TDdaily is previewing each NFL division, one by one, leading up to Week 1. An asterisk after a team’s projected record means we’ve projected them to win a tiebreaker, and “Sunday Ticket Scale” rates each team on a 0-10 scale, from unwatchable to roller coaster excitement, designed to help you shape your Sunday afternoon viewing choices. Today, we’re breaking down the AFC South.
The last name says it all: Luck.
With the departure of former all-world, nay, all-galaxy quarterback Peyton Manning, the Indianapolis Colts are going to need Lady and Andrew Luck to restore the once proud franchise back to its winning ways. To that end, Indy is rolling the dice big time on a 235-pound rookie QB with the kind of steely, competitive passing acumen not seen in a new pro since, well, that other guy.
No one will argue that Luck’s arrival will infuse boatloads of much-needed attention on the AFC South, but to expect him to immediately mirror the impressive feats of strength executed by Manning is unfair, and unrealistic. But the kid is good. And, from the looks of it, he can be great. But you don’t have to take my word for it, take Colts owner Jim Irsay’s. After the rookie gunslinger’s first preseason throw resulted in a 63-year touchdown, the loquacious owner tweeted: “Historic beginning!!!!!!!!!!!!! The legend has begun!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
Sure, he has reason for the Hail Mary hyperbole, considering he just ushered a first-ballot Hall of Famer straight out of town, but, as we all knew leading up to the draft, this Luck kid has the most NFL ready arm of the neophytes and he can chuck it with the best of them. And since the Colts went a lowly 2-14 last year, they can’t go anywhere but up.
But they’ll have to go through the Houston Texans, who were a botched kickoff return catch by Jacoby Jones—who has since been sent packin’—from almost making it to the big dance. With Arian Foster ready to stuff fantasy football stat sheets and a healthy (?) Andre Johnson and Matt Schaub returning, Bob McNair’s squad could…go…all…the…way. The Tennessee Titans were respectable last season and are looking to return to form with a revitalized Chris Johnson running the rock. And the Jacksonville Jaguars are trying to do something, anything, to be respectable. Buckle up football fans. It’s going to be a very interesting ride.
Houston Texas — Projected Record: 11-5, 1st place in division
Last Year: For the first time in franchise history, the Texans made the playoffs after racking up a 10-win season. And whether it was beginner’s luck or not, Houston managed to win its first-ever post-season game with a 31-1o win over Cincinnati in the Wild Card round, and nearly pulled off an upset win over the Baltimore Ravens in the Divisional round (they lost 20-13). This year, with a full season of Wade Philips’ new 3-4 scheme under their belts, the Texans could run the table in their division again.
Key Additions: CB Alan Ball, LB Omar Gaither, RB Justin Forsett, FB Moran Norris, LB Bradie James, P Donnie Jones, QB John Beck, K Randy Bullock, WR Keshawn Martin, WR DeVier Posey, LB Whitney Mercilus
Key Losses: LB Mario Williams, WR Jacoby Jones, LB DeMeco Ryans, QB Matt Leinart, TE Joel Dreessen, OG Mike Brisiel, RT Eric Winston, K Neil Rackers, FB Lawrence Vickers, DE Tim Bulman, CB Jason Allen, S Dominique Barber, P Matt Turk, QB Jake Delhomme, RB Derrick Ward
Strengths: Thanks to Arian Foster and Ben Tate, this team has an unmatched running game, which also opens up air time for star WR Andre Johnson. And even with Mario Williams now in Buffalo, the Texans defense remains one of the best in the League.
Weaknesses: Wide receiver depth. Because of health issues, one of the Texans’ biggest strengths, Andre Johnson, can also be their biggest weakness. Johnson is all she wrote when it comes to wideouts for this team. If he goes down, the depth chart gets thinner than hairlines in the Hair Club for Men.
X-Factor: Johnson and Schaub. Even with Andre Johnson out for most of the season, the Texans still snagged their division. If he and Schaub can have a great connection this season, the Texans can make it deeper into the playoffs.
Sunday Ticket Status: 8.5. Arian Foster makes this team watchable. Fantasy football heads will definitely tune in to tally the NFL’s top back’s numbers, and Andre Johnson’s not too shabby, either. Add to that the fact that they are playing on Thanksgiving and it’s clear: this team warrants some air time.
Bottom Line: The Texans have a pretty easy schedule. On paper, there are really only five games they could lose: Packers, Ravens, Bears, Lions and Patriots. Even with the favorable schedule, the Texans could still stumble a bit and repeat last year’s 10-6 finish, but with no one to challenge them within the division, they should be able to coast to the Playoffs.
Tennessee Titans — Projected Record: 9-7, 2nd place in division
Last Year: Although Chris Johnson held the team hostage before the ’11 season, the Titans still managed to finish with a respectable 9-7 record. That wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs, but it showed that these dogs still had some fight left in them, and served as a reminder that this team can serve up a W anytime they put their minds to it.
Key Additions: DE Kamerion Wimbley, OG Steve Hutchinson, WR Kendall Wright, LB Zach Brown, DT Mike Martin
Key Losses: CB Cortland Finnegan, DT Jason Jones, LB Barrett Ruud, WR Donnie Avery
Strengths: Defensive line. Although its devoid of any big names, the Titans defensive line is as formidable as the line for the special retro Jordan’s release at Foot Locker.
Weaknesses: Cornerback. The weakest leak for the Titans will be at cornerback since the impish, wolf-ticket selling, former Pro Bowl CB Cortland Finnegan took his talents elsewhere. This can be a huge hole when they face quarterbacks that can really air it out.
X-Factor: Jake Locker, anyone? If Locker can finally reach his potential and Chris Johnson gets Doc Brown to take him back to Chris Johnson circa ’09, things could get interesting in Nashville.
Sunday Ticket Status: 7. This team is as bland as Miracle Whip. Even when Vince Young was in town with all of his shenanigans, this team wasn’t on your to-do list if you weren’t a diehard. But that Chris Johnson can be electric.
Bottom Line: The Titans really haven’t made any improvements so it stands to reason that the only way they can make the postseason is if other teams that are supposed to, don’t.
Indianapolis Colts — Projected Record: 6-10, 3rd place in division
Last Year: What can be said about the Colts season last year that hasn’t already been said? Peyton Manning went down and, not surprisingly, so did Indianapolis’ chances. Their 2-14 finish was abysmally depressing and their mishandling of Manning was even more disgraceful. The only good thing about coming in dead last is things can’t get any worse, right?
Key Additions: QB Andrew Luck, TE Coby Fleener, TE Dwayne Allen, WR T.Y. Hilton, DT Cory Redding, DT Brandon McKinney, OT Winston Justice, C Samson Satele, S Tom Zbikowski, WR Donnie Avery, RB Mewelde Moore
Key Losses: QB Peyton Manning, WR Pierre Garcon, C Jeff Saturday, TE Dallas Clark, TE Jacob Tamme, CB Jacob Lacey, RB Joseph Addai, LB Gary Brackett, S Melvin Bullitt, WR Anthony Gonzalez, LB Philip Wheeler, DE Jamaal Anderson
Strengths: The new new. Like an Etch A Sketch, the Colts shook up the whole team, from top to bottom, and started fresh. There’s a new coach, a new franchise quarterback and a host of other fresh faces. With the past behind them, it’s all about making a new name for themselves.
Weaknesses: Defense. There are some big changes afoot on defense and that spells trouble. Look for opposing teams to take advantage of the Colts’ growing pains as they implement a spankin’ new 3-4 defense.
X-Factor: Luck/Wayne. Everything hinges on Luck connecting with Manning’s former flame, Reggie Wayne. If these two can bring some of that old Colts’ magic together, watch out.
Sunday Ticket Status: 9. You’ll be bombarded by this team, win or lose, because of Luck and his quest to fill one of the biggest pairs of cleats the NFL has ever seen. Add to that the full-throttle Twittering of Jim Irsay and you’ve got a huge heaping pile of must see TV.
Bottom Line: Between Luck and the rest of the additions, the Colts should be able to improve their record by about four games. They will all make mistakes together as they figure things out, but the team is building a great foundation.
Jacksonville Jaguars — Projected Record: 5-11, 4th place in division
Last Year: The Jags were remarkable at being unremarkable. Outside of Maurice Jones-Drew delivering stat gold to fantasy footballers, this team took a drubbing at every turn save for its lone bragging rights victory over the Ravens in Week 7.
Key Additions: WR Justin Blackmon, DE Andre Branch, WR Laurent Robinson, CB Aaron Ross, QB Chad Henne
Key Losses: DE Aaron Kampman, RB Deji Karim, WR Kassim Osgood
Strengths: Defense. If this team has any strength at all, it’s the defense. No bells, no whistles. Just solid.
Weaknesses: QB. This team would have sold its soul to get Tim Tebow. The hometown hero took his talents to Broadway and the Jags are left with Blaine Gabbert. Gabbert was the worst of the worst last season. He didn’t have much of a receiving corps, but the Mizzou product fell well short of expectations. He has to bring it this season if the Jags hope to turn things around.
X-Factor: MJD. It all comes down to Maurice Jones-Drew. If his holdout drags on, things can only get worse for Jacksonville. If the two sides can come to an agreement and he suits up, the focal point of the offense will continue to go through MJD.
Sunday Ticket Status: 2. The Jags are about as watchable as paint drying. Without a marquee star or interesting team makeup, Jacksonville has no draw and no sheen. They could have added some intrigue with the signing of Olympic track star Jeff Demps, but they let New England snag the speedster.
Bottom Line: With no real upgrades, Jacksonville will struggle to even match last year’s win column. Last season, they avoided last place simply because the Colts had no reliable QB. Now with Luck in the fold, the Jags will reclaim their rightful place at the end of the line.