AFC South Division preview: A whole new look
When it comes to the NFL and teams hailing from the south there is an abundant supply of story lines this season - and we’re not even talking about New Orleans.
The AFC South takes on a new look in 2012 with future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning now a member of the Mile High club and his replacement, Andrew Luck, hoping to fill some mighty big shoes in Nap Town.
After taking a year off with neck surgery and watching his beloved Indianapolis Colts suffer though a ghastly 2-win season last year, Manning was released and quickly lured to Denver by John Elway.
Quarterback issues also surround the other three teams in this division, with Houston anxious to work Matt Schaub back into the starting lineup following an injury-shortened season last year, while Jacksonville and Tennessee hope the compulsory maturation of Blaine Gabbert and Jake Locker happens sooner than later.
Meanwhile, the defending division champion Texans lost all-pro defensive stud Mario Williams to free agency and as a result will rely more than ever on defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ playbook.
Two notes of interest concerning the AFC South: Since its inception in 2002, this division has been a home dog haven, with its members going 63-44-1ATS, including 37-20-1 during the second half of the season.
In addition, this contingent has dominated the NFC North, its non-conference antagonists this season, going 14-3 SU and 12-5 ATS all-time against losing teams from the Black-and-Blue division, including 8-0 SU and ATS in games when the South is off a loss.
Through it all look for the South to continue to rise in 2012.
Designated ‘Play On’ and ‘Play Against’ Best Bets follow each team’s preview.
Team Theme: NO MORE HORSING AROUND
The phrase ‘we’re not a one-horse town’ was never more evident than last year in Houston’s run to its first-ever playoff berth. To illustrate Houston’s improved play on the field, after splitting out 8-8 ‘In The Stats’ in 2010, the Texans dominated foes in 2011, going 14-4 in the stat wars. Further illumination comes from the fact that Houston’s three best players, DL Mario Williams, WR Andre Johnson and QB Matt Schaub missed 26 games combined with injury last year, yet still managed to rule foes statistically behind its 2nd-ranked defense and its 2nd-ranked rushing game. While it’s an old formula that’s tried and true, running the ball and stopping the run has fallen by the wayside in this day of pass-happy football. We realize passing yards have increased 60 YPG in the NFL since it introduced new rule changes in 2004, but when you have a horse like Arian Foster in the backfield, you complement him with an excellent coaching staff and let him go. Between Gary Kubiak’s playbook, Rick Dennison’s offensive mind and Wade Phillips’ defensive schemes, the Texans are standing tall these days.
PLAY ON: vs. Baltimore (10/21)
STAT YOU'LL LIKE: The Texans held six foes to season-low, or 2nd-low, yards last season.
IN THE STATS: The Texans were 14-4 ‘ITS’ last season.
Team Theme: BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO
The big news surrounding this franchise this offseason was the announcement that Bill and Chris Polian are out of the front office. In addition, Jim Caldwell was given the boot. Enter Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, who takes over as head coach. Included in the new face lift are changes to key personnel, too, including pink slips to the likes of Dallas Clark, Jeff Saturday, Pierre Garcon, Joseph Addai, Anthony Gonzalez, and so on. The big news, though, was the selection of QB Andrew Luck as the No. 1 pick of the draft. Two tight ends, two wide receivers and an additional quarterback were also plucked in the draft as it’s out with the old and in with the new in Nap Town these days. In addition, the defense also gets a redo, installing the hybrid 3-4 system used by Pagano in Baltimore. Three players from the Ravens’ defense were added to help fast-track the changes. Like sh*t, it’s what happens when you go from a nine-year playoff run to a 2-win season. Oh yeah, this just in… Peyton Manning was released and will be performing with another horse act in Denver.
PLAY ON: Pass
STAT YOU'LL LIKE: The Colts lost more games last year in the regular season than they did the previous three years combined.
IN THE STATS: The Colts were 1-7 ‘ITS’ at home last season.
Team Theme: COLOR ME NEW
A new coach, new owner and new uniforms will be the look of the 2012 Jaguars. The question is will they be a better team? Our best guess is yes, and it starts with the fact that they can’t get any worse. Ranked last in total offense and passing, new coach Mike Mularkey’s first move was to bring in passing specialists OC Bob Bratkowski and QB coach Greg Olson. Coupled with Mularkey’s offensive mindset, better days indeed lie ahead for QB Blaine Gabbert, last year’s No. 1 pick who was force-fed in an effort to stave off the imminent unemployment of Jack Del Rio. A ground game which averaged 123 yards per game is spearheaded by the NFL’s leading rusher in Maurice Jones-Drew. WR Justin Blackmon, the 5th pick in this year’s draft, brings an added dimension to the passing game. The defense, which improved 53 YPG last season despite being on the field far too often, beefed up with four players chosen among the Jags’ six selections in the draft. It’s no malarkey… the Jaguars are on their way back up.
PLAY ON: as a dog vs. Cincinnati (9/30)
STAT YOU'LL LIKE: The Jaguars are 7-0-1 ATS away with division revenge the past five seasons.
IN THE STATS: The Jags failed to gain more than 325 yards in a single game last season.
Team Theme: ABOVE AND BEYOND
Considering the circumstances, the nine-win effort by Mike Munchak in his first year with the Titans last season was extraordinary. Munchak took over after Jeff Fisher’s 16-year marriage with the Titans was annulled and immediately encountered a four-month lockout by the NFL. Then, after a new coaching staff hurriedly got on the same page with QB Matt Hasselbeck, WR Kenny Britt was lost to a knew injury the third game of the year and star RB Chris Johnson suffered a subpar season following a nasty holdout. With Britt and Johnson back – and Nate Washington developing into a 1,000-yard wired receive in Britt’s absence – the Titans have to feel awfully good about last year’s near-miss from the playoffs. And if QB Jake Locker is able to win the job from Hasselbeck, it means the future is ‘now’ in Tennessee. The Titans will need to fix a leaky defense that was way too soft against the rush and a youth movement has begun to address the problem. With five of their seven drafts picks targeting defensive players, Munchak aims to take his team to the next level.
PLAY AGAINST: as a favorite vs. NY Jets (12/17)
STAT YOU'LL LIKE: 13 of the Titans’ 25 losses the last three years have been by 8 or fewer points.
IN THE STATS: The Titans allowed season-high, or 2nd-high, yards in 5 of their first 7 games last year.