Superstar quarterback Peyton Manning is looking to lead the Colts to a 9th consecutive playoff appearance.
Though I would love to talk about the TO Show arrival in Cincinnati, I will hold off and continue with my NFL Divisional previews. This is another division where 3 teams could easily win 8 or more games. A division that features a Colt’s team looking for redemption, a Titan’s team looking to continue to roll, and a Texan’s team still trying to get over the hump.
AFC South: Colts, Jaguars, Texans, Titans (alphabetical order)
Jacksonville Jaguars (4th place): I do see the Jacksonville boys ending up in the divisional cellar for the 3rd consecutive year. This team is not terrible by any means, but playing in the AFC South is no easy task. The Jaguars feature a middle of the road offense and a fairly sub par defense. In this division, a weaker defense will get lit up by a team like the Colts. Jacksonville has still not adjusted to the new look “pass first” NFL. Garrard is a decent quarterback, but Jacksonville has not shown enough confidence in the guy, which in my eyes has led to him struggling the past couple of years. Do not expect to see Garrard have an over 100 passing rating as he did in 2007. Now Maurice Jones-Drew has developed into one of the League’s elite running backs, but there is no compliment for him. There is no dual running back threat, plus the receiving corps is not the best, led by Mike Sims-Walker. Do not expect to see this team come out victorious in shootouts with teams like the Colts. Then on the defensive side of the ball, the Jaguars feature one of the League’s weakest secondaries and do an okay job at stopping the run. Can Daryl Smith at linebacker lead this unit to respectability? You better believe the loss of savvy veteran John Henderson is going to hurt. I do not expect this team to win more than 7 games, but I could see them stringing together 5 or 6 victories.
Tennessee Titans (3rd place): Who cares if Jeff Fisher and the Titans are suing Lane Kiffin. Doesn’t it seem like everyone wants a piece of USC right now? This team has a strong offensive attack that features possibly the best mix of run/pass in the League. This is a differentiating factor that this team has in their repertoire. They can both run and pass the ball, and not just do one or the other in desperation. The Titans got off to a horrific start last year and fought their way back into contention behind the former Texas Longhorn, Vince Young. Expect this team to wake up from hibernation much earlier this year. We all already know about the Chris Johnson show. Last year’s League leader in rushing yards. Also, we know that this team has a compliment for Chris in Lendale White. Lendale truly pounded the rock on the goal line reminiscent to how the old bus (Jerome Bettis) used to do it in Pittsburgh in the 2008 season. Maybe Tennessee will return to this tactic if Chris doesn’t score from 70 yards out every game? But this team is definitely lacking a number 1 receiver. Kenny Britt and Nate Washington are solid, but neither is ready to be a number 1 receiver on a playoff team. Also do not be surprised to see former USC standout Damian Williams making some noise at the 3rd receiver spot towards the end of the season. But the real question is can this team’s defense hold their opponents in check? Most directions point to no. The loss of their defensive leader Keith Bullock will really sting on a defense that was already reeling. I feel that overall team defense and the lack of a number 1 receiver will cost this team a playoff spot barely. I see them finishing 8 and 8 or 9 and 7 though, but coming up just short. Next offseason they will need to get a number 1 receiver and improve the defense to really make a run at this thing.
Houston Texans (2nd place): For a 4th consecutive year, I see these boys falling just short of their 1st playoff appearance in franchise history. I feel like this team is definitely good enough, but drawing the NFC East is the deciding factor that will prevent them from advancing on. The Houston Texans have a fairly punishing defense led by DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing (Cushing will miss the first 4 games due to suspension though). Easily one of the top 5 linebacking units in the League though. They also have guys like Mario Williams on the line who can really play. Do not be surprised if this team finishes in the League’s top 5 at stopping the run. The question is can their secondary do as well as their front 7? Offensively, this team has developed into one of the League’s elite. They fit the League mold of being a pass happy team. They have one of the most dangerous aerial attacks in the NFL led by their superstar Andre Johnson and quarterback Matt Schaub. This guy may be the best receiver in the AFC or the entire NFL. Can Kevin Walter step up as a big time number 2 threat to relieve some of the pressure off of Andre? I feel the play of Walter in the 2 slot could really make or break this team’s playoff chances. He needs to produce much better than he did last season. The Texans also have a solid running back in Steve Slaton, but will truly miss the production of Ryan Moats. Though this is a pass first team, it is truly a mystery who is going to step up and be the 2nd back. If Brian Cushing was not suspended for the first 4 games, and they were not matched up against the NFC East, I would have this team finishing 10 and 6 or 11 and 5 and easily claiming a Wild Card. I think they are very close to the Titans and they should finish within a game of each other. But I do see them coming out 9 and 7 and falling just short of the playoffs.
Indianapolis Colts (1st place): The boys from Indianapolis will make the playoffs for the 9th consecutive year. The legendary career of Peyton Manning will continue to roll. This team still has the capability of putting up big numbers offensively, though last year the flash seemed to have disappeared. The Colts really did not blow opponents out, but did just enough to win. And believe me, Indianapolis was fine with their 14 and 2 finish and appearance in the Super Bowl. Their plus 109 point differential was only 5th in the League, even though they had the most wins. I mean who really cares though? Peyton Manning does as good or a better job than any other quarterback in managing the game and spreading the ball around to all of his targets. He does not necessarily have the best targets anymore, but in Michael Jordanesque fashion, he turns them into stars. Guys like Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie and Dallas Clark have really reaped the benefits. Who had ever heard of Garcon or Collie before last year? Joseph Addai is one of the League’s best running backs at doing what he needs to do to help his team win. He will not blow you away with his numbers, but he will do just enough. Also look for Donald Brown to carry more of the load than he did last year as he enters his 2nd season in the NFL. Then you look at the Colt’s defense and you have guys like Bethea, Session, hopefully a healthy Bob Sanders, and I could go on. The Colt’s defense last year typically bent, but did not break. And was a key in the 14 win season. Expect more of the same style this year. Also do not sleep on stars like Dwight Freeney and Gary Brackett. This is a solid defense that has the luxury of playing on a team that features Peyton Manning offensively. There are no dramatic changes to this team from last year’s AFC Champions. These guys are just tough and they know how to win. Never question Peyton Manning’s ability to win games. Expect to see these guys make another deep run in the playoffs.
So there you have it, another year with the Colts on top. But also do not sleep on the Texans susprising some people and sneaking into the playoffs. If they did not have to play the NFC East this year, I would definitely have the Texans as a Wild Card team (sadly they play the NFC East). Should be a fun year in the AFC South.
Stay tuned for the next edition of TheSportsKraze.