Saturday, September 12, 2009

2009 AFC South Preview

No team in the AFC South should have a losing record, which is a testament to the strength of the division since it means that when they aren't beating up each other the Colts, Jaguars, Titans, and Texans are dominating their out-of-division opponents.  At least one AFC wild card berth will come from the South, just as it has 5 of the 7 seasons the division has existed.  Thanks to Peyton Manning and a relative even-ness to the other teams, I have the Colts coming out on top, but don't be surprised if any of the other three teams makes a run at the division crown, even everyone's favorite sleeper, Houston.

y-Indianapolis Colts 12-4
x-Jacksonville Jaguars 10-6
x-Tennessee Titans 9-7
Houston Texans 9-7

BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis
For the first time since Tony Dungy was hired in 2002, the Colts will have a new coach--Jim Caldwell--on the sideline.  Under normal circumstances, this would be a cause for at least slight concern, especially when the new coach is replacing a man who went 85-27 with five division titles and a Super Bowl championship.  With Peyton Manning under center, however, the circumstances in Indianapolis are far from normal.  Manning has arguably been calling his own plays for perhaps his entire career, and Dungy pretty much left Peyton and offensive coordinator Tom Moore to their own devices.  While Dungy was a complete class act and inspiration, it was Manning who dished out tough love, from rightfully calling out his "idiot kicker" to criticizing his line for blown protections.  As far as the offense is concerned, Manning is the head coach.  Considering his amazingly consistent statistical performance (at least 3700 yards and 26 TDs in every season of his career) in addition to his unquestioned leadership of the Colts offense, the argument could be made that Manning is the most indispensable player in the league.* 

*The only other player who comes close is Ray Lewis, and while Lewis could just as easily be considered the "coach" of the Ravens defense, his play has slipped way, waaay below the level Manning is still playing at.  

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Mario Williams, DE, Houston
Remember back in 2006, when Reggie Bush was the next Gale Sayers, Vince Young had just single-handedly won a national title, and Matt Lienart--the man Young beat for the championship--was the greatest college quarterback ever?  And then the Texans, with the number one overall selection, passed up each and every one of these sure-fire stars to take Williams, a nondescript defensive end from an equally nondescript 7-5  NC State team?*

*How does a team with three first round defensive linemen (Williams, Manny Lawson, and John McCargo) go 7-5?

Man, people lost their minds.  They couldn't believe the stupidity of Houston, especially after Bush really did look like the next Gale Sayers in his rookie year (1514 total yards, 9 total TDs) while Williams only registered 4.5 sacks. Flash forward to opening weekend 2009, and not only is Williams not a bust (26 sacks the past two seasons), but the Texans look like geniuses for passing on those three other "sure things."  So what happened?  Well, Bush answered all of the questions about his ability to stay on the field for every down by struggling to stay on the field every down, all while carrying a career yard per carry average (3.7) over a full yard less than that of Sayers (5.0).  Vince Young carried a gun in his glove box while he took a late night drive to clear his head after he lost his starting job to Kerry Collins, and Lienart was replaced in the Cardinals starting lineup by Kurt Warner and in the best college QB ever argument by Tim Tebow.* 

*Which is also a stretch.  To me, the best college QB ever was Tommie Frazier of Nebraska.  A four-year starter, Frazier put the Cornhuskers in position for a national title vs. eventual champs Florida State in the 1993 Orange Bowl (a last second field goal sailed right), engineered a fourth quarter comeback vs. a Miami defense that included Ray Lewis and Warren Sapp to win the '94 Orange Bowl and national title, and led the greatest college football team ever in a 62-24 evisceration of previously undefeated Florida in the '95 Orange Bowl for a second consecutive title.  In addition to his team success, Frazier also is the only player to be named MVP of three national title games (yes, he won the MVP in '94 despite the loss.  He was that good.)

As for Williams, he has been a one-man terror for a somewhat shaky Texans defense, accounting for 46 percent of the Texans 56 sacks over the past two seasons.  If rookie Brian Cushing can draw some attention away from his side of the line, Williams could be in for his most monstrous season yet.
BEST COACH: Jeff Fisher, Tennessee
When Fisher took over for Jack Pardee eleven games into the 1994 season, the then-Houston Oilers were 1-9 and were in the midst of an 11-game losing streak.  The starting quarterback on any given Sunday was either Billy Joe Tolliver (62.6 QB rating), Bucky Richardson (70.3 QB rating), or Cody Carlson (52.2 QB rating).  Together, this three-headed shitstorm combined for 3213 yards, 13 TDs, and 17 INTs, all while completing only 49.5 percent of their passes, and only Tolliver would ever appear in an NFL game again.  The point is, if you could have picked any coach from 1994 who would still be coaching for the same team in 2009, let alone be considered one of the three best coaches in the league, Jeff Fisher would probably be one of the last guys you'd pick (especially when you factor in the moving of the franchise, an event that even the great Bill Belichick couldn't survive in Cleveland/Baltimore).     


1. Can Houston win on the road?*
Not yet.  The Texans were 2-6 away from Reliant Stadium last season, with the two wins coming at Cleveland (no big deal, especially since Brady Quinn was knocked out of the game for the Browns) and at Green Bay (a bit of a big deal, except that instead of being able to build on the impressive feat of winning in Lambeau in December, the Texans then lost their last road game in Oakland).  With no signature wins to build on, and pretty much the same team coming back, the Texans lack the experience to know what it takes to win on the road.  The good news for Houston is that they are a great home team, which should allow them to stay in the playoff race until the final day of the season. 

*The bigger question, of course, is whether Matt Schaub can stay healthy or not.  Since being acquired by Houston, Schaub has missed 5 games each season, which is unfortunate since he's been pretty good in the games he has played (3043 yards, 15 TD, 10 INT, 66.1 % completion rate in 11 games last season).  If the Texans are going to achieve the first winning season in their 7-year history, Schaub is going to have to avoid his annual 5-game hiatus.      

2. Will Vince Young ever play for the Titans again?
Yes, and I think he will start, and I think it will happen this year.  Kerry Collins was exactly what this team needed a year ago: a steady hand.  With the defense weakened by the departures of Albert Haynesworth and coordinator Jim Schwartz, however, the Titans offense is going to actually score points this season, and whenever Kerry Collins has been asked to score points--by which I mean run a proactive offense that isn't just trying to stay out of its defense's way--he has usually failed.*  Vince Young, on the other hand, has made things happen in his career.  Yes, he's a head case, and yes, he sometimes wouldn't run the plays that were called for him, but he is still ten times the talent Kerry Collins is.  And with the advent of the Wildcat, I could see his free-lancing actually becoming a strength.  Don't you think defensive coordinators around the league would fear an offense featuring Young, Chris Johnson, and LenDale White lined up in the same backfield, ready to attack a thousand different ways?  Besides, I think the Titans are going to come back to earth a bit this season, and shouldn't they at least see what they have in Young instead of watching Kerry Collins play what could be his last season? 

*Don't believe me?  Look at his career numbers here and tell me where I'm mistaken. 

3. Can Maurice Jones-Drew carry the entire load for Jacksonville? 
Sure, but I don't think it's going to make that much of a difference in terms of his production.  Last season, Jones-Drew gained 824 yards on 197 attempts for a 4.2 average to go along with 12 rushing TDs.  If you bump his attempts up to 300 (which is probably his max), then his yardage goes to 1260.  His TDs, however, will probably remain the same, because even with Fred Taylor here, Pocket Hercules was getting all of the goal line carries anyway.  The same goes for Jones-Drew's receiving numbers (62 catches, 565 yards, 2 TDs), since the Jags never threw the ball to Taylor, either.  The concern, of course, is that with a greater workload the yards per carry may go down, but Jones-Drew's style (if not his frame) seems suited to pounding out yardage on a pretty regular basis.  While more of the same should be expected from MJD, the reason I have Jacksonville bouncing back is the dramatic improvement of an offensive line that should give David Garrard time to find the first true receiving option he's ever had, Torry Holt.  If anyone's looking for a fantasy sleeper, look Garrard's way.  He should be poised for a huge year.

2009 NFC East Preview 
2009 NFC North Preview 
2009 AFC North Preview  
2009 AFC East Preview 
2009 NFC South Preview 
2009 AFC West Preview 
2009 NFC West Preview 
2009 NFL Preview Schedule

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