Tuesday, September 7, 2010

2010 NFL Predictions - AFC South

Indianapolis came within 15 minutes of a second Super Bowl title in four seasons last year, and a key to that loss may have been triggered over a month earlier. After a perfect 14-0 start to the season, head coach Jim Caldwell decided to pull his starters the following week up 5 with just over 5 minutes to go in the third quarter against the Jets. The Colts went on to lose that game and then be embarrassed 30-7 at Buffalo seven days later. Any momentum they thought they were taking into the playoffs was gone, especially considering they would be sitting out the first round. They came back strong, thumping the Ravens and Jets on their way to their matchup against the Saints, but one has to wonder what could have been had Caldwell just stuck with what got them to 14-0 and didn’t play it safe. The Texans were a bit streaky, winning three, losing four, and then winning their last four to finish the year. They just missed the playoffs. Tennessee finished third but had a better year than most expected. Jacksonville was bad, finishing with their second losing season in a row, a season that included losses in five of their last six contests.

Predicted order of finish

1) Indianapolis Colts
The Colts are clearly the class of the AFC South. With the best in the business running the offense and tremendous weapons at his disposal, there’s no reason to think they won’t at least win the division once again for the seventh time in eight years. Heck, last year Anthony Gonzalez, the player who was supposed to replace Marvin Harrison, went down with a knee injury. Enter Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon. All they did was go on to catch a combined 107 passes, accumulate 1,441 yards, and score 11 TDs. On defense, I love the addition of Jerry Hughes as a rotational pass rusher who can learn under Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney. Gary Brackett got paid this offseason, and he strikes me as a guy who will work harder after getting a big deal than he did to get one. A lot would have to happen to knock the Colts off the mountain considering that you can count on the offense to operate at an elite level as long as Peyton Manning is on the field. Oh, and if I’m Coach Caldwell, I’m playing my regulars every game this year until the outcome has been decided.

Reasons for optimism –
-Peyton Manning still wears a Colts helmet on Sundays
-Four legit passing weapons in Wayne, Clark, Garcon, and Collie
-Antoine Bethea’s development at safety and Melvin Bullitt’s performance in Bob Sanders’ absence

Potential pessimistic pitfalls –
-The offensive line can’t repeat their spectacular pass protection
-Daniel Muir and Antonio Johnson fail to get stout against the run
-More critical injuries at CB

2) Houston Texans
Houston finished the ’09 season with a winning record and in second place in the AFC South, both franchise firsts. The primary reasons for that success were the performances of the pass and catch combination of Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson. In his third season as a starter, Schaub led the Texans to an NFL-best 290.9 yards passing per game. It’s no secret I’m very fond of his abilities and think he can be one of the league’s better passers for a long time. Schaub made the first of hopefully many Pro Bowls last year by throwing for 4,770 yards (270 more than his next closest competitor; that Manning dude). I think he can improve upon his 29-15 TD-INT ratio and start to take over more games as his confidence and comfort grow. Arian Foster is a big sleeper at RB this season. Expect big things from him. If the defense can clamp down and create some key turnovers, the Texans could finally earn a trip to the postseason. The initial ’09 Defensive ROY, Brian Cushing, has been suspended for the first four games of the year for violating the league’s substance abuse. In the strangest defense of a violation I’ve seen so far, camp Cushing claimed the linebacker suffered from overtrained athlete syndrome, which is apparently a condition that causes testosterone levels to reach abnormal highs. Either way, he’s out for the first four games of the year.

Reasons for optimism –
-Schaub and Johnson are two of the best at their positions
-Arian Foster’s strong finish to ’09 and continued development this offseason/preseason
-Kareem Jackson and Quin Glover form a potentially (eventually) lethal corner combo

Potential pessimistic pitfalls –
-Owen Daniels takes too long to recover from his torn ACL
-Brian Cushing’s early absence leaves a big hole on defense
-Amobi Okoye continues to disappoint at DT

3) Tennessee Titans
The Titans finished third in the division last year after leading the pack in ’08 with a 13-3 record. That said, the season wasn’t a complete disappointment. First there’s Chris Johnson, the game’s most electrifying talent. The third year back from ECU left the league in his dust, rushing for 2,006 yards (an amazing 5.6 yards per carry), or 590 more yards than second place Steven Jackson. Johnson contributed another 50 catches for 503 yards and had 16 total TDs. The second surprise of ’09 was the re-emergence of QB Vince Young. After a horrible 0-6 start, the Titans made a change at QB, replacing Kerry Collins with Young. The former Longhorn went on to win the next five straight games and finished with an 8-2 record as starter for the year. Young is never going to win any passing titles, but he brings scary athleticism to the QB position and teams with Johnson to give the Titans two guys in the backfield capable of busting some field-flipping plays. Tennessee was one of the worst defenses in the league last year, allowing a sad 365.6 yards per contest. As a reference, the Buccaneers allowed the exact same number of yards per game last year. The Titans were really poor at defending the pass, ranking 31st in the league with 258.7 yards allowed through the air per contest. Courtland Finnegan is one of the league’s better cover men but has zero help on the other side.

Reasons for optimism –
-Chris Johnson is a threat to score every time he touches the football
-Courtland Finnegan might be allowed to shadow #1 receivers this year
-Jason Jones and Tony Brown are an underrated pairing up front at DT

Potential pessimistic pitfalls –
-Vince Young reverts to 2008 Vince Young and then having to turn to 37 year old Kerry Collins
-Kenny Britt fails to step up and give Young a true #1 receiver
-Michael Griffin’s shoulder falls apart again

4) Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars were disappointing on both sides of the football, finishing 4th in the division for the second time in a row. One player who gets to skate blame is RB Maurice-Jones Drew. In his first season without having to share carries with Fred Taylor, MJD ran for nearly 1,400 yards and scored 15 rushing TDs. He wasn’t as big of a factor in the passing game, but I expect that to change this year. Is Mike Sims-Walker for real? As blah as the offense was, Jacksonville’s defense was the more disappointing unit last year. They were 27th against the pass, allowing 236 yards a game through the air and surrendered 28 scores on the season. Tyson Alualu may have been drafted a little high, but I like what he brings to the defense. I also expect big things from Terrence Knighton, the guy lining up next to him.

Reasons for optimism –
-MJD has proven himself to be a reliable, franchise RB
-Alualu and Knighton could be the next Stroud and Henderson
-Kirk Morrison boosts the LB unit

Potential pessimistic pitfalls –
-Mike Sims-Walker playing like a #2 WR instead of the #1 he was last year
-Fielding a 27th ranked pass defense yet again against Manning and Schaub twice a year
-Early poor play leads to whispers about the futures of both David Garrard and Jack Del Rio

Conference Awards
MVP (best talent in biggest role) – Peyton Manning
Offensive POY (most impressive season) – Chris Johnson
Defensive POY – DeMeco Ryans
Offensive ROY – Damian Williams (by default)
Defensive ROY – Kareem Jackson
Offensive Breakout Player – Arian Foster
Defensive Breakout Player – Terrance Knighton

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