AFC South Preview: Indianapolis Sets The Tone
The AFC South is a division in transition, with new coaches for the Tennessee Titans (Ken Wisenhunt) and Houston Texans (Bill O’Brien). The Indianapolis Colts ran away with the AFC South a year ago and with Andrew Luck’s star on the rise, are a solid favorite to make it two straight division titles and three straight playoff trips. Here’s a look at all four AFC South teams, followed by some early predictions.
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ANALYSIS & HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE FROM AROUND THE SPORTS WORLD
Offense: This is an offensive line that doesn’t get the credit it deserves. I’m not saying the Colts’ line is going to remind anyone of the Washington Redskins’ Hogs, or even that Indy is going to establish an interior running game. But the Colts have two good offensive tackles in Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherlius, and they have a good package of skill players in Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton and Dwayne Allen.
You get a wide range of opinions on Andrew Luck. Statistically he’s fairly mediocre, but if you factor in clutch play, his value rises. Which is closer to the truth? I view him positively—while the supporting cast is underrated, Luck certainly doesn’t have the same kind of help that Colin Kapernick does in San Francisco or Russell Wilson in Seattle.
At the same time, I feel the view of some who are rushing Luck to elite status is tainted by their insane rush to declare him the best quarterback of a generation during his senior year at Stanford in 2011. For the record, my generation includes the entire careers of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, John Elway and Brett Favre just for starters.
So if opinion on Luck is a bell curve, put me down on a rung somewhere below the highest level. I don’t think he’s great, but if I’m a betting man, I’m more than happy to have him in my corner in the fourth quarter.
Defense: The back seven is fairly pedestrian, which makes Robert Mathis’ great pass rushing ability all the more valuable. Mathis had a year that should have earned him Defensive Player of the Year a season ago (he finished second to Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly) and he’ll need to do it again this year. Indy should be able to do a reasonably good job at stopping the run, but their pass defense is heavily dependent on Mathis getting to the quarterback.
Offense: Tennessee was always at its best when they could run the football effectively and that’s probably going to hold true again this year. The left side of the line, anchored by tackle Michael Roos can lead the way, but is there a running back left who can exploit the holes? Shonn Greene seems more suited to be a backup and Dexter McCluster is unproven, and I can’t really see him getting the ball 15-20 times a game.
The passing game has the same conundrum. The receivers, Nate Washington and Kendall Wright are pretty good, but do you have any confidence in Jake Locker’s ability to deliver them the ball consistently? I don’t.
Defense: This unit is intriguing, because a review of their depth chart shows no obvious weaknesses. If you get a team that doesn’t beat itself, there’s at least a chance some of their playmakers could come through and turn this into a good defense. The best candidate is defensive end Jurrell Casey, although asking an end in a 3-4 scheme to have a huge statistical year is asking a lot.
Offense: There is no reasonable basis for hope that Jacksonville can move the ball consistently. This is purely a developmental year for quarterback Blake Bortles, the third overall pick, running back Storm Johnson and offensive tackle Luke Joeckel, the first overall pick in last year’s draft, but who played only 12 snaps in 2013. Bortles and Johnson are each products of Central Florida—when an NFL team is shamelessly drafting locals, you know things have hit rock bottom.
Defense: This is the scenario for Jacksonville coming up with a respectable defense in 2014—get good years from defensive ends Red Bryant and Chris Clemons, which makes the 4-3 scheme effective at pressuring the quarterback. Get a good year from corner Alan Ball and cause problems for opposing quarterbacks targeting their best receiver. Get a good year from middle linebacker Paul Poszlusny, and slow down inside running games.
Is that an unreasonable scenario? No, it’s not. But nor is it the sign of a unit bursting with talent. The Jacksonville defense will be better than its offense, but that’s only unequivocal positive we can give the D right now.
Offense: I’m not one who usually overreacts to quarterback situations. Other than the extreme cases at the top and bottom, I think most quarterbacks are interchangeable and it depends on the supporting cast. In the case of Houston, that cast includes a good offensive line, Arian Foster in the backfield, Andre Johnson as the #1 receiver, and another potential star at wideout in DeAndre Hopkins.
Here’s the problem—I consider Ryan Fitzpatrick to be one of those quarterbacks that could blow the whole thing up. Perhaps Case Keenum could do better, but that’s a big leap of faith. It’s a testimony of how bad the Texans quarterbacks are that even Tom Savage—who was up and down in his college career at Pitt—has a legitimate chance at playing time. Bill O’Brien has a reputation as a quarterback coach, and that will be sorely tested in his new gig.
Defense: The presence of J.J. Watt at defensive end and the return of linebacker Brian Cushing are big reasons why Houston’s defense should at least be respectable. The secondary is also pretty good. The big question that looms over this team is whether Jadeveon Clowney will validate his status as the first overall pick in the draft.
I’m not at all persuaded that Clowney is conditioned well enough—both physically and mentally—to play hard for 16 games. In the games that he does, he and Watt will make a ferocious tandem. But if it’s not an every week thing, then Houston’s defense will be merely decent, rather than outstanding.
For right now, predictions are limited to whether I think each team will go Over/Under its win prop number in Las Vegas. Just prior to the regular season, I’ll make an exact pick on each team’s record.
Indianapolis (9.5): The Colts have won 11 games each of the last two years, and Luck still has room for improvement. Indy could regress to 10 wins and I still get the Over. That’s the side I’m taking.
Houston (7.5): For a team that went 2-14, this is a pretty generous number, requiring them to get to .500 before an Over ticket can be cashed. My guess is that oddsmakers are trying to split the difference between those who think 2013’s record is a reflection of reality and those who think it an aberration and that the 2011-12 AFC South champs will reassert themselves. I don’t think Houston is 2-14 bad, but there’s no way I’m betting them to reach .500. I take the Over.
Tennessee (7.0): I can see Tennessee getting to 7-9, and even 8-8 and getting the Over is not unreasonable. The problem is, I don’t see a ceiling any higher than eight wins, and it’s not hard to fathom a scenario where the bottom falls out if they have one of the top three picks in the draft next year. With more room on the Under side, that’s where I’ll go.
Jacksonville (4.5): You have to be a really bad team to get notoriously conservative oddsmakers in Las Vegas to post a number this low, but the Jags have earned it. If they win five games, Gus Bradley should be Coach of the Year. No offense to Coach Bradley, but I’m going there. Take the Under.