2011 AFC South Division Preview and Predictions

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By Mike Ivcic

One down, five more days of previews to go. Welcome to day two of the Ultimate Capper NFL preview, where today we take a look at both the AFC and NFC South division, where two years ago the Super Bowl featured teams from both of those divisions. Can the Saints and Colts make it back to that level, or will they both fall short again this season? I have my thoughts, and that’s why this column exists, so let’s get to it.

1) Houston Texans
Once upon a time – like, say, last year – I vowed to never take the Houston Texans to ever make the playoffs until they actually DID. And now, here it is just 365 days (approximately) later, and what am I doing? Yup, picking the Texans to not only make the playoffs, but win the division! As many have said, they might have done the single best job in the abbreviated free agency period of finding one single person to fill their single biggest need in CB Jonathan Joseph from the Bengals. Their pass defense was atrocious last season, so now they have a top-flight corner that should dramatically improve that area. The loss of Arian Foster won’t be a devastating one, either – Steve Slaton has run for 1,000 years in a season before, and with the Matt Schaub-Andre Johnson combination, this is a pass-happy offense in a pass-happy league, so they’ll still score points. This is the year Gary Kubiak breaks through – at least he better, because he’s very quickly running out of mulligans.

Despite that optimism from the Houston side, the main reason I’m taking the Texans has nothing to do with their team at all (see: Manning, Peyton, neck). That said, this is a talented team that should benefit from opening the season against Indianapolis, because even if Manning is able to play on Sunday, he will do so without a single preseason snap. If they can navigate their first six weeks, which also includes trips to New Orleans and Baltimore and a visit from the Steelers, then the Texans have to feel much more comfortable with their chances to dethrone the Colts. Houston has a rather nice lead up to their second game against Indianapolis as well, with Cincinnati and Carolina – arguably the two worst teams – immediately preceding their December 22 trip to the Hoosier state. Circle that pre-Christmas, Thursday night matchup, because there’s a better than 50/50 chance that game could be for the division title and, if the North and East divisions are as strong as last season, also determine which team goes to the postseason and which team watches on television.

2) Indianapolis Colts
For years, most NFL playoff previews have started with one automatic – Indianapolis will win the AFC South. It’s the reason why, in the Manning vs. Brady debate, I’ve always been partial to Peyton Manning. His numbers are statistically slightly ahead, and when he lost he usually had done just about everything possible to give his team a chance (paging Mike Vanderjagt) and then had to rely on his supporting cast, which wasn’t as strong as Brady’s. Notice that since the retirement of players like Rodney Harrison and Tedy Bruschi, the Pats haven’t won a single playoff game. So yes, Brady might lead the Super Bowl advantage by a 3-1 margin, but New England went 11-5 with Matt Cassel for 15 games back in 2008. If Manning suffers any sustained absence as a result of his neck injury, the Colts instantly become competitors with Carolina and Cincinnati for “league’s-worst-team” status, and I’m not being overly dramatic when I write that. Manning is THAT important to the Colts entire team, and you couldn’t combine Dan Orlovsky, Kerry Collins, and Curtis Painter to get to even half of Manning’s ability to read a defense, change the protection, and make the right decision against an NFL defense.

So, in a sense, it makes it almost ridiculous to predict the Colts season without knowing the status of the best player in the game’s most important position. It would be kind of like trying to guess the Yankees postseason chances without Mariano Rivera – there’s simply no way to determine the effect of a loss like that, because it’s never had to be done. But as mentioned above, the Colts don’t ease into this season, and they could in essence be a game and a half behind in Houston in the division after just week one, and that’s probably going to happen even if Manning is under center. And making up ground won’t be easy late in the season, as the Colts open December with back-to-back road games in Foxboro and Baltimore. One interesting note is that both Houston and Indy have a very late bye (week 11) so there’s not really a chance for either team to catch their breath until the week before Thanksgiving. It might help one or both clubs if they make the postseason, but to giveaway maybe a little bit of Friday’s playoff edition, I think this division is too strong and draws a bad NFC crossover (South) to produce more than one playoff team, so winning the division is the way to go for both the Texans and Colts, and it all rests on the neck… err… shoulders of #18 in Indianapolis.

3) Tennessee Titans
In any sport, at any level, the object of playing any game is to be the winner, by whatever process a “winner” is determined, at the end of said game. Which is why I will never understand how one of the game’s winningest coaches couldn’t seem to get along with a quarterback that only ever seemed to win games. And now, as a result of that conflict, both said coach (Jeff Fisher) and quarterback (Vince Young) have left the Music City for greener pastures (and in Young’s case, literally). Enter Mike Munchak and Matt Hasselbeck – the former has never had a chance to “win” until now, while the latter usually wins, but can’t seem to stay on the field long enough to do it. Will this regime click as Hasselbeck begins the tutoring process for future franchise QB Jake Locker? If it does, this could be one team that no one wants to play late in the season. They may not make it to playoff-caliber level (I’m thinking 8-8 as the most likely result here) but this is a team with players like Chris Johnson and Cortland Finnegan and Kenny Britt, so it’s certainly not talent-deprived in any way. The key will be getting consistent play from the QB position, regardless of whether it’s Hasselbeck or Locker, and winning all of the areas coaches preach about – time of possession, turnover battle, and field position. Do those things, and this Titans team has a chance to still be relevant in the season’s final weeks.

Like their fellow division foes, the Titans draw the short end of the AFC-NFC crossover stick with the Falcons, Saints, and Bucs, the toughest top-three in any NFC division. But the first of those three games doesn’t arrive until November 20 (at Atlanta), so the Titans can try to build some confidence and momentum early against the likes of Jacksonville, Denver, and Cleveland. If Tennessee can manage to post a 3-2 mark heading into their week six bye, suddenly there might be a third contender in this division. But unlike situations last year, where the Jets lost to Miami and Baltimore lost to the Bengals, the Titans can’t afford to lose games to teams at their level or below. So without at least that 3-2 start, this probably isn’t a playoff team, but that doesn’t mean they won’t have an impact on the postseason. They will have that NFC South trio late in the season, and then they wrap up with three straight inter-division games – Colts, Jaguars, and Texans – so it’s highly likely that Tennessee will have a say on which team represents the AFC South in the postseason, even if it won’t be the Titans.

4) Jacksonville Jaguars
I was shocked to learn that Jacksonville actually finished last season at .500 and in second place in the AFC South. Who knew? Certainly not me, at least until I did my cursory research. But this isn’t a team that really made any significant improvement in the offseason, so it’s virtually impossible to see this team winning MORE than 8 games this year, and since on paper they’re the worst team in the division, and preseason predictions are BASED on paper, let’s just pick them fourth and move on.

What I will do in this section is wax poetic on one of my favorite discussions in any sport – drafting. Now in hockey, baseball, and basketball, the theory of drafting is usually the same: take the best player possible whenever your turn to pick arrives. In basketball, there are only two rounds, and impact players are few and far between, so unless you have one of those bonafide superstars at the same position as the best player available, it’s usually wise to defer to the BPA theory. Same with hockey, where all 20 players more or less contribute evenly – just take the best player still on the board and work him into the system. With baseball, teams will usually lean towards either hitting or pitching in a given draft, but it’s not as if the players being drafted will even have an impact on the major league team that season, so take the player with the biggest upside and move on. But football is a totally different beast. First round rookies are expected not only to just make the team, but usually provide significant contribution. With only seven rounds, it’s hard to address every need in the draft, so teams really need to be prudent with the players they choose, which says to me – if I were a general manager – that the best approach to the NFL draft is to draft the best player available to fill the team’s biggest need!

And that, right there, is why I don’t understand Jacksonville. Is David Garrard a top 10 quarterback? No, but the necessary follow-up question comes, is Blaine Gabbert a future top 10 quarterback? Once again, I believe the answer to be no, so even if he might be better than Garrard, why use a first-round pick on a guy who doesn’t make your team better immediately, and might not make it better in the future? The teams that win in the NFL are the teams that have the most players out of their own drafts make the biggest impact. Think of the four teams that have been the most successful over the past decade in the AFC – Pittsburgh, New England, Baltimore, and Indianapolis. All four of those teams have built a majority of their roster from the draft, and while only the Patriots sport a late-round QB, all four of those teams have drafted stars at other positions with very high draft picks as well. It’s the same reason why teams like the Packers, Jets, Saints, Falcons, and Giants have also seen success lately – they have all had more productive draft classes, with more impact players and less busts. So if you root for a team that has holes at defensive end, wide receiver, and linebacker and selects a quarterback with their first-round pick, just prepare yourself for a losing season and it will be much less painful.

Monday, September 5: AFC North
Monday, September 5: NFC North
Tuesday, September 6: AFC South
Tuesday, September 6: NFC South
Wednesday, September 7: AFC East
Wednesday, September 7: NFC East
Thursday, September 8: AFC West
Thursday, September 8: NFC West
Friday, September 9: Playoffs and Super Bowl

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