As a division, the AFC South belongs to the Texans. Yes, the Titans could very well improve on their 9-7 record and 2011 playoff appearance, but back in Week 7 last year, Houston beat Tennessee 41-7. The Titans won their second meeting 23-22 late in the season, but had no meaning for Houston. Both the Colts and Jaguars are re-building with unproven players at QB. The point is, head-to-head, Houston should have their way with the rest in the AFC South. It's amazing how the division has changed in recent time. The once-dominant Colts will probably finish last, and the former doormats from Houston will likely finish first. The Texans just have to develop a more aggressive 'take it' mentality.
Houston Texans: It's easy to say the Texans are a possible Super Bowl team. And as much as their great players are the main reason for this, everything changed in the right direction when Gary Kubiak hired Wade Phillips to run his defence. In one year the Texans went from 32nd to 3rd in pass defence and 30th to 2nd in overall defence. Even with the loss of Mario Williams, they have a young rotation of pass rushers that suggests they can continue the excellence in 2012.
I am a strong believer that good players win, but I cannot remember a defensive co-ordinator that has made a bigger impact than Phillips in Houston. Maybe Dom Capers or Dick Lebeau , but not many have changed everything so fast and so effectively.
With maybe the best backfield combination in the league, Arian Foster and Ben Tate, and Matt Schaub throwing to Andre Johnson, there is little reason to doubt the offence either – unless the injury bug keeps these players off the field again.
What will make or break the Texans this year are the games against the NFC North . Houston will host Green Bay, play at Chicago and at Detroit within one month. Assuming Houston cleans up against divisional opponents, those three games may determine if the Texans will get home field advantage in the playoffs or be forced to play on the road. If they can beat those teams and grab home field advantage, they will have truly earned it.
That might be getting a bit ahead of things, but it's safe to say the Texans are a great bet to repeat as AFC South champions and should be among the favourites in the AFC.
Tennessee Titans: The Titans should be the second-best team in the AFC south, but it's tough to decide how good they will actually be. The No. 1 question is the development of Jake Locker at QB. Is he ready to take over from Matt Hasselbeck? Is he ready to take over and win? At one time, Locker was considered the best quarterback in the Pac 12, not Andrew Luck. How he progresses or regresses will determine the Titans fortunes for many years to come.
The other reason for excitement in Tennessee is the return of RB Chris Johnson, who missed training camp in a contract dispute and never got on track last season. Happy and healthy, Johnson is a game-breaker. Johnson can take over a game in two ways. First, he can score early and often and from anywhere. Second, once the Titans get in front, he can carry the ball to kill the clock and maintain the lead. Not many running backs can do both and do them as well as Johnson. With veterans on the offensive line such as guard Steve Hutchison and tackles Dave Stewart and Micheal Roos, we might see a 2,000 yard season from Johnson.
If Kenny Britt can stay healthy, stay focused and stay out of trouble, he can be a top 10, maybe even a top five NFL receiver, but that "if" word has to be eliminated from the conversation.
The Titans defense is a bit of an unknown. There are no big proven names and they lost some veterans in free agency. Can Tennessee defend everything Houston will throw at them? I don't see it happening.
With Mike Munchak as head coach, and Bruce Matthews as his top assistant, there is every reason to expect a very fundamentally sound Titans team this year. In 2011 they won nine games and could have won three others. With Johnson helping to protect Locker's development, I could see Tennessee winning 10 games and challenging for a playoff berth, but not first place.
Indianapolis Colts: I don't know if the success of the Colts is more dependent on rookie QB Andrew Luck or if it is more dependent on everyone around him. It was amazing to watch a team that had previously won 13, 12, 14, and 10 games disintegrate to 2-14 without Peyton Manning. And those two wins came against Tennessee and Houston, two pretty good teams, in weeks 14 and 16.
You know Luck is going to be good; it is just a matter of health and time. But how will the defence perform under new coordinator Greg Manusky? Last year they held opponents to under 20 points four times, but remember that Saints game in New Orleans in Week 7? The 62-7 loss was an all-time low for the Colts. Of the ten draft picks they made in April, only two were on defence.
The two most intriguing picks were the two TEs. Colby Fleener out of Stanford and Dwayne Allen out of Clemson have a special opportunity to grow with Luck and the offence. I think that the speed at which the defence and the rookie tight ends improve will be more important to Luck than his own personal improvement.
This is a new Colts team is many ways. Ryan Grigson is the GM instead of Bill Polian, Luck takes over at QB while Manning landed in Denver, there is a new physical philosophy on defence, eight new free agents and 16 former Colts gone - many with Super Bowl rings. But in the results-based era we live in today, I think the Colts are going to be a better team than anticipated. Indy opens at Chicago against Jay Cutler and the Bears. I don't see a win game one, but I see five or six wins over the 2011 schedule. That's better than most expectations and should be good enough for third in the AFC South.
Jacksonville Jaguars: It is difficult to see QB Blaine Gabbert moving for average at best to excellence I one year. Yes, he will have Maurice Jones- Drew, a good receiver in Laurent Robinson and an explosive rookie in Justin Blackmon, but after posting a 50 percent completion mark and a 12:11 touchdown to interception ratio and 13 fumbles, he has a lot to improve.
There are two points of major optimism, though. First, the Jaguars are a top ten defensive football team. They improved from 31st to 7th in one year, and have the same co-ordinator back in Mel Tucker. So as training camp moves on it is not about teaching as much reviewing what has already been taught, and that means the Jags might be able to ramp up the defence even more. Second, by the end of the season the Jaguars had 25 players listed on injured reserve, a remarkably high number. So if they can maintain health, quality depth will be available, a luxury that was not evident last year.
An unknown is new ownership. Shad Khan will bring a new energy, new money, and a new attitude. Sometimes it's the best thing that can happen (see Arthur Blank and the Falcons), or it can be the worst thing that can happen (see Daniel Synder and the Redskins). You don't really know until five years or so after the purchase.
An interesting fact about new head coach Mike Mularkey's staff. It includes five former offensive co-ordinators, including Mularkey himself. How is that going to be managed?
I don't like to put too much on the QB position because there is a lot more that that has to happen for a team to reach excellence, but in a division that has Shaub, Luck and Hasselbeck/Locker, the lowest bar is in Jacksonville. They will need another 1,606 yards from Jones-Drew this year, maybe more, and an early holdout isn't a good start. Jack to the back of the pack, fourth in the AFC South.