a coach like that leaves, there are bound to be eyes watching the replacement.
Will go to the playoffs if ... Peyton Manning stays upright. They will score a lot of points and he's the reason why.
Rookie to watch: Brown. He will take away some carries from Joseph Addai, but don't expect him to steal his starting job. Brown does have the ability to make plays in the passing game.
Overview: The prevailing notion is that this is a team in regress. I don't buy it. The Colts have won at least 12 games for six straight seasons and they will push to that number again. Caldwell is a good coach and we know as long as Manning is throwing darts they will be fine on offense. The new defense under coordinator Larry Coyer will have to come together quickly. The injuries in the secondary, especially to safety Bob Sanders, remain a major concern. They need him. But there is enough talent -- as long as Dwight Freeney is on the field -- to have a playoff defense. By the way, they have Manning, who helps cure a lot of ills.

Tennessee Titans
Significant additions: WR Nate Washington, DT Jovan Haye, WR Kenny Britt, TE Jared Cook, DT Sen'Derrick Marks.
Significant losses: DT Albert Haynesworth, CB-KR Chris Carr and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.
Biggest offseason move: Losing Haynesworth. He leaves a big hole in the middle of that defense that they will have to fill with a bunch of bodies.
Will go to the playoffs if ... Kerry Collins plays like he did last season. If he does, they might go to the Super Bowl.
Rookie to watch: Cook has great receiving skills for a tight end. He will provide another middle-of-the-field threat for Collins.
Overview: The roster is loaded. They are a deep, talented team that has few holes. So it all comes down to Collins. Can he do it again? Some have to wonder whether he can. But I think he will play just like he did in 2008. That will put this team in the Super Bowl mix again. With the additions of Britt, Washington and Cook, the passing game will be better. On the defensive side, new coordinator Chuck Cecil has a lot to work with. They will use a lot of bodies to fill the void left by Haynesworth. They will be fine. The Titans will be a good team. Collins can make them a Super Bowl team.

Houston Texans
Significant additions: DE Antonio Smith, OLB Brian Cushing, LB Connor Barwin, QB Dan Orlovsky, QB Rex Grossman and DT Shaun Cody.
Significant losses: QB Sage Rosenfels and DE Anthony Weaver.
Biggest offseason move: Paying Smith big money and pairing him as a pass rusher to go with Mario Williams.
Will go to the playoffs if ... The defense elevates its play and they learn how to beat the Colts and the Titans.
Rookie to watch: Cushing. He missed time with injuries during camp, but the Texans expect him to make an impact this season. He plays with a relentless style.
Overview: This is the trendy pick to crack through as a playoff team. I'm not sold on that. I think they still have some issues, most notably the division. It's too tough. They will be good on offense, but it's all on the defense. The front seven should be good, but there are major concerns in the secondary. I look for them to score a lot of points, play in a lot of shootouts, but they aren't quite ready to get past that 8-8 of the last two seasons.

Jacksonville Jaguars
Significant additions: WR Torry Holt, T Tra Thomas, T Eugene Monroe, S Sean Considine and DT Terrance Knighton.
Significant losses: RB Fred Taylor, S, Gerald Sensabaugh, LB Mike Peterson, WR Matt Jones and WR Reggie Williams.
Biggest offseason move: Changing the mentality. Coach Jack Del Rio had his toughest camp in years and hopes it will make his team return to its physical roots.
Will go to the playoffs if ... David Garrard can play at a 28-touchdown, 10-interception rate.
Rookie to watch: Monroe. He should be an immediate starter and will be a fixture at left tackle for years.
Overview: This team is in a rebuilding mode, even if it won't say it. The Jaguars were a playoff team two years ago, but didn't play well last season. Bad locker-room influences hurt, but more than that this is a team undone by some bad drafting. Injuries crippled the offensive line last year, so they will be better there. Look for a lot of Maurice Jones-Drew, although they've showed more passing in the preseason. The defense needs to get more pressure on the quarterback. That means second-year defensive end Derrick Harvey. With a lot of young players set to make major contributions, they will be lucky to get to .500.

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