Two quarterbacks with zero NFL starts and a 2nd year signal caller with a career 65 QB rating are all that stand between the Texans and another division title. Oh, and good health. That seems pretty important, too.
1. Houston Texans
As I mentioned several times (here and here), I believed the Texans would have been the NFL’s 2011 champions had Matt Schaub not been lost to injury. A year later – with a healthy Schaub and Andre Johnson – and the Texans are still mostly forgotten behind the Patriots, Ravens, Steelers, and Broncos. Unlike the aforementioned teams, the Texans have an easy road to the playoffs. In fact, they’re likely to be the AFC’s top seed if they can remain healthy. Arian Foster is the best running back in football and his backup could start for close to 20 other teams. Sure, Mario Williams left for Buffalo and the Texans dumped their starting left tackle, but what made Houston so great in 2011 was their balance and depth. Besides, the defense will play six division games against two quarterbacks with zero starting experience and a 2nd year quarterback (Blaine Gabbert) that plays like he’s never started before. Am I ready to declare the Texans NFL or even AFC champs? No, but they’re as close as any other team.
DWC’s Take: Texans – Injuries derailed the Texans run at a title in 2011 and I fear a repeat in 2012. Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson both have a history of injuries and both are critical to the team’s success. Without them, Arian Foster is on an island. I’m also worried what the defense will look like without Mario Williams. But ultimately, with this division, the Texans would have to drop a serious egg in order to miss the playoffs.
2. Tennessee Titans
I’m on the Jake Locker bandwagon. While I don’t see the Titans winning the AFC South, I like their chances of stealing that second Wildcard berth from the Bengals/Chargers/Broncos/Bills cluster. After a dismal 2011, it’s easy to write off the Titan offense. However, Chris Johnson isn’t 30. He’s 26. It was a bad year. It happens. And let’s not forget Kenny Britt’s excellent play to open 2011 before an injury removed him from the season. The media likes to forget about guys who get in trouble with the law, but Britt wouldn’t be the first receiver to succeed despite off the field troubles. While I could be trying to convince myself of this because he’s on my fantasy team, it’s true nonetheless. Just ask Randy Moss.
DWC’s Take: Titans – Does Chris Johnson get a mulligan for his performance last season? He can blame it on a contract, the offensive line, or whatever other excuse he conjures up, but the reality is he was extremely disappointing. With Jake Locker getting the nod under center, Johnson is going to need to return to form to help the young kid out. This team should be competitive. They went 9-7 without a great year from Johnson and despite Matt Hasselbeck’s struggles. An easy schedule is in their favor so I fully expect the Titans to be waiting in the wings if a playoff team, or even the Texans, slip up.
3. Indianapolis Colts
The whole organization is too savvy to suffer back-to-back horrific seasons. Last season’s struggles were to accomplish a goal. Now that that goal has been accomplished (hi, Andrew Luck), the Colts will go back to building title contending teams on a yearly basis behind superior quarterback play. Is it too early to assume Luck will be that good? Perhaps. But I’m sold on Luck leading the Colts to at least a seven win season and back to being legitimate contenders within a few seasons. Unlike other young quarterbacks (RGIII, Bradford, Gabbert), Luck has a strong organization behind him.
DWC’s Take: Colts – It’s going to be extremely weird not seeing number 18 running things for the Colts. And while I was not the biggest fan of how it played out, the Colts had no choice but to draft Andrew Luck and move Peyton Manning (even my Colts-fan friend admitted such). I like Luck. I think he’s ready to thrive in the NFL and the Colts still have enough veterans on the team to be competitive. 2011 was a fluke. No one knew how bad Manning was hurt and the lockout made it impossible to prepare. It was a perfect storm of disaster. I expect the Colts to fight in this division and finish near .500.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
I never understood the urgency to pay all that money to Maurice Jones-Drew. Is he one of the best backs in football? Unquestionably. On the other hand, what has the team accomplished with him in the past four seasons? Not a single playoff appearance. Not a single winning season. The stadium is still empty. Look around the NFL. You don’t win by paying running backs ungodly sums of cash. This isn’t the 90’s where you can trust Emmitt Smith or Terrell Davis to carry you to a title. You need an elite quarterback and a ferocious pass rush to win in this league. The Jaguars went 5-11 with MJD in 2011. Finishing 3-13 in 2012 without him AND saving all that dough would have made the franchise better in the long run. But what do I know.
DWC’s Take: Jaguars – I just checked the Jaguars’ team stats and was surprised to see how good their defense actually was. It finished in the top-10, which I never would have guessed. Unfortunately, they couldn’t pass the ball at all, finishing as the worst passing team in the league. In what has become a passing league, a 32nd place finish will doom any team regardless of how good their defense may be. If Maurice Jones-Drew isn’t on top of his game or plays with a poor attitude (see DeSean Jackson 2011), Blaine Gabbert will be even worse than he was last year. And that seems impossible.
For those keeping score, last season’s AFC South predictions:
Me: IND, HOU, JAC, TENN
DWC: IND, HOU, TENN, JAC
Actual Results: HOU, TENN, JAC, IND
Score: DWC 1, Me 1, Fail 2 *We’ll void this one.