by Kent Sterling
The AFC South has been around for 11 seasons, and the Indianapolis Colts have won the division seven times. The Tennessee Titans took two (2002, 2008), and the Houstan Texans have cashed in on the last two. Jacksonville has never won a title.
It’s the Colts turn to resume its place on the throne because great quarterbacks win divisions, and the Colts Andrew Luck is the best quarterback in the division. Matt Schaub of the Texans is pretty good, so they’ll finish second. Jake Locker of the Titans is improving, so they finish third, and Blaine Gabbert is the worst starting QB in pro football, so their fate is sealed in the cellar. That all assumes all play 16 games.
Indianapolis Colts – 12-4
I have wobbled a bit with my take on the Colts. The ball bounced their way last year, and the 9-1 record in games decided by seven or fewer points lead many to believe that they were flat-out lucky to win a total of 11 games in 2012. Add the -30 total point differential for the season, and there is no doubting a pattern of what appears to be overachievement. Andrew Luck not only threw 18 interceptions, but lofted an additional 14 balls into the hands of defenders that were dropped. For those who believe in luck (with a lower case “L”), the Colts appear vulnerable. I see a team on the rise with a special quarterback ready to allow prudence to eliminate negative plays while not eroding the gifts that caused so many positive plays. It wasn’t luck that led the Colts to 11-5; it was Luck.
Schedule – One enormous break is to play Seattle in Indianapolis. The Seahawks are unbeaten in Seattle in 2012, but that might be cancelled by the Broncos coming to Lucas Oil Stadium. Peyton Manning has long been a quarterback able to rise to the occasion during the regular season, and a return to the stadium that he built will provide exactly the kind of environment he loves. It will be interesting to do a count of #18s vs. #12s among the fans. Manning is still beloved in Indianapolis as he should be. At 37, this might be his last trip to Indianapolis as a player, and Manning will try to go out with a bang. The first two games – both at home against the Raiders and Dolphins – should give the Colts some momentum with an early 2-0 record.
Offense – This is where the Colts will win or lose games. The special players are all on this side of the ball, with Luck leading the charge with his superb physical skills and magnificent leadership. He is the most special of a potentially very special 2012 draft class of quarterbacks along with Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III, and Colin Kaepernick. Luck has an enhanced arsenal of weapons with future hall of famer Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, and Darrius Heyward-Bey. Dwayne Allen had an outstanding rookie season at tight end while second round pick Coby Fleener was a bit of a disappointment. Fleener had a case of the dropsies during the preseason, but starts this Sunday with a clean slate.
The running game will be bolstered by Ahmad Bradshaw, who is one of the most productive backs in the game – when healthy. Bradshaw didn’t play in the preseason as his surgically repaired foot continued to heal. He is supposedly ready to roll, and one trait of his that will be prized by Colts fans is the ability to get to the sticks for a first down. Averaging 4.6 yards per carry is gaudy, but Bradshaw’s ability to pass block will be a huge upgrade too.
Defense – What to expect from this group is one of the great mysteries of the NFL for 2013. There is mediocrity almost everywhere but safety, other than with CB Vontae Davis and OLB Robert Mathis. The preseason didn’t show Mathis at his best, but what the hell does he have to prove in the preseason at the age of 32. He had eight sacks a year ago, and doesn’t appear to have slowed any. Bjoern Werner was taken in the first round and Erik Walden was signed as a free agent. If they can form an amalgam opposite Mathis that can disrupt quarterbacks, that will help the Colts mask some deficiencies in the secondary. Greg Toler and Darius Butler will also play corner. Toler comes over from Arizona and is two years removed from ACL surgery, and has never played all 16 games in an season. If the Colts have to dip down to Cassius Vaughn as a starting CB, cross your fingers that he learned a lot in 2012. The safeties will be a strength with Antoine Bethea and LaRon Landry. Linebackers? That the Colts traded yesterday for Cam Johnson shouldn’t inspire a ton of confidence.
The pieces aren’t bad, but the aren’t great. That GM Ryan Grigson is a genius at finding complimentary defensive pieces that can fit well together is the hope. All they have to do is create one more stop than the offense yields for the Colts to win.
Houston – 9-7
The Texans have three outstanding players in Andre Johnson, Arian Foster, and J.J. Watt, but elsewhere, the team appears ready to recede. Ed Reed comes over from the Ravens, but his hip may not allow him to play at a high level. Matt Schaub is good, not great, and for a team without a dominant defense to win a championship, the quarterback much be elite.
Schedule – As much as the schedule for the Colts is favorable early, the Texans first seven challenges will be difficult to answer. The AFC South matches up with the NFC West, which could be the best division in the NFL. The best three of those teams face the Texans on consecutive weeks. The Seahawks visit Houston September 29th, then the Texans head to San Francisco October 6th, and finally the upstart Rams head to Houston October 13th. That makes the opening two games at San Diego and at home against the Titans must win games before traveling to Baltimore.
Offense – The Texans have a lot of pretty good on the offensive side of the ball, and the only bit of great they have is getting a little longer in the tooth. Andre Johnson is 32, but shows no sign of slowing. Last season, Johnson might have been at his best with 112 catches and a career high 1,598 yards, but teams in the NFL sink or swim based upon the work done at quarterback. If you want evidence that the evaluation process among NFL GMs is at best a crap shoot and at worst the work of idiots, Arian Foster went undrafted in 2009, and was ranked the 26th best running back prior to that draft. Foster led the league in carries in 2012, rushing TDs in 2010 and 2012, and yards in 2010. The bad news is that Foster’s yards per carry average has dropped from 4.9 to 4.4 to 4.1 during his three seasons. Still really good, but another drop will have a profound effect on the Texans’ ability to move the chains.
Matt Schaub is 32, and while that’s plenty young enough to be as good as he has been, it’s statistically improbable that he’ll improve over what has been the norm throughout his career. According to pro-football-reference.com, the quarterback most similar to Schaub is Brian Sipe – the king of good not great. In virtually every statistical category, Schaub ranks in the back half of the top ten, and that’s where he’ll likely finish in 2013.
First round pick DeAndre Hopkins will start opposite Johnson at wide receiver. It’s a lot to hope for that a rookie wideout will be able to be productive as he learns the pro game.
Defense – J.J. Watt was graded as the best defensive player since Pro Football Focus began issuing them. He does everything – pressure the quarterback, stop the run, and bat down passes. As dominant as a quarterback can be on the offensive side of the ball, Watt can be that from the defensive end spot. Not only does he need to be accounted for on every offensive play, offenses need to beat him each and every play to have a chance to succeed. Beating the Texans requires beating Watt. I can’t think of another defensive player in history who warranted that level of attention.
Antonio Smith and Earl Mitchell, Watt’s defensive line mates are no slouches themselves. The linebackers in the aggregate are mediocre, and the safeties are either just okay or aging, depending upon the guy. Danieal Manning is 31, and Ed Reed will be 35 in a week. Cornerbacks are pretty good with Jonathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson.
Tennessee – 6-10
The Titans are a little more interesting than many would expect. Quarterback Jake Locker is easy to write off as a guy ready to be consigned to the dust bin of mediocrity, but there are reasons to believe he can grow into something a bit better than that. Chris Johnson is an elite back who seems like he should be older than he is – turning 28 in a couple of week.
Schedule – The Titans season could go south in a big hurry as their first two games are both on the road against the Steelers and Texans. A split in the first two weeks give the Titans a chance to surprise, but being swept will put them in a hole from which they might extricate themselves. They play five of their six division games during the second half of the season, so even if the season starts poorly, they will have a chance to make up ground.
Offense – According to Pro Football Focus, Jake Locker was the worst quarterback in the NFL when pressured, but he was pretty damn good when unpressured. That’s true for a lot of QBs, but seems hustling the ball out under duress seems to cause more trouble for Locker than most. The Titans changed out their guards by drafting road grater Chance Warmack of Alabama and signing free agent Andy Levitre who was pretty good for Buffalo for the past four years after being taken in the second round of the 2009 draft out of Oregon State. If Warmack and Levitre can keep Locker clean and open holes for Johnson, the Titans have a chance to take steps forward from their 6-10 2012 record. The receiving corps have the potential to be Locker’s best friends or worst enemies. Kenny Britt, Nate Washington, and Kendall Wright have shown they can make big plays, but they also dropped a ton of passes last year. Losing tight end Jared Cook to the Rams in free agency won’t help, but he was a bad fit for the Titans scheme.
Defense – The Titans allowed more points than anyone else in football in 2012. Being outscored 330-471 is not an easily overcome deficit. The titans missed a lot of tackles last year, and most of the offending defenders return. The Titans took Warmack with the 10th overall pick in the 2013 draft, and the only defensive player taken by the Titans in the first round of the last six drafts is Derrick Morgan (2010). Great players play great defense, and the Titans do not have great defenders.
Jacksonville – 2-14
As the quarterback goes, so goes the team. Good rule, and a sad reality for the Jaguars. I thought about skipping the Jags as they have few fans that will seek out additional portals that will talk about how terrible they are, but this process will force me to learn their personnel and know exactly why they suck.
Schedule – It’s not a good sign when every team in the NFL but the Raiders has you circled as a win. If you want to know who is the absolute lowest rated play-by-play/analyst duo working NFL games this season, get the NFL Sunday Ticket and check in briefly during week two. The people working the Jags @ Raiders will be it. Shame that the week two matchup could be for the first pick in the 2014 NFL Draft
Offense – As if the Jaguars needed another reason to feel terrible about their prospects, first round pick Justin Blackmon is suspended for the first four games. Not that it would have necessarily mattered, but losing a bona fide weapon is never a good thing. Among the few plusses for the Jags is that they have real players at OT with Eugene Monroe and Luke Joeckel. They should give quarterback Blaine Gabbert time to throw, and Maurice Jones-Drew an occasional hole to run through.
MJD only played in six games, but still led the Jags in rushing with 414 yards. Given that the Jags ran for a paltry total of 1,369 yards, I was stunned that they did not finish at the bottom of the NFL in team rushing. The Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals tallied 1,265 and 1,204 respectively. The Jags also finished 30th in yards per play, ahead of the Jets and Cardinals.
Defense – Sadly, the ranking as the 30th best (of 32) teams offensively that the Jags earned in 2012 was mirrored on the defensive end. They don’t pressure the quarterback well – or really at all. They sacked opposing quarterbacks 20 times total is 2012, which was five behind the Raiders for 31st.
The biggest problem for a team this bad is trying to focus from week-to-week. The Jags aren’t idiots. They know they suck, and have no hope at all for a winning season. When it goes bad, getting it to stop is hard, and it’s been going bad in Jacksonville for awhile.