AFC South and AFC West Preview by Jason King

 

The AFC South and AFC West are looking for their first team, other than the Indianapolis Colts, to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl — last time Oakland Raiders in XXXVII.  Right now, you would have to think both divisions are up-for-grabs in 2011, especially with Peyton Manning iffy (neck) for the start of  the 2011 NFL regular season.

AFC South Preview

 The AFC South belongs to the Indianapolis Colts.  Since the division was created in 2002, the Colts have won 7 division titles (2 straight) and the Titans won the other two.  The Colts have been in the playoffs for 9 straight years.  Could the Houston Texans win their first AFC South division title?  Could the Colts be in for their first losing season in 9 years?  Is Chris Johnson the best player in the division?  There are a lot of questions to be answered in the AFC South this season.

Houston Texans:  The Texans finished last season a disappointing 6-10.  They hired Wade Phillips to fix a defense that was horrible especially against the pass last year.  Gary Kubiak was given another year to right the ship.  The turnaround has to start on defense for the Texans to be successful this year.

Offense: Matt Schuab is a pro bowl quarterback.  Andre Johnson is arguably the best receiver in football.  Owen Daniels is a top 5 tight end in the NFL right now.  Arian Foster was the breakout star of the 2010 NFL season.  The Texans offense has the tools to be the best offense in the NFL this year.  Their offensive line is solid, they are deep at running back with the additions of Derrick Ward, Ben Tate, and Chris Ogbonnaya, and they have Johnson and Daniels who are a valuable one-two threat in the passing game.  One of the few questions about this offense is there depth at receiver and whether they can fix their late game lapses that have hurt them the last few years.

Defense: Wade Phillips has his hands full with this group.  They are transitioning from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base defense.  He won’t turn them into a great defense this year, but they will improve.  The Texans had the worst secondary in football last year giving up 267.5 passing yards per game.  They signed CB Jonathan Joseph and S Daniel Manning to help sure up that secondary.  Brian Cushing and Mario Williams can become stars in Phillips system.  The Texans hope that the defense will not be a liability this season, and maybe even help them win some games. 

Predicted Record: 11-5 (1st place in the division)

Indianapolis Colts:  The biggest question in Indianapolis these days is when Peyton Manning will be ready to play a game.  There are other issues that could problematic for the Colts this season.  If Manning misses some time, the Colts have to run the ball better.  On defense that secondary has to improve. 

Offense: Manning’s situation is well documented and the Colts biggest concern.  They also have to be concerned about an offensive line that has a few questions and is starting a rookie a left tackle.  Rookie LT Anthony Castonzo is a player the Colts really like, but he will have his hands full protecting Manning’s blindside.  The Colts running game needs to improve.  The Colts have Joseph Addai and Donald Brown.  They are both decent NFL running backs.  Still, last season the Colts averaged 92.7 rush yards per game and they averaged less than 4 yards per carry.  Those numbers have to improve especially if Manning misses any time.

Defense: The Colts have to get better stopping the run.  Last year they gave up 127 yards per game on the ground.  They have to be able to stop the run in a division that features: Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Arian Foster.  The secondary is also a concern.  The Colts cut Bob Sanders and Kelvin Hayden.  Jerraud Powers, Jacob Lacey, and Melvin Bullitt have to hold their own back there.  The Colts dynamic pass rushers DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis should help by getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Predicted Record: 10-6 (2nd place in the division) 

Tennessee Titans: The Titans are in rebuilding mode.  First year head coach Mike Munchak was probably the most unlikely successor to Jeff Fisher.  He will implore a new offense and defense.  One thing is for sure: the offense will feature a lot of Chris Johnson.

Offense:  Chris Johnson will be the focal point of the Titans offense.  Expect the Titans to use Johnson in many ways.  His not playing in the preseason may actually help the Titans.  He didn’t risk injury and the Titans didn’t divulge any formations or ways they plan to use him.  Kenny Britt is another key piece to this offense.  He should catch 65 to 70 balls, get 1,000 to 1,200 yards receiving and have 9 to 12 touchdowns.  He looks poised to have a breakout season.  One thing that may prevent that from happening is quarterback play.  Matt Hasselback is a solid veteran quarterback who just led Seattle to the playoffs last year.  If the Titans were smart they would let him play the whole year.  But there are many people in the Titans organization itching to see first round QB Jake Locker under center.  The Titans offensive line will be one of the best in the league.  Munchak was a great OL in his day and served as the Titans OL coach for 14 years.  He will have them ready to play. 

Defense: The Titans defense is a work in progress.  Their defensive line and linebackers won’t instill fear in many opposing offenses.  The secondary is solid with CB Cortland Finnegan and FS Michael Griffin as its anchors.  The one thing the Titans put emphasis on was getting bigger in the trenches.  Their projected starting defensive line is: 6’3, 272 pound DE William Hayes, 6’2, 325 pound DT Shaun Smith, 6’3, 275 pound DT Karl Klug, and 6’5, 276 pound DE Jason Jones.  LB Akeem Jordan needs to step up and be a leader of this defense.  120 tackles this season isn’t out of the question.

Predicted Record: 4-12 (3rd place in the division)             

Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jaguars made headlines by cutting David Garrard just six days before the season opener.  QB Luke McCown will start for the Jags Week 1 against Tennessee.  The Jags have to improve on their 28th ranked defense from last season.  The Jags also have unproven wide receivers.  To top it all off, Jack Del Rio is coaching for his job.  It could be a long year in Jacksonville. 

Offense: I would imagine that Jaguars opponents will see more of MJD since Garrard has been released.  McCown may have the worse wide receivers in the NFL.  Jason Hill and Mike Thomas will start the opener.  They aren’t household names.  The Jags offensive line isn’t the envy of anyone in the league.  A positive for the Jags offense last season was there red zone efficiency.  They scored 63 percent of the time in the red zone and the offensive line was a big part in that.  The most reliable receivers are RB Jones-Drew and TE Marcedes Lewis.  Expect rookie first round draft pick QB Blaine Gabbart to be starting before the end of the year.  Gabbart, MJD, and Lewis are the building blocks of the future in Jacksonville. 

Defense: The Jags were one of the league’s worse defenses last season.  They were aggressive in free agency.  They signed: LBs Clint Session, and Paul Posluszny, FS Dawan Landry, CB Drew Coleman, and DE Matt Roth.  The defense should improve with these additions.  Roth is expected to have the biggest impact.  He is back to his natural position at defensive end and the Jags are banking on him having a breakout season.  The Jags gave up 250.3 yards passing last year.  Landry should help the secondary some but CB Rashean Mathis has to play better.  He got torched last year by the like of Reggie Wayne and Andre Johnson.  Del Rio hopes to have this defense on the rise with all the new additions.

Predicted Record: 3-13 (Last place in the division)

 

AFC West Preview

 The AFC West was won by the upstart Kansas City Chiefs last season.  Oakland swept through the division last year.  Denver is in a transition year and San Diego is the perennial favorites.  Can Kansas City build on their momentum from last year and make it two straight division titles?  Will San Diego get off to another slow start?  Will Oakland or Denver win 5 games?  All these questions will be answered in the wild wild AFC West this season.

San Diego Chargers:The Chargers have ranked in the top 5 in scoring each of the last seven seasons.  Tom Brady and the Patriots, Peyton Manning and the Colts, Drew Brees and the Saints, or Brett Favre/Aaron Rodgers and the Packers haven’t done it.  Only the Chargers have.  All of those teams have won Super Bowls in the last seven years.  The numbers don’t matter for San Diego any more.  The mission for the Chargers has never been clearer: Super Bowl or bust.

Offense: The Chargers like to throw the ball.  If you had Philip Rivers, you would like throwing it too.  Rivers threw for a career-high 4,710 yards last season despite WR Vincent Jackson holding out for 10 weeks, and TE Antonio Gates and WR Malcolm Floyd were hurt late last season.  Rivers has all three back healthy and ready to play.  Their offensive line is solid, anchored by LT Marcus McNeil.  RB Ryan Matthews and FB Mike Tolbert will get the bulk of the carries.  There aren’t any weaknesses here.  This will be one of the best offenses in football as long as Rivers stays healthy. 

Defense:  LB Takeo Spikes and SS Bob Sanders have a lot to prove.  They are the two key veteran additions who are hungry to contribute to a championship contender.  The Chargers had 47 sacks last season.  They added DE Corey Liuget with the 18th pick of the draft.  He will help the Chargers pass rush be even better this year.  The Chargers defense ranked first against the pass (177.8 YPG) and fourth against the rush (93.8 YPG).  Those numbers were under Ron Rivera, now the head coach in Carolina.  New defensive coordinator Greg Manusky has basically the same unit with a few upgrades.  The biggest question mark for the Chargers season is how the players will adapt to Manusky’s aggressive style of defense.  If they get better the league better take notice.

Predicted Record: 13-3                            

 

Denver Broncos:  Kyle Orton is the starting quarterback for the Broncos.  He gives them the best chance to win.  New head coach John Fox has some weapons on defense and if Orton can manage the games like he is asked to, the Broncos may not be as bad as people think.

Offense: If it weren’t for Michael Vick, Brandon Lloyd would have been the breakout player of last season.  The 9-year veteran wide receiver lead the NFL with 77 receptions for 1,448 yards and 11 touchdowns.  The Broncos have to continue to get Lloyd the ball.  The Broncos will be a run first team though.  John Fox believes that RBs Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno can be like DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart in Carolina.  A very serviceable 1-2 running back combo.  Behind a solid offensive line, they could crack 1,000 yards each.  

Defense: Denver’s defense was horrible last season.  They were last in points allowed per game (29.4), yards allowed per game (390.2), and sacks (23).  They were next to last in rushing yards allowed per game allowing 154.6.  They will improve those numbers this year with the addition of John Fox, a healthy Elvis Dumervil, future hall of famers Brian Dawkins and Champ Bailey in the secondary, and Von Miller (number 2 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft).  If this team buys into John Fox’s defensive schemes, they could be a top 10 defense.  That would help the Broncos win more than 4 games.

Predicted Record: 5-11

Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs were one of the surprises of the NFL season last year.  They won’t creep up on anybody this year.  They feasted on an easy schedule last year.  They played only two playoff teams all year.  This year the schedule gets tougher.  Todd Haley’s group hopes to be ready for the challenge. 

Offense: The Chiefs had the best running game in football last year averaging 164.2 yards per game on the ground.  With the return of Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones, and the addition of Le’Ron McClain, the Chiefs running game should get better.  They hope to improve on a passing attack that ranked 30th in the leaguer last season (185.5 YPG).  Dwayne Bowe caught 72 passes last season and no other Chiefs receiver caught more than 22.  Bowe was taken out of the Chiefs playoff game against the Ravens.  The Chiefs addressed their WR situation by drafting Jonathan Baldwin with their first round pick.  They also signed Steve Breaston and Keary Colbert.  Last year the Ravens proved it was too easy to stop the Chiefs passing game.  All you had to do was stop Dwayne Bowe.  KC added a few more weapons and hopes a little diversity in their passing game will make them more productive. 

Defense: DE Tamba Hali led the AFC with 14.5 sacks last season.  The Chiefs rewarded him with a five-year $60 million deal.  Hali is one of the best pass rushers in the NFL no one has heard about.  Hali will gain a lot of attention so, veteran DT Kelly Gregg and heralded but underachieving top 5 draft picks DT Glenn Dorsey and DE Tyson Jackson should produce solid numbers.  The Chiefs defense was middle of the pack last year and it should be the same maybe a little worse this year.  FS Eric Berry looks to build on a solid rookie year.  He is one of the best young safeties in football.  If KC can get all of their high draft picks to produce like Berry, they would be a top 5 defense.  Guys like Dorsey and Jackson just haven’t lived up to expectations yet.

Predicted Record: 5-11

Oakland Raiders:  The Raiders had a perfect 6-0 division record last season.  They were 2-8 outside the division and finished the season 8-8.  They let Tom Cable go, and promoted Hue Jackson from offensive coordinator to head coach.  Oh, and they were the 1 abstaining vote in the ratification of the new CBA.

Offense:  The Raiders ran the ball very effectively last year.  They were second in rushing yards per game (155.9).  Darren McFadden and Michael Bush will be the main ball carriers with a little help from rookie RB Taiwan Jones.  The addition of TE Kevin Boss will help the running game, as he is a better blocker than Zach Miller, but hurt the passing game.  QB Jason Campbell will depend on Boss because WRs Jacoby Ford and Darius Heyward-Bey are unproven.  The Raiders will need to improve their passing attack if they want to win 8 games again.

Defense:  The Raiders have one of the best defensive lines in the NFL led by Richard Seymour.  Seymour played at a high level last year and doesn’t look to be slowing down any time soon.  LB Kamerion Wimbley is a player the Raiders really like.  The Raiders front 7 is one of the best in the AFC.  The secondary is where the most problems lie.  Last year the Raiders only gave up 189.2 yards passing per game.  That number will diminish with the loss of CB Nnamdi Asmougha.  The Raiders expect Stanford Routt to be their number 1 cornerback. 

Predicted Record: 3-13   
 

 

Jason King is a contributing writer at Taking It to the House and can be reached at jdk2032@yahoo.com

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