Wednesday, June 27, 2012
2012 AFC South Season Preview
Guest Post by Niles Pender of NFL Fan Appeal
The AFC South, essentially since its inception, has been one of the least interesting divisions in the NFL to talk about. Discussion about it began and ended with the Indianapolis Colts, who ruled the division for the better part of a decade. Sure, other teams would make it look competitive: The 2007 Jaguars gave the Colts fits, and the 2008 Titans even managed to steal the crown for a season. Indianapolis always ended up returning to the top, though.
All of that changed in 2011, when Peyton Manning missed the season. It changed for good on March 8th, when Indy released Mannning and tore up most of its roster. Gone are mainstays such as Gary Brackett, Dallas Clark and Jeff Saturday. Even head coach Jim Caldwell and general manager Bill Polian are gone, replaced by the combination of new head coach Chuck Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson. The Colts are now taking a long position by drafting Andrew Luck and adding dozens of new faces to the team. By opting to rebuild around rookie quarterback Andrew Luck instead of trade the pick and make one last run with the same core, the AFC South has been left up for grabs.
Houston is the clear favorite to overtake the division. In 2009 and 2010, Houston appeared to be right on Indy's heels. Their 2011 squad was an absolute powerhouse, and it's likely that they would have beaten the Colts even if they were healthy. Anchored by Arian Foster, Andre Johnson and Matt Schaub, the Texans rolled to a division title even after losing Schaub just after the halfway mark of the season.
For 2012, Houston fans can expect more of the same. Foster and Johnson are back, and a healthy Schaub will presumably be lined up under center come September. The Texans did suffer a couple of major losses in Mario Williams and Demeco Ryans, so the defense isn't going to be at the same level. Despite this, the defense will still easily rank in the top ten and might still place in the top five.
The other team to keep an eye on as a potential division winner is the Tennessee Titans. Even though many viewed the team as an afterthought last season, they were actually very close to winning the division. They finished at 9-7 and barely missed the playoffs. A couple of key differences will help Tennessee once the 2012 season kicks off. Their pass rush was arguably their weakest point last season. To address this, the team acquired Kemerion Wimbley, a former Oakland Raider who is expected to do big things for the defensive unit.
The other big differences in 2012 will be in the return of different players. Kenny Britt, who suffered a season-ending ACL injury last season, will be back. His presence on the field was definitely missed by the Titans last year, so having him back on the depth chart will be huge. Having Chris Johnson will also make a big difference. Although Johnson played through all of 2012, his season was hampered by an extended holdout that didn't allow him a full training camp and preseason. Having had the chance to reload for 2012, Tennessee could be a surprise in the AFC South.
Of all of the AFC South teams, the 2012 Jacksonville Jaguars are the least compelling one. They've simply dug themselves into a hole over the years, with Maurice Jones-Drew being one of the few Pro Bowl-caliber players on the roster. Second-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert might develop into a solid quarterback over the next couple of seasons, but last year he was clearly thrust into the starter's position too early. To put it nicely, Jacksonville has needs at every position with no quick fixes in sight. Jacksonville fans would be doing themselves a favor not to hold their breath on any surprise successes in 2012.
With Peyton Manning now gone for good, the AFC South is going to have a completely different look in 2012. The Colts and Patriots will still have their annual game, but the rivalry now feels different. Houston looks like the early favorite to take the AFC South title, but Tennessee can also compete. Either way, this year's AFC South represents a permanent changing of the guard, and whoever wins it this year will be setting themselves up for the next few years.
Posted by Tiger Hebert at 7:44 PM