Doc's 2007 AFC South Preview
by Robert Ferringo - 08/24/2007
Yes, you're reading this right: I think that for the first time in four years someone other than Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts will hold the title "AFC South Champions."
And before I get a ton of e-mails from salty Colts fans, let me just reiterate that this has nothing to do with being a Manning Hater, some East Coast Bias against the hillbillies in the Midwest, or some grudge because they beat my beloved Bears in the Super Bowl. Trust me, I'm equal opportunity; I hate everyone. And I have nothing against the Colts. We've had our differences in the past, but they've been a dynamic team over the past few years and are a worthy champion.
But they're screwed this year.
Jacksonville is bigger, stronger, hungrier, and has twice the defense that Indianapolis does. The Colts lost five defensive starters, several key backups, and watched their starting left tackle take his ball and go home this offseason. This just isn't the same team that dry-humped Lombardi last February. And if anything happens to oft-injured safety Bob Sanders this year the defense could be even worse than last year's record-setting debacle of a unit. And if that happens my prediction gets even bleaker - if Sanders gets hurt the Colts won't make the playoffs.
A key ingredient to my bold prediction relies in the natural Letdown Factor that would engulf a franchise like Indy. You don't have to look any further than the St. Louis Cardinals in Major League Baseball to see the perfect illustration of what I mean. The Cardinals have been outstanding this century, making the playoffs in six of the past seven years and winning 100 games twice. There were a couple times between 2000-2005 where they had outstanding teams, teams that were favored to win the World Series, but they didn't. Then last year, with a team that many "experts" considered their weakest in a decade, the Cardinals made an inspired run to claim that championship that had been so elusive.
See any parallels here? That's exactly the scenario that played out with Manning and the Colts. They had toiled for so long - to the point where it was just assumed that they would choke in the most gut-wrenching way possible - that when the team won the Super Bowl last year it was a moment that was nearly seven years in the making.
It's a cute story, but take a look at how St. Louis played as defending champions after reaching the summit of a six-year endeavor. They were awful to start this year, with injuries, defections, off-field distractions, and an obvious title hangover completely overwhelming their title defense. I expect a similar experience with the Colts. They're going to be shackled with huge lines, but they don't have the same firepower or magic that they had at the end of last year.
Slow start aside, I also think that the Colts' schedule will submarine them. A midseason stretch where they are at Jacksonville on Monday night, at Carolina off a short week, at home against archrival New England, and then at San Diego, is particularly gruesome. All of these factors, I believe, will lead to the Colts being one of the best Fade Teams since the 2003 Raiders and the 2006 Republicans.
Here's Doc's 2007 AFC South Preview:
1) JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS
2006 Record: 8-8 (6-2 home, 2-6 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 8-8 (6-2 home, 2-6 road); 9-7 vs. total (5-3 h, 4-4 r)
2006 Rankings: 10th offense (24th pass, 3rd rush); 2nd defense (10th pass, 4th rush)
2007 Odds: 25/1 to win SB, 13/1 to win AFC, 7/2 to win AFC South, 9.0 wins O/U
Outlook: I absolutely love the toughness of this team. Remember: they lost a ton of key guys last year (Reggie Hayward, Mike Peterson, Donovin Darius) and still finished No. 2 in the league in total defense. They dumped Darius - which I thought was a big mistake - but they managed to sign Sammy Knight as an ample replacement. Safety is the only pseudo-weakness on this D, but that's it. I look for them to club their division into submission behind one of the NFL's best units. Remember, if you can run the ball and stop the run you can win in this league. And the Jags do both as well as anyone.
The quandary, as it has been for the past three years, is in the passing game. Byron Leftwich is in a contract year and knows that his future is on the line. He is apparently comfortable in Dirk Koettner's new offense, which emphasizes the vertical passing game, but Leftwich needs a little help from his friends. Matt Jones has looked absolutely pathetic in preseason (I'm telling you, don't even think about drafting him on your fantasy team and laugh at anyone who does) and Reggie Williams may get cut. But they still have some decent tight ends and receivers, a massive offensive line, and one of the top backfield combos in the league. So the cupboard isn't completely bare.
Don't expect the Jaguars to be covering any monster numbers (-7.5 or more). Especially in the middle of the season if they get off to a hot start. The Jags will be grinding out wins, playing the field position game and winning games the old fashioned way: running the ball and playing great defense. Those words are music to my ears and money in my pocket.
2) INDIANAPOLIS COLTS
2006 Record: 16-4 (10-0 home, 6-4 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 12-8 (7-3 home, 5-5 road); 9-11 vs. total (5-5 h, 4-6 r)
2006 Rankings: 3rd offense (2nd pass, 18th rush); 21st defense (2nd pass, 32nd rush)
2007 Odds: 11/2 to win SB, 3/1 to win AFC, 2/11 to win AFC South, 11.5 wins O/U
Outlook: I just cannot get over the serious red flags on this defense. Their front four is solid, but they have zero depth behind their starters. Their linebackers are below average and they also ditched both of their starting cornerbacks. Again, the performance of the entire defense rests on the shoulders of Bob Sanders. And by the way, one of those shoulders underwent offseason surgery. Sanders didn't even practice with the team until this week, and he can't be expected to be at 100 percent when the season kicks off for them on Sept. 6.
One trend that I do expect to somewhat reverse itself this year is that I am anticipating the Colts returning to their 'over' roots. Since their season-ending loss in New England in 2004, the Colts had played under the posted total in 23 of their past 38 games. That's a 61-percent clip. However, back in the days when they were putting up Tecmo Bowl numbers in 2003 and 2004, Indy played 'over' in 24 of its previous 33 contests (73 percent). Because the defense will be shaky and because the offense may have to play from behind more this year I anticipate the Colts reacquainting themselves with those 38-31 shootouts.
3) HOUSTON TEXANS
2006 Record: 6-10 (4-4 home, 2-6 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 7-9 (4-4 home, 3-5 road); 8-8 vs. total (4-4 h, 4-4 r)
2006 Rankings: 28th offense (27th pass, 21st rush); 24th defense (22nd pass, 20th rush)
2007 Odds: 100/1 to win SB, 50/1 to win AFC, 16/1 to win AFC South, 6.5 wins O/U
Outlook: Let me tell you, I love what the Texans have working right now. I love it. As it stands, the Texans in the AFC and the Washington Redskins in the NFC are my go-to, against the spread sleepers. Gary Kubiak has a year under his belt and now has a quarterback that can efficiently run his system. There are some holes here, but the Texans have a fantastic blend of youth and experience, and explosiveness and reliability. The defense should be improved (just a bit), the special teams will be better, and I think this team has 7-9 SU and 10-6 ATS written all over it.
What I like about Houston this year is that during the preseason they're running a lot of the same sets and formations that the Denver Broncos use. Not surprising, considering Kubiak's roots in the Mile High City. But I think that the counter plays, the misdirection, and the multiple looks that they're giving will help mask some of the deficiencies along the offensive line. That's been their real weakness since the franchise's inception. But with the steady hand of Matt Schaub (who is going to be very good) at the wheel I think this team has a lot of upside.
Defensively, it appears that they've finally settled on a 4-3 base. That has been another reoccurring issue through the organization's first five years. They have the requisite stud-leader in DeMeco Ryans, and I look for Mario Williams to do some good things this year. Also, don't look now, but their secondary has gone from young-and-full-of-potential to a relatively solid, veteran unit. They will miss Glenn Earl at safety, but if Williams and the rest of the D-Line can get any pressure (just 28 sacks last year) then I think that will help immensely.
4) TENNESSEE TITANS
2006 Record: 8-8 (4-4 home, 4-4 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 11-5 (5-3 home, 6-2 road); 12-3-1 vs. total (7-1 h, 5-2-1 r)
2006 Rankings: 27th offense (30th pass, 5th rush); 32nd defense (27th pass, 30th rush)
2007 Odds: 70/1 to win SB, 32/1 to win AFC, 12/1 to win AFC South, 6.0 wins O/U
Outlook: After last season's miracle ATS finish to the season - the Titans went 10-2 ATS to close the year - and a near-miss at the postseason there is nowhere to go but down for the Titans. Yes, down. The Titans simply didn't replace the talent they lost. They were -1.1 in yards per play last season - one of the worst differentials in the league - and I think that the lines will be a little skewed do to Vince Young's growing stature on the NFL landscape.
All of this is great for us, since the Titans are another of my top Fade Teams in the NFL. Tennessee has put together back-to-back winning seasons ATS just once in the past decade. They are a putrid 4-25 ATS when they don't score over 20 points, and with an offense that features no wide receivers, perennially disappointing running backs, and a horrendous passing quarterback I don't see them crossing the 20-point plateau too often.
I do like the defense though. They have a lot of veterans and this is a gritty group. Yes, they were No. 32 in the league last year. But they also spent the most time on the field - by far - of any defense in the league. Their third-down percentage was better than three other playoff defenses; they were just hung out to dry by a moribund offense. The schedule has a brutal start - with road games at Jacksonville and at New Orleans straddling a home opener against Indianapolis. It gets a bit easier after that, and don't be surprised to see a mini-run at the end of the year. But on the whole, I will be stunned if this team wins more than six or seven games and will be equally impressed if they match either of those numbers ATS.
And it will have nothing to do with the Madden Curse.
Questions or comments for Robert? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.