Are the Houston Texans still the team to beat in the division? Will the Colts regress after last year’s impressive run? Is this the year Titans final show improvement? Can the Jaguars climb out of the gutter?
Training camp is well underway across the NFL. We took a look at the rest of the AFC recently, and today we check in on the AFC South.
For most of the 2000s, the division was dominated by the Colts. Peyton Manning and company simply owned the South, often going undefeated in division play. For the past two years, the Texans have taken over the division but have had disappointing results in the playoffs (not unlike the Colts).
Houston Texans (12-4)
The Texans won just one more game than the Colts last season. Houston barely squeaked by the Bengals in the wild card round and were then dominated at New England (for a second time) and bounced from the playoffs. It was clear that the Texans wouldn’t do much in the playoffs after close the regular season with a 1-3 record, which lost them a bye week in the playoffs. Despite all that, it was the best season in Texans history.
The Texans are a very good team, when they have a lead. The running game in Houston is outstanding, but they lack balance. The passing game lacks explosiveness and often times feels as if everyone is waiting for Andre Johnson to get open. There just aren’t enough options for quarterback Matt Schaub, which is why the Texans drafted wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins could very well be a Rookie of the Year candidate this season and will take some pressure off Johnson.
The defense was led by a historic season from JJ Watt. Watt’s 20.5 sacks were simply unreal. The problem was that the Texans allowed too many big plays down field. They brought in safety Ed Reed from the Ravens to patrol the deep routes. But Reed might miss time after having surgery on his hip (AFTER he inked a three-year deal). If Reed misses time, rookie DJ Swearinger will start alongside Danieal Manning. The problem is that both players are in the mold of strong safeties and better against the run. Without Reed deep, the pass defense will have to again rely on Watt getting to the opposing QB.
Houston excelled against inferior opponents last year, but when facing the top teams in the NFL, the Texans wilted, with just three wins against playoff teams. They have to do something to get over the hump this season. Getting Brian Cushing back on defense will certainly help. It may seem silly, but the Texans have also never beaten the Colts in Indianapolis and it was their lone divisional loss last season. This team has all the markings of a Super Bowl quality team, but they have to prove they know how to win.
Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
The Colts were a blown coverage away from possibly winning the division last season. Had Cassius Vaughn not screwed up covering Cecil Shorts against the Jaguars in the closing minutes of week three, the Colts could have been hosting the Ravens instead of traveling to Baltimore.
The Colts will need to improve their protection of Andrew Luck, especially since they will face Watt twice a year. A regression is possible, but the pieces are in place for the Colts to have another very solid year.
Tennessee Titans (6-10)
The Titans won just one game against divisional opponents. The Titans first three wins of the season came by a total of seven points. More often than not, the team was simply blown out. They delivered just two double-digit wins all season, against Miami and to close the season out versus Jacksonville.
The Titans lacked consistency at quarterback, bouncing between Jake Locker and Matt Hasselbeck (who is now with the Colts) at the position. Injuries to Hasselbeck sidelined him mid way through the year, but Locker, who also fought injuries, never really took the job as starter. If he doesn’t show signs of improvement, or can’t stay healthy, the Titans may give former Buffalo QB Ryan Fitzpatrick a shot under center. Having a franchise quarterback goes a long way in the pass happy NFL. The team is surprisingly stocked at wide receiver with Nate Washington, Kenny Britt, Kevin Walter, and Kendall Wright, so whoever the QB ends up being, he won’t lack for options.
Locker hasn’t show the improvement you’d like out of a third year QB. Add to this that the Titans lost longtime tight end Jared Cook in free agency and failed to replace him. The team did managed to shore up a weak offensive line, which should help out running back Chris Johnson. Johnson was critical of the line, but his effort also has to be questioned.
On defense, the Titans added safety Bernard Pollard and linebacker Moise Fokou. The team was in the bottom quarter of the league defensively last season. Tennessee gave up nearly 250 yards passing per game, and didn’t do much to improve on this number.
Without a much improved passing game, or another unbelievable season from Johnson, this team is destined for the bottom half of the NFL once again.
Jacksonville Jaguars (2-14)
This team was awful last season. They have officially entered full rebuild mode. First on the list is finding out who the teams quarterback will be. Is it Blaine Gabbert or Chad Henne? Neither player has exactly found some separation, or improvement on the field.
It didn’t help that Maurice Jones-Drew spent most of the season injured. He should be back this season and that will certainly help an offense that averaged just 15.9 points per game. But this is a passing league and unless the Jags find an answer at QB, they won’t find success in the near future.
The defense will eventually be better and the pieces are in place for a very solid secondary. But not this year. Couple that with a lack of a pass rush and it will be tough for the Jags to stop anyone. The defense ranked 29th last year and gave up 27.8 points per game.
Its possible to turn a franchise around in a single season, just look at the Colts, but the Jags appear destined for another top five pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.
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