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The AFC South is a funny division to try to predict.  This of course excludes the Colts, who have made the playoffs all but one year since 1999, and have a ridiculous streak of making the playoffs since 2002.  Who will end where in the conference, however, is a bit of a crapshoot, with each team having finished at least second in the division over the last three seasons.  This year is similar in many ways, with each team being solid, but not great.  Of course, this division also has one of the tougher out-of-division matchups, playing the NFC South and the AFC North.  With that in mind, here are the 2011 AFC South predictions:

Tennessee Titans

How good is CJ2K if 1300 yards was a bad year?

Andy: The Titans are coming off a poor 2010 season, but they still managed to finish 6-10 when it could have been a lot worse.  Matt Hasselbeck is easily the biggest free agent acquisition, and an important one.  He will be a great mentor to rookie QB Jake Locker and can still play good football.  He’s an injury risk, but should be able to stay healthier behind a much better o-line than he had in Seattle.  His weapons are ok, with Kenny Britt looking to break out if he can stay healthy and not suspended.  Nate Washington, Justin Gage and Jared Cook are also okay options, and can help keep teams honest.  Of course, the real offensive weapon is Chris Johnson, who, assuming he is re-signed in time, is bound to have another great season (when 1364 yards is an off-season, you know you have a great RB).  He has a strong offensive line to run behind, and should have more opportunities with Hasselbeck at the helm.  The Titans defense is bound to be tough as usual, and rookie OLB Akeem Ayers and newly signed MLB stud Barrett Ruud should vastly improve their LB corps.  They also have a solid secondary, good enough to at least keep them competitive with the pass-happy Colts and Texans.  Overall, this team is likely to look competitive, but not enough so to be a playoff contender.

Cole: This is going to sound like I like the Titans, and I do, but this is going to be a rough year for them. I think Hasselbeck is a perfect mentor for Jake Locker. We know Locker can run, but we’re not sure if he can throw, whereas Hasselbeck has fought his whole career to be a successful starter and can motivate and teach this kid how to play the game. The Titans don’t have to rush to start him (though the fan base will push for it).  This team still lacks top end wide receivers, though Kenny Britt has promise if he could just keep himself out of trouble. The biggest strength of this offense is the run game, anchored by a very stout offensive line and CJ2k. Chris Johnson’s holdout is going to be a problem. For the record I think he should get paid, though nowhere near what he’s asking simply because the value of his position is nowhere near that. I think he’d be hard pressed to get that on the open market frankly (unless the Redskins are in the market).

Defensively this is a strong unit. Derek Morgan might miss some time, but Jason Jones can hold the fort down too. The middle continues to be weak, however, with Shaun Smith and Senderrick Marks trying to hold up. While the interior line is weak, their linebacker group is very strong with the acquisition of Barrett Rudd, rookie Akeem Ayers, Will Witherspoon and Gerald McRath. Those four should be good for several years, though one will likely leave via free agency down the road.  The secondary is again very good. Cortland Finnegan is a good corner when not getting slugged by Andre Johnson, Michael Griffin is a playmaker in both the run and pass. Chris Hope and Jason McCourty could be upgraded. The reason they’re in trouble is a brutal schedule. Baltimore, Houston, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, New Orleans headline their road. Factor in an up and coming Cleveland, wild card Denver, and gun slinging Buffalo and you see why I don’t see them taking this division by storm.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Andy: Jacksonville finished with an okay 8-8 record last year.  Their problem is they didn’t improve much over the offseason.  The defense was terrible last season (22nd in the running game, 28th passing), but has some promise.  They are young on the defensive line, and one has to hope that the three young starters of Tyson Alualu, Austen Lane, and Terrance Knighton can help out the aging Aaron Kampman.  At LB, they acquired two veterans in Paul Posluszny and Clint Session.  Poluszny is a solid MLB, but I’m not sold on Session, who was out most of last year with an injury and has been a middle-of-the-road player.   The secondary needs to step it up this year, but I don’t see it happening, and I don’t see new signing Dawan Landry helping much at SS either.  The offense is the bigger problem.  The Jaguars were third in rushing last season, but pocket-sized RB Maurice Jones-Drew is coming off of major knee surgery.  Promising backup Rashad Jennings just sprained his ankle, but should be able to get back onto the field soon enough.  The problem on offense arises in their passing game.  The team finished last season at 27th and did not seem to improve this season.  David Garrard is an okay QB, but will never lead this team to the Promised Land, and likely not the playoffs.  Marcedes Lewis is a good TE, but their options at WR downright stink.  Blaine Gabbert is going to need at least a year before he can perform well in the NFL, and they will desperately have to acquire him some weapons.  I just cannot see this team competing with the others in the AFC South.  Coach Jack Del Rio is going to have to hope ownership sees the future with Gabbert and himself there and that they decide to keep him on for 2012.

Cole: This team will take a step back this year. Their line remains solid, so expect a solid year from Maurice Jones-Drew. Unfortunately they face a lot of stout rush defenses, which is going to put a lot of pressure on David Garrard early to open up the field. This is also a fan base that wants to win now, and Jack Del Rio has already shown a proclivity for pulling his starter for an unproven guy before so expect Blaine Gabbert sooner rather than later. The real problem is that this team lacks a presence on the outside. Mike Thomas and Jason Hill simply do not scare defenses, which will leave a lot of 8 man fronts for MJD to get through. On defense, Tyson Alualu is making the Jaguars personnel people look good, as is Terrence Knighton. These two should be sound against all but the best rushing attacks, unlike Tennessee. Their problem will be a woeful pass rush. Math Roth and Aaron Kampman will not bring a lot to the table and there isn’t much behind them. The linebackers have improved with Paul Posluszny, but he’s frequently injured and there isn’t much behind him. Clint Sessions is solid, but Daryl Smith needs an upgrade. The Secondary continues to be a work in progress. Rashean Mathis is solid and free agent Dawan Landry will improve the back-end some, but that’s where the good news ends. This team takes on another brutal schedule with most of the same teams as well as San Diego due to their woeful season last year.

Houston Texans

Please Matt Schaub, prove me right this year...

Andy: The Texans should just sign a deal with the devil, make the playoffs, and get it over with.  Every year they tempt people to believe that it is the breakout season, and every year they disappoint us.  Nevertheless, I am going to be the fool and, once again, predict this is the year that they FINALLY make the playoffs.  The most obvious deficiency last year was their passing defense, which can only be described along the lines of very bad, preceded by several curse words.  They tried to address this problem by signing CB Jonathan Joseph and drafting CB Brandon Harris out of Miami in the second round (a good value pick).  Wade Phillips takes over as defensive coordinator, switching the Texans to a 3-4, and he has always been a very good defensive coordinator.  Mario Williams is still adjusting to his new position at OLB, but I think he will do fine there, and 1st round picks Brooks Reed and JJ Watt will help to improve this defense (Reed has looked especially good in the preseason so far).  The offense is just scary good.  Matt Schaub has proven himself able to make all the throws and should continue to post a QB rating in the 90’s.  Andre Johnson is, in my opinion, the best WR in the NFL, and Owen Daniels is a top-flight TE when he’s healthy.  Of course, we cannot also forget Arian Foster, last year’s top RB, who is backed up by a very promising Ben Tate.  The Texans are a better team this year, and barring injury, I think they will win the AFC South.  Now I just have to wait till January for them to prove me wrong.

Cole: If the Texans are going to get above .500 this has to be the year. Kubiak is on the hot seat but has made all the right moves. Wade Phillips is a very good defensive coordinator. Only time will tell if his experiment to move Mario Williams to linebacker will work, but even if he doesn’t improve Phillips can still improve the defense as a whole (though that would be a colossal waste of Mario’s talent). This is an elite linebacker group on paper. Brian Cushing needs to return to form and Demeco Ryans is coming off an injury. Conner Barwin has good pass rush skills, but hasn’t utilized them starting from the standing position and even if he isn’t up to par, Brooks Reed is waiting in the wings and has looked explosive in the preseason. The defensive line is a work in progress. Shaun Cody is so-so as a nose tackle and Antonio Smith is probably undersized for a 3-4 end. J.J. Watt should be fine starting day one opposite. The secondary is incredibly improved. Jonathan Joseph will be tested as the number 1 corner. Kareem Jackson needs to step up this year, but Daniel Manning will improve the safety play some. There’s still work to do, but it’s a much better unit from the last year. Not much to say about the offense other than it will score points (again I’d love to see the Lions face off with the Texans). Arian Foster’s leg is a concern, but Ben Tate and Derrick Ward look reliable as backups. The only thing they lack is a compliment to Andre Johnson.

Indianapolis Colts

Andy: The real team name of course should be “Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.”  With Peyton Manning, they can win any game.  Without Peyton Manning, this is the worst team in the AFC South.  Manning single-handedly keeps this team alive each season, turning nobodies into good WRs (see: Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie) and by simply being smarter than the opposing team.  No one reads a defense like Manning.  That being said, I think this is the year we finally see a lack of talent around Manning come back to bite them.  The Colts re-signed Joseph Addai and have Donald Brown and Delone Carter at RB, but the potential for a big running game in Indy seems as unlikely as it always does.  Jeff Saturday is the anchor of this O-line, but he is aging (so is RT Ryan Diem), and RG Mike Pollak still has issues in space and stands up too much.  The Colts also have two rookies starting on the left side of the line, which is a gamble they hope pays off, otherwise Manning’s consecutive games streak could end.  The defense is, as usual, underwhelming.  Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney are still amazing DEs, but are aging and health is an issue.  Their run defense has looked abysmal in the preseason, and I don’t see any reason why this changes in the regular season.  Their inside linemen lack size, and their LB corps is not impressive to say the least.  The CB position is filled with good nickels (Powers, Lacy, and Tryon), but none of them are a true outside, 1-on-1 CB, which will be a problem against the likes of Andre Johnson and Kenny Britt.  Both safeties are good in the running game, but are only okay when it comes to pass defense.  I think this might finally be the year that the Colts maybe, MAYBE, miss out on the playoffs.

And yes, I am fully prepared to eat these words in January, when Peyton Manning inevitably proves me wrong by carrying this team to the playoffs once again.

Cole: This is the year the Colts could lose their grip on the AFC South. His neck is concerning, though I think he’ll play the whole season, but I imagine the first few games will be a struggle for him to get into rhythm. The offensive line is improved, but still lacks some punch running the ball, which will hurt Kerry Collins should he be forced to step in. In either case, the run game will not be protecting the quarterback so it’ll be up to the line. Defensively this unit is relatively intact from last season. Tommie Harris and Fili Moala will anchor the middle, adding further pass rush to the inside. Drake Nevis will join them in the rotation. The linebackers – Philip Wheeler, Gary Brackett, and Pat Angerer – look good in the Tampa 2 defense and the secondary will be reliable, and more importantly healthy now that Bob Sanders won’t be taking reps from them for 4-6 weeks until he gets hurt. They don’t feature shutdown corners, but their defensive style doesn’t require it when they’ll always carry help over the top.

This team goes as far as Peyton can take them, as we all know, and this could be the year Peyton puts them in too deep of a hole to dig out of. It’s the fault of the lockout and age, and there’s still a strong chance that the competition – the Texans – struggle when confronted with the playoffs in sight, and they could still win the wild card, but with a tougher schedule than most divisions it’s not going to be as easy as it has in the past.

Predictions:

Tennessee: Andy – 7-9 / Cole – 4 – 12

Jacksonville: Andy – 5-11 / Cole – 4 – 12

Houston: Andy – 10-6 / Cole – 10 – 6

Indianapolis: Andy – 9-7 / Cole – 10 – 6

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