By Steve Shackelford
Cold, Hard, Football Facts sole survivor of the Alamo
The AFC South is set to bring extraordinary battles all season long.
No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck spiced up the South and there's young-blood at quarterback everywhere but Houston.
But don't feel bad for the Texans: they are are budding statistical powerhouse with talent all over the field.
The race for division supremacy will be tighter than 2011, and the Houston Texans are in no way guaranteed a repeat title victory.
Primarily, the Tennessee Titans look to be a team capable of upsetting the front-running Texans.
Let's take a look around the South, each team's over/under numbers, and see if who will exceed expectations or fall well-short of their goal.
All lines courtesy bovada.com
Jacksonville Jaguars (Over/Under: 5.5)
Last year: O/U – 6.5 (Under 5-11)
THE CASE FOR OVER
Improved ability to get the ball down field
The Jacksonville Jaguars suffered from the worst quarterbacking in football last year, by every measure: they finished dead last in Real Passing Yards Per Attempt, Offensive Passer Rating and Real Quarterback Rating.
Gabbert, the 10th overall pick in the 2011 draft, was officially named the starter in Week 3 of last season against the Carolina Panthers, so he is going to get most of the blame, and rightfully so. He was terrible.
Jacksonville threw for only 2,300 yards in 2011, the lowest of any NFL team. They averaged just 143.75 yards passing per game. Yikes.
In fact, the next closest team was the sorry St. Louis Rams, and they put up 2,930 yards through the air. General manager Gene Smith jumped the Rams in the 2011 draft to grab receiver Justin Blackmon.
The addition of first-round pick WR Justin Blackmon and free-agent receiver Laurent Robinson signals that the organization is at least trying to improve their passing game.
MJD could be back in uniform
Running back Maurice Jones-Drew was just about the only bright spot on the Jaguars’ offense in 2011. He rushed for more yards than any running back in the NFL. However, he carried the ball more in 2011 than any other back in the league, or at any point in his career.
Jones-Drew’s 343 carries for 1,606 rushing yards didn’t help the Jaguars win games, but his absence can certainly make life harder for quarterback Blaine Gabbert.
If Jones-Drew is on the field Week 1, or sometime soon thereafter, the Jaguars are certainly more likely to come away with wins. Jones-Drew can’t carry the entire team on his back. No running back can, as the Cold, Hard Football Facts proved during the off-season here and here. But they will definitely be better off with him. Pay him again if that’s what he wants.
THE CASE FOR UNDER
It appears as if it will be quite easy for the Jaguars to win less than five games in 2012. They might even lose all 16 of them. The Jaguars are not in for an easy ride this year. Aside from tough division match-ups, the Jaguars play the New England Patriots, the Green Bay Packers, and the Detroit Lions. Those should all be guaranteed losses.
Every other team in their division finished above the Jaguars in the final 2011 Quality Stats Power Rankings, except the Indianapolis Colts. In fact, the Colts are the only team on the Jaguars’ 2012 schedule who finished lower in the 2011 rankings.
The Colts are already looking much improved, the Houston Texans are Super-Bowl contenders sitting atop the rankings list, and the Tennessee Titans finished in the middle of the pack (16th).
If the Jaguars are lucky, they might be able to beat the Oakland Raiders in Week 7. Even that seems doubtful though.
Instability at quarterback
Quarterback Chad Henne was brought in by the Jaguars this off-season from the Miami Dolphins. Henne started strong in 2011 with a 416-yard passing game against the New England Patriots. After a season ending injury, the Dolphins decided not to re-sign Henne, and the Jaguars offered him a two-year deal.
Henne may very well be the best quarterback on the team right now, but there is a reason the Dolphins let him go. He is not franchise quarterback material or the solution to any team’s problems.
He went 4-4 with the Dolphins in 2010 as a starter and was yanked out for Chad Pennington. A quarterback change mid-season will certainly mean a rocky start, and will lead to an ugly finish.
Gabbert should be allowed to make mistakes all season long as Henne likely won’t fix anything.
Jacksonville won’t make the playoffs. They will likely hit the under and struggle to win even three games. If Gabbert is a dud, then it will be back to the drawing board for the Jaguars. It looks to be a long, long season for Jaguars fans. UNDER 5.5
Houston Texans (Over/ Under: 10)
Last Year: O/U – 8.5 (Over 10-6)
THE CASE FOR OVER
Great protection for Matt Schaub
The Houston Texans finished as the No. 1 team in 2011 on our Quality Stats Power Rankings and are a force to be reckoned with in 2012.
The center position and entire left side of the offensive line for the Texans is in for another productive year. Left tackle Duane Brown is arguably one of the best in the game, allowing 2.5 sacks, committing zero holding penalties and only two false starts in 2011.
Brown established himself as a worthy protector of Schaub and his success in 2012 is crucial to keeping Schaub on the field. However, the right side of the offensive line is unproven and could potentially be a liability for the Texans.
Schaub took very few hits due to the offensive line and his season-ending foot injury occurred on a quarterback-sneak play in 2011. If the offensive line holds up and the Texans 86 the sneak from the playbook, Schaub should be able to stay on the field all 16 games.
Talent at the skill positions and on defense
Running back Arian Foster averaged 4.4 yards per carry on 278 attempts in 2011, and caught 53 passes for 617 receiving yards. That production proves that Foster is a serious threat all over the field.
Keeping Foster healthy for 16 games and feeding him the ball will certainly increase the chances of the Texans winning more than 10 games this year.
A healthy Andre Johnson will also help. The Texans not only lost Schaub for six games last year, Johnson missed nine games.
Meanwhile, the Texans were devestating on defensive in 2011, actually improved when Mario Williams missed action, and first-round pick Whitney Mercilus may be another great addition to a team loaded with young defensive talent.
THE CASE FOR UNDER
Take a step back defensively
In 2011, the Houston Texans finished 4th overall in the category of Negative Pass Plays, behind only Philadelphia, Baltimore, and the New York Giants. The Texans impressively ended up second overall in Defensive Passer Rating, one of the strongest indicators of a team’s success in the NFL.
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ squad concluded the 2011 season with the lowest allowed completion percentage of any team in the NFL, allowing opposing offenses to complete passes on only 51.86% of attempts. If the defense stumbles even a little bit, it could mean terrible things for the Texans.
Phillips is a brilliant defensive coordinator. But the standards were set high in 2011. If this unit digresses in 2012 it will result in fewer wins.
The Texans may be strongest team in the league this year, at least as measured by our Quality Stats. They are poised to make a Super Bowl appearance this year and will likely dominate the AFC South with ease. Their division rivals are all sporting young quarterbacks with very little NFL experience.
The Texans will take home the division crown again this season and likely have a very deep playoff run. Who knows, they might even be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, and maybe steal away a few Dallas Cowboys fans. OVER 10
Indianapolis Colts (Over/ Under: 5.5)
Last Year: O/U – 9.5 (Under 2-14)
THE CASE FOR OVER
Andrew Luck lives up to the hype
With the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft, the Indianapolis Colts selected quarterback Andrew Luck. The Colts finished with their worst regular season record since 1991 last season. In order to win more than five games in 2012, the Colts desperately need Luck to be a high-level performer.
So far, Luck looks extraordinary in preseason for a rookie; although reading too deeply into preseason effectiveness is somewhat useless due to defensive squads usually playing vanilla sets in order to evaluate their individual talent.
Once Luck gets a look at some confusing reads and shifts, he may not fare so well early. As the top-pick in the draft, the pressure will be on, but Luck should find solid footing by Week 4 or 5, and be able to win a few games for the Colts.
The Colts learn how to play defense
The Colts defense allowed a higher percentage of completed passes than any other team in the NFL during the 2011 season. Our Quality Stats indicate the Colts struggling defense enabled their opponents to complete passes 71.20% of the time. No other team in the league managed to give up 70% of passes attempted.
If the Colts want to win a single game in 2012, they have to solve their defensive problems. Luck and company might be able to score points, but they aren’t miracle workers. Without a much-improved defense, the Colts are more likely to win the lottery than five NFL games.
THE CASE FOR UNDER
Putting too much faith in Luck
Luck is a rookie. Sometimes rookies breakout their first year, and sometimes it even translates into wins. However, Colts fans seem to think Luck can fix all their problems right away simply because he was the No. 1 overall draft pick. The Carolina Panthers won only six games last season, despite Cam Newton’s impressive rookie performance.
The Panthers didn’t focus on limiting opponents scoring, and allowed 32.38 points per game in 2011. It didn’t matter how well Newton performed.
If the Colts put all their faith in Luck without focusing on improving in other areas, they will continue losing games. The Colts allowed 28.8 points per game in 2011, and Luck likely won’t be able to put up as many points on the board as opponents in his rookie season.
The Colts made the right decision this off-season by letting go of Peyton Manning and drafting Andrew Luck. Luck is the future of the franchise, and although they may only win a few games, they still have a shot of hitting the over if things go their way.
Both division games against the Texans are probably going to be losses, but they could still make an impact within the division if they knock off Tennessee at least once, and Jacksonville will likely roll over for just about everybody in 2012. UNDER 5.5
Tennessee Titans (Over/Under: 7)
Last Year: O/U – 6.5 (Over 9-7)
THE CASE FOR OVER
Jake Locker steps up
Head Coach Mike Munchak named quarterback Jake Locker as the starter for the 2012 season over veteran Matt Hasselbeck. Munchak and the Titans reportedly have no plans of trading Hasselbeck and think his presence is pivotal for the continued development of Locker.
The Titans finished 14th overall in Real Passing Yards Per Attempt in our Quality Stats, with Hasselbeck in the driver’s seat at the start of the season and Locker playing in the final five games of 2011. The Titans averaged 6.45 real passing yards per attempt and finished 9-7.
Sadly, Locker concluded the season with a 1-4 record, but his performance late in the year and through the off-season was encouraging enough to secure his position as starter.
Locker looked impressive in preseason for a young quarterback, and quickly developed a rapport with rookie wide receiver Kendall Wright while Kenny Britt was on the PUP list. With Britt back in action soon and Wright ready to explode, Locker could easily win games for the Titans in 2012.
An improved pass rush
The Titans finished second to last in the NFL for total sacks, behind only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The below-average sack numbers (28) contributed to them being dead last in the category of Defensive Negative Pass Plays for 2011.
Defensive coordinator Gene Smith’s 4-3 defense not only ended the season with the second to lowest sack totals, but finished third to last in total yards lost on sacks behind only the Buccaneers and the Carolina Panthers.
Coming away with 11 interceptions in 2011 is nothing to be ashamed of, but if they can add more sacks then the chance of winning will certainly increase. Smith’s defense appears to have made this adjustment in the off-season and noticeably put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks in preseason games. Smart move.
If the Titans continue to limit big plays and pressure the quarterback, they could be contenders for an AFC South title. If they can demolish opposing quarterbacks with devastating hits, it will make their secondary even better.
THE CASE FOR UNDER
Chris Johnson is already past his prime
If you argue that Locker desperately needs a formidable run game to open things up down field, he may be in for a long wait.
After all, Chris Johnson has simply not regained the devastating form he displayed in 2009. He rushed for only 1,047 yards in 2011, a significant drop from his 2009 season, and fewer yards than 2010. Johnson also started slower than Mississippi molasses last year, averaging just 45.75 YPG through the first eight games. He did increase his average to 85.125 YPG in the final eight.
Locker should hope Johnson gets off to a stronger start and avoids serious injury, although Javon Ringer has looked promising at times and could lift some of the weight.
Touchdowns are going to be impossible to come by for the Titans if Locker fails to get it done through the air and Johnson continues to fizzle.
Nate Washington's consistent numbers will suffer a drop off
Through all 16 games of 2011, Nate Washington always managed to do one thing: catch at least one pass. Washington fought his way to 1,023 receiving yards total and averaged 63.9 YPG in his seventh NFL season.
Washington's 4.6 catches per game could see a slight drop with the emergence of Wright and the continued progress of Britt, but Locker needs Washington's consistency to remain at a high-level.
More importantly, Locker needs to look Washington's way. If Locker favors greenhorn Wright early and often, it could mean a drop off for veteran Washington, who could make a crucial catch when a game is on the line.
After all, Locker could use a security blanket. And Washington's performance in 2011 proves he should still be the go-to-guy. Overlooking the veteran receiver could be costly for the Titans.
Winning more than seven games is certainly an achievable goal for the Titans. They finished 9-7 in 2011 and Munchak was in his first year with the team. Every team was affected by the lack of an off-season due to the NFL lockout, but it was certainly tougher on first-year coaches. Being able to develop Locker in the off-season will certainly make this squad better.
It is unlikely they will make a deep playoff run in 2012, but they might just make things interesting for Houston, so watch out. OVER 7