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2008 Preview: AFC South

August 27, 2008

The AFC South was the toughest division in the NFL last year. No teams had a losing record and the Colts, Titans and Jaguars all advanced to the playoffs. The Texans had a .500 season for the first time in their brief history, and showed a lot of positive signs. Whether or not the division can be as good is a question that remains unanswered, but there’s no doubt that it will once again be competitive and exciting for neutrals and fans alike.

Houston Texans

Prediction: 9-7, 3rd in division

The Texans were a much improved team in ’07, and were able to record their first non-losing season as a franchise. The addition of Matt Schaub proved to be a savvy decision (especially given what happened to Atlanta after his departure), and one of the youngest defensive units in the NFL began to show consistent production. 2008 should continue to build on a successful ’07 campaign.

There are 3 reasons why this team didn’t win more than 8 games last year: Matt Schaub’s injury, Andre Johnson’s injury and a terrible running game. Schaub and Johnson were dynamic when they were both on the field, racking up TDs and yards week upon week. Johnson is one of the best receivers in the NFL when healthy, and Schaub is accurate if not spectacular. However, when those 2 weren’t around (despite Sage Rosenfels playing very well) the team couldn’t lean on the run like most teams would if their starting QB was hurt. Ahman Green is very very injury-prone and guys like Ron Dayne and Adimchinobi Echemandu have been released since season’s end.

To try and improve this running game, the team added Chris Brown from the Titans and drafted tackle Duane Brown and ex-West Virginia speedster Steve Slaton. Brown is as brittle as sheet glass, but Slaton could be the guy to emerge in Houston. He was an unstoppable force with the Mountaineers, setting school records and outrunning entire defenses every week. He may be small and relatively light for the position, but he’s had a very good preseason and may just be the missing link in the Texans’ backfield, if D. Brown can help to solidify an iffy O-line.

DeMeco Ryans holds the keys to Houstons defensive success.

DeMeco Ryans holds the keys to Houston's defensive success.

Defensively, Houston will continue to lean on its talented front seven. Mario Williams probably should have been in the Pro Bowl last year, DeMeco Ryans was in it, and Amobi Okoye looks to be adjusting well. Ryans will anchor proceedings again, and the Texans will hope he has another 150+ tackles this year. If Okoye can disrupt inside, expect the giant Williams to have another great year and earn his #1 pick status. If the secondary can up its play even a little, this team could establish themselves for years to come.

If they weren’t in the AFC the Texans would make the playoffs, but they’ll finish 9-7 and beat the Titans on points scored to lift themselves out of last for the first time. If Schaub and Johnson remain healthy, they could do even better.

Indianapolis Colts

Prediction: 12-4, 1st in division

The Colts were defending champs last year, and thus had a few problems: Marvin Harrison, Bob Sanders and Dwight Freeney all missed games with injuries and Peyton Manning had to watch Tom Brady break his touchdown record. But they still managed to win the AFC South for the 4th straight year, and look pretty good doing it too.

Expect to see a lot more of this in 08.

Expect to see a lot more of this in '08.

So little has changed for the Colts offensively in the last few years that you can expect the same system and players to return every year until Peyton Manning retires. The offense will use Joseph Addai’s considerable skills to make defenses cheat up, whereupon Manning, Wayne, Clark, Gonzalez and the now-healthy Marvin can terrorise them through the air. Indy brought back Dominic Rhodes to back up Addai, but after Kenton Keith’s emergence don’t expect the ex-Raider to see too many touches.

The Colts will also be much the same defensively, with Sanders and Freeney now returning fully healthy which will be a huge plus. Freeney draws blockers to him which means more one-on-one blocking for Robert Mathis who can also be a dominant force. Sanders’ presence forces teams to throw outside, where corners Kelvin Hayden and Marlin Jackson enter their second season as full-time starters. Expect this unit to finish in the top 10 once more.

Overall, the Colts are essentially the same as they were in ’07, but Freeney, Harrison and Sanders’ returns to 100% means that they’ll be back to Super Bowl calibre. The Jags have made huge strides, but Indy is still the best team in the AFC South.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Prediction: 11-5, 2nd in division

Tipped by many as this year’s chic Super Bowl team, Jacksonville had a terrific season last year, wherein it found a reliable starting QB, continued its rushing dominance and defensive suffocation and beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh in the playoffs. They fell short in the AFC divisional round against the perfect Pats, but looked excellent throughout the season.

After the depature of Fat Albert (sometimes known as Byron Leftwich), David Garrard took over the QB reins and performed admirably, knowing that all he has to do is not give the ball away. He threw just 3 INTs last year which is astounding, and kept drives going (with his legs or his arm) to allow the suddenly evergreen Fred Taylor and Pocket Hercules (Maurice Jones-Drew) to pummel defenses into submission. However, the main problem for the Jags continues to be the WR corps. They acquired Jerry Porter and Troy Williamson, but neither has been consistent and the recent arrest of Matt Jones (“no officer, that must be someone else’s cocaine”) means that even if he makes the roster he’ll likely miss time/maybe the whole year. Ernest Wilford left for the Fins and Reggie Williams needs to stop dropping the ball over the middle, but if Porter, Williamson, Jones or Dennis Northcutt can emerge to support the crushing run game, the Jags will be superb this year. However, the Jags’ run-first style of play means that they’ll never outperform the Colts on offense.

Defensively, however, it’s a different story.

Gregg Williams agressive blitz schemes could make the Jags D the leagues finest.

Gregg Williams' agressive blitz schemes could make the Jags' D the league's finest.

The team may have traded Marcus Stroud to Buffalo, but the additions of Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves in the draft mean that as long as John Henderson continues to eat blockers alive in the middle they’ll be plenty of pressure. Mike Peterson will continue to lead the line at middle linebacker, and the dreadlocked tandem of Reggie Nelson and Rashean Mathis (at S and CB respectively) are opportunistic and agressive. All of this plays nicely into the hands of new DC Gregg Williams, who will use this athletic group to utterly dishearten opposing offenses; Williams is the best acquisition this team has made.

In almost any other division the Jags would be the best team by a clear distance. However, in this ultra-tough AFC South they will continue to sit behind the Colts in the regular season because of a lack of threats at receiver. Despite this, they could still make a decent Super Bowl run. Just because they finish behind Indy, doesn’t mean they can’t outperform the Colts in January.

Tennessee Titans

Prediction: 9-7, 4th in division

The Titans’ playoff appearance in ’07 was baffling to everyone, including the team’s fans. Vince Young suffered from a sophomore slump/Madden Curse combo which meant that he threw almost twice as many picks as TDs. The team was one of the worst passing teams in the league, and it was only the defense that bailed them out of falling below .500.

The Titans’ very poor passing game last year has prompted a few changes offensively, with Justin Gage and Roydell Williams now looking unquestioned as the 2 starters. Jeff Fisher also brought back Mike Heimerdinger as OC to help VY’s progression – Heimerdinger turned Steve McNair into a league MVP, and the T’s hope Young can also profit. However, the Titans’ decision not to pick up a receiver in free agency or in the first 2 rounds of the draft was a bizarre one, especially considering they had the choice of any WR in the draft at pick #19 in round one. The team did add Alge Crumpler as a reliable pass catcher, but the lack of any true deep threats may well hurt Tennessee in ’08.

Albert Haynesworth is the key cog for the Titans D.

Albert Haynesworth is the key cog for the Titans' D.

However, as is so common with Fisher’s teams, the running game and the D will be the focus of attention. Fisher plays smash-mouth football: run well and stop the run. Hence the team franchise-tagged its best run-stopper (and arguably best player) in Albert Haynesworth, and solidified the RB position by adding the 4.24 speed of East Carolina’s Chris Johnson in the draft. Johnson will be a great change-of-pace back to the 260lb LenDale White, but teams will continue to cram the box whilst Young continues to struggle aerially. Defensively, stalwarts like Haynesworth, Bulluck and Kyle vanden Bosch will return, and the emergence of Courtland Finnegan and Michael Griffin in ’07 stabilises the secondary.

Ultimately, though, this team goes as far as Young takes them. Whilst I think Young will return to his rookie year form or maybe slightly better, if he plays well then Tennessee could challenge the Jags and Indy atop the division. Young and Fisher know how to win games, but I don’t think the offseason has improved their scoring ability a whole lot. The Titans will slide to 4th this year unless #10 or A Receiver steps up in a big way.

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