Five years ago, the AFC South was was 20 games over .500, best for any division over the past 27 years.
But in 2011, the South slipped to a cumulative 10 under .500 thanks to the Colts’ train-wreck 2-14 season while Peyton Manning (neck) sat out and eventually was released.
Thus, Houston took the opportunity to be the new alpha dog.
This season, the Texans are overwhelming picks to take division honors again, this time at odds of 1-5 at the LVH Superbook. No other division favorite is that heavy a choice.
Tennessee appears to have the sole chance of unseating Houston at the top. Here is how the division standings should look at season’s end.
Last season, defense carried Houston (10-6) to its first division flag, with coordinator Wade Phillips receiving much credit for unit’s leap from No. 30 on the total defense charts in 2010 to 2. So stout was the defense behind LB Brian Cushing, the Texans’ leading tackler, that it held three straight foes to less than 175 yards, a feat unsurpassed in the league the past 11 years.
But it was the offense that eventually sabotaged Houston.
Before QB Matt Schaub was lost for the year after Week 10, the Texans were 7-3 and at that moment the AFC’s top seed. Houston was averaging 13.9 yards a completion – 0.4 better than anyone else. But afterward, Matt Leinart and rookie T.J. Yates averaged only 10.9 yards a throw.
Schaub is back and so is standout WR Andre Johnson after missing nine games last season with hamstring issues in both legs. He also had knee surgery in the offseason. And this summer he has been hobbled by a groin injury. At 31, where does it end with this guy?
At least Houston has RB Arian Foster, fifth on the rushing chart with 1,224 yards in 2011 despite missing three games. Backup Ben Tate is a load, too. It seems only another injury to Schaub can derail the Texans.
Hopes hinge largely on the improvement of RB Chris Johnson, who was a 2,006-yard rusher three seasons ago with a norm of 5.6 a carry.
But since? He signed a rich contract late last summer after an extended holdout and then totaled only 1,047 yards and had a pedestrian norm of 4.0 a carry, although did pick up the pace late.
Maybe this season he’ll have a fully stocked adrenaline reservoir to fight back at critics who said he was collapsing at the first whiff of contact and turning into Franco Harris by running out of bounds. Yet Tennessee still finished with a 9-7 mark and just missed out on the playoffs because of a tiebreaker.
At QB, the Titans appear to be in good shape with veteran Matt Hasselback and sophomore Jake Locker waging keen competition for the No. 1 spot. While it would be nice to have dynamic WR Kenny Britt back after he missed 13 games with a knee injury last season, he might not be worth the trouble because of his penchant for winding up on police blotters.
Defensively, the team will have to cope with the loss of stud cornerback Cortland Finnegan, who followed the money to St. Louis. He’ll be missed by a unit that held foes to 5.86 yards a pass in 2011, the fifth-best rate in the NFL.
The club’s death spiral from 14-2 in 2009 to last season’s 2-14 ledger is unprecedented. No other NFL team ever had a 12-game drop in 24 months. Then again, not every team ever had a 14-win season, either.
Indy’s hopes are on rookie QB Andrew Luck, the first overall draft pick, who takes over as the face of the franchise from Manning. But even that future four-time MVP went only 3-13 his first year in 1998 with more INTs than TD passes (28/26). So miracles shouldn’t be expected from Luck, especially behind a line that ranks among the worst in the NFL.
On defense, veterans Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney are back as a pass-rushing tandem, but this time as linebackers instead of DEs in the new 3-4 scheme for first-year head coach Chuck Pagano. But as good as those guys are at harassing QBs, the Colts forced only five fumbles by passers last season, tied for second fewest.
What’s up with that?
The fact Indy is essentially starting over enables Luck, his mates as well as the coaching staff to be able to enjoy their honeymoon season without feeling much pressure.
They are 200-1 to win the Super Bowl, tied for the highest number on the board. That speaks volumes about a team that saw longtime coach Jack Del Rio lose his job and the team change ownership in the past nine months.
New coach Mike Mularkey will be stepping into pretty much of a troubled situation. But it won’t be his first such experience. At Buffalo in 2004, he took over a 6-10 team and won nine games. But not so fast putting Jaguars in that company.
Last season, RB Maurice Jones-Drew became the first rushing champ to perform for the league’s worst-ranked overall offense in 60 years (Eddie Price, Giants). Predictably, he is now in a protracted holdout and no matter how this turns out, it’s probably not going to be good.
If MJD gets the money, what are the chances he’ll get complacent? And if he doesn’t get a new deal, maybe he’ll pout or not show up.
Then again, the Jaguars might already be destined to be losers if second-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert plays like he did last year when he was the worst-ranked passer in the league. Not to mention he’s listed as having the most fumbles last year with eight.
But all is not hopeless. In 2009, Detroit’s Matthew Stafford had a rookie passer mark worse than Gabbert’s. But last year, he was the NFL’s fifth-rated passer.
Next week: NFC West