The NFC West has been the worst division in football since the league went to the current eight-division format back in 2002. However, the 2012 season marks one of the few years over the last decade in which one division is so putrid, so rotten, and just hopeless that it actually begins the year recognized as worse than the West.
Welcome to the AFC South, where T.J. Yates may have been the best quarterback in the division at the end of last year.
Peyton Manning’s injury and absence last season created a vacuum in the South. Houston was able to fill it for one year. But I’m not sure if that speaks to the talent and ability of the Texans or just how atrocious the other three teams in this league are. There are some bad defenses, some shaky offenses, and a lot of unproven young bucks under center just waiting for the opportunity to boom or bust. It should make for an erratic year and some more ugly football out of the South.
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Here is my NFL predictions and betting odds in my 2012 AFC South preview, with odds courtesy of 5Dimes:
Houston Texans Predictions
2011 Record: 10-6 (5-3 home, 5-3 road)
2011 Against the Spread: 9-5-2 ATS; 6-10 vs. Total
2011 Rankings: 13th offense (18th pass, 2nd rush); 2nd defense (3rd pass, 4th rush)
2012 Odds: 25/1 to win SB, 5/1 to win AFC, 1/4 to win AFC South, 10.0 wins O/U
Offense: No one can stop Houston from running the ball. The Texans were No. 2 in rushing last year despite the fact that Yates-to-Kevin Walter was their best passing option for a portion of 2011. This team has been playing in the same system for seven years. The Texans have finished in the Top 10 in scoring the last three years and the Top 5 in total yards in three of four seasons. But Houston is just like every other team – it needs its best players to stay healthy. Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson can now officially be called injury-prone, and if Arian Foster goes down the rushing attack with fall off a bit. Perhaps most troubling is that the Texans lost its starting right guard and right tackle. Offensive line issues have haunted this franchise since its inception so it is a little disappointing that once they seemingly got things figured out the line has been blown up. They have the most veteran talent in the division, though, and if Schaub is healthy he gives them an enormous advantage.
Defense: Wade Phillips has proven two things: that he is a total incompetent as a head coach, but that he is one of the best coordinators in football when working with a defense. The Texans were tough, physical and just flat-out nasty on defense last year. They hit as hard or harder than any team in the league and finished in the Top 5 in scoring and yards allowed. I do think that this team is going to miss DeMeco Ryans and Mario Williams more than they let on. The starting 11 is still very good but those two were A) difference makers and B) important to the overall depth and leadership on that side. Houston’s secondary was the most underappreciated part of this team last year. They allowed opponents to complete a league-low 51.9 percent of their passes. I don’t expect a repeat performance. But Houston should still expect the tempo to be set on this side of the ball.
Skinny: I am not nearly as high on Houston as a lot of people are heading into this season. The Texans are on the short list for the best teams in the AFC but I don’t regard them as a serious title contender. Yes, they had to deal with injuries last season. But so did teams like the Giants, Patriots, and Bears, all of which were clearly better than the Texans. Houston lost a lot over the offseason and they are no longer an overlooked team. I don’t trust the coaching staff and this group has been done in by slow starts in the past. All that said: they are still clearly the class of this division. Which is akin to being the tallest midget. They have more than enough easy home games to get back to 9-10 wins. But this isn’t a team I’m going to be in a rush to back in 2012.
Jacksonville Jaguars Predictions
2011 Record: 5-11 (4-4 home, 1-7 road)
2011 Against the Spread: 7-8-1 ATS, 4-11-1 vs. Total
2011 Rankings: 32nd offense (32nd pass, 12th rush); 6th defense (8th pass, 9th rush)
2012 Odds: 250/1 to win SB, 70/1 to win AFC, 15/1 to win AFC South, 5.5 wins O/U
Offense: Jacksonville’s offense was horrific last year. Blaine Gabbert was in way over his head and the Jaguars passing game was one of the worst we’ve seen in the last decade. A full offseason and a new, user-friendly system (the same one was helped the Bengals finish in the Top 13 in scoring from 2003-2007 and one similar to what Matt Ryan developed under in Atlanta) can only help Gabbert’s development. He has the arm strength and has shown some signs of big-time ability. But he is still young and there are big questions about how consistently accurate he can be and what his decision-making is like. The Jags brought in Justin Blackmon and Laurent Robinson to give Gabbert weapons beyond Mercedes Lewis. The offensive line is massive and physical and the core of a better-than-the-numbers-suggest No. 12 rushing offense. Maurice Jones-Drew is holding out at the moment. But I expect one of the best backs in football to be ready to go in Week 1. (He just doesn’t like training camp.)
Defense: By some Act of God, Jacksonville finished No. 6 in defense last year. I say that because their offense was so putrid you could’ve expected it to impact the D. It didn’t. And the Jaguars finished in the Top 10 against the run and the pass despite allowing a whopping 63.5 percent of passes to be completed. Their only addition was corner Aaron Ross, who is pretty good when he isn’t injured. This Jaguars front seven is very underrated and anchored by a powerful defensive line. These guys are immovable in the running game. But the Jaguars need to find a pass rush to help the backfield and to generate game-changing plays in their favor. Jacksonville was No. 25 in the NFL with just 31 sacks last year. They are light at outside linebacker now that it appears Clint Session’s career is over. But if the Jags can find some pressure – and get a little help from the offense – they could field a Top 10 unit again.
Skinny: This is one of my Sleeper Teams in the NFL this year. I know it doesn’t make much sense, but that’s usually how it goes with teams that come out of nowhere. I am impressed that the Jaguars won six games and had a top defense last year despite have a comically bad offense and rough schedule. Gabbert should get better. If he improves, and if Justin Blackmon can have any impact in the passing game (not at A.J. Green level, but something positive) then I think that these guys will run the ball and play defense well enough to stay in the mix. The Jags have a favorable schedule and I think they could match last year’s win total by Week 10. I predict at least a .500 season and I think the Jaguars have a chance to win this division.
Indianapolis Colts Predictions
2011 Record: 2-14 (2-6 home, 0-8 road)
2011 Against the Spread: 6-10 ATS, 7-9 vs. Total
2011 Rankings: 30th offense (27th pass, 26th rush); 26th overall (15th pass, 29th rush)
2012 Odds: 200/1 to win SB, 60/1 to win AFC, 12/1 to win AFC South, 5.5 wins O/U
Offense: Andrew Luck. Andrew Luck. Andrew Luck. Andrew Luck. Luck, Luck, Luckily Luck. That’s essentially all we’ve heard about the Colts this offseason. There is no doubt that he has excellent tools and the potential to be a very productive NFL quarterback. But I’m still skeptical that he can be the Savior that everyone has seemingly preordained him to be. Luck doesn’t have a lot to work with at the skill positions outside of Reggie Wayne, who stunningly re-signed with this team. And the offensive line has been in shambles for the past three years so he can’t expect a lot of help there. The Colts were -17 in Net Big Plays last year (plays of 20 or more yards on offense and given up by the defense) and they need to find a way to get the ball down the field. If Luck has time his talent will take over. This team only faces a handful of quality defenses from 2011 so he could get off to a fast start. But in general rookie quarterbacks are a mess so let’s not set the bar too high, too fast.
Defense: I don’t know where to start with the Colts defense. They were a joke last year, giving up 62 points to New Orleans and not holding a team under 23 points (the Jaguars, naturally) until Week 10. Indy is transitioning to a 3-4 defense, which basically neutralizes their two best players on that side of the ball, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. It won’t take long for teams to realize how easily they can exploit those two former rush ends in pass coverage. I am a fan of Pat Angerer’s work, but the up-and-coming middle linebacker left the preseason opener in a boot and could have his breakout season delayed. The starters in the secondary are adequate. But the problem with that group mirrors the biggest issues with this side of the ball: the Colts have the weakest depth in football on defense. Any run of injuries of ineffectiveness will leave massive holes.
Skinny: The Colts were outscored by 187 points on the season and were -12 in turnovers. Those numbers can only get better. By the end of the season they were actually a pretty good wage because they had played better than their 0-13 start suggested. In fact, seven of their 14 losses were by just one score and they played teams like Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Carolina pretty tough. But this team was also physically dominated by opponents and this year they are still light in their pads. I think they will wear down late in the year. But I can see them stealing four wins and being competitive throughout the majority of the season.
Tennessee Titans Predictions
2011 Record: 9-7 (5-3 home, 4-4 road)
2011 Against the Spread: 7-8-1 ATS, 5-10-1 vs. Total
2011 Rankings: 17th offense (12th pass, 31st rush); 19th defense (14th pass, 24th rush)
2012 Odds: 110/1 to win SB, 37/1 to win AFC, 4.5/1 to win AFC South, 7.0 wins O/U
Offense: Matt Hasselbeck had another incredibly underappreciated season last year, taking the rabble that is the Titans offense and turning it into a respectable, middle-of-the-road unit. Chris Johnson was a disaster last year and doesn’t look any different this season. He has not adjusted well to Chris Palmer’s offense, and Johnson looks slow, indecisive and – most troubling – scared of contact. I am not expecting a bounce back year at all and that is going to put the pressure back on the passing game. Tennessee’s offensive line was excellent last year, surrendering the second-fewest sacks in football last year (24). The Titans need Kenny Britt to stay healthy and out of trouble, two things he has proven that he can’t consistently do, and they could use a quick transition for draft pick Kendall Wright. Oh, and did I mention that they have a quarterback controversy? I don’t think that Jake Locker is ready. But he has shown flashes of talent. And for a struggling organization sometimes that is enough to get management to forsake the present to build for the future.
Defense: Last year the Titans were what I refer to as an “accidental defense”. That means that the majority of the stops they were forced on defense were by accident and had more to do with the opposing offense making a mistake (penalty, dropped pass, missed assignment, etc.) than with the Titans dictating anything. I will say: the Titans defense gave a phenomenal effort last year and always went all-out. That max effort helped them into the Top 10 in scoring defense. But it didn’t hide the fact that they aren’t very talented. Tennessee also lost Jason Jones, Cortland Finnegan and Chris Hope, three productive veterans, so they could be a disaster on this side of the ball this year.
Skinny: Last year I was the only NFL handicapper or NFL analyst in the country that predicted Tennessee would make the playoffs. They lost a tiebreaker to Cincinnati for the Wild Card and if Kenny Britt hadn’t been injured I think this team would have won 10 games. My projections for this year are not as rosy, I’m afraid. Their schedule is brutal. They have four home games against teams that made the playoffs last year and then two more against the Bears and Jets. Tennessee also has road games at San Diego and at Green Bay, and most of their “winnable” games against middle- or lower-tier teams are away from home. When they get off to a slow start they will go to Locker (if he doesn’t win the job in camp). That could likely have a domino effect on the whole locker room and shift this team into rebuilding/mailing-it-in mode. Regardless, look for a step back this season.
Robert Ferringo is a professional handicapper and has posted back-to-back profitable seasons (college and pro). Robert has turned a profit in three of four football seasons and over the last nine months his clients have earned nearly $10,000 in profit with his football selections. He is looking forward to building on his stellar football handicapping resume again this fall and you can check him out here. Also, you can also get $60 worth of free Robert Ferringo member picks (no salesman, no credit card, no obligation!) by clicking here for more info.