Defending the South

by Nathan Hague

Is it just me or does every division have a really bad team? Even the divisions which are pretty dominant historically have one that one of those teams that you can’t help but wonder if they could compete with the top level college teams. In the AFC South, it’s the Jacksonville Jaguars. In the NFC South it’s the Jags state neighbors (well, almost) Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Regardless, I expect the AFC South to be dominated by the Texans and the NFC South will be a dog fight between the Saints and Falcons. Let’s jump right in and get started.
AFC South: by Ben Dieter

Houston Texans (record 12-4)
The Texans had a good year last season, and they did much of that without star quarterback Matt Schaub, star wide receiver Andre Johnson, and defensive star Mario Williams. They even got their franchise’s first playoff win behind third string quarterback T.J. Yates. I think the Texans would have contended for the Super Bowl in 2011 had Schaub and Johnson not gone down.
The Texans are expected to be a real contender this season, and I totally agree with that assessment. With Schaub being back and healthy, Wade Phillips still running the defense, and a healthy Arian Foster this team could be near impossible to stop on offensive, and the defense should have no trouble stopping most of their opponents. The loss of Williams will be felt, but remember they did most of their winning last season without him. With two against the Jags, Colts and Titans plus games against the weak Vikings, Dolphins and Jets, that should be at least 7 wins if not 8 or 9. They have some tough games as well (Patriots, Packers, Bears, Ravens and Broncos to name a few) they should be able to get to at least 10 wins pretty easily. Watch out for the Texans this season, I think they are going to be the AFC’s representative in the Super Bowl this season.

Tennessee Titans (record – 7-9)
The Titans have not been very good for a while, and Jeff Fisher was the best thing that they had going for them when they were good. Vince Young did not work out, Kerry Collins got old, and Matt Hasslbeck lost the starting job to second year quarterback Jake Locker. This is going to be a major rebuilding year for the Titans, and they know it, otherwise they would not be going with Locker. I may have their record a little high, I will admit that, but I think Locker is going to be good and I think the second half of their season will be better than the first half. Three things have to happen for me to be right though.
1. Jake Locker has to improve by week 6 or 7. If Jake can’t figure it out and they have to bring Hasslbeck in around then, this team has no quarterback for the future and the team will crumble around Hasslbeck. If Locker does not get it, this team will have a much worse record that I have predicted.
2. Chris Johnson has to have a bounce back season. If Johnson runs like he did last year, this team may only win 3 games. He is the key to Locker having some time to pass the ball. If there is no running game, there is no play fakes, and they defenses can blitz all day and kill Locker. It is up to Johnson to not let that happen.
3. The defense has to be better. Even though they allowed the 8th fewest points in the NFL in 2011, they gave up lots of big plays and they almost never sacked anyone. That has to improve. If they can cut down on the big plays against them and get to the quarterback more often (they don’t even need a lot more sacks, they just need to make the quarterback nervous) they will have a lot more success as a defensive unit.
They start off with a brutal schedule (Patriots, Chargers, Detroit, Houston) but it gets better after that (Vikings, Colts and Dolphins in 3 of the next 5 games). If they can make it through the first 4 with 1 win, I think they will take second in this division and live to fight next season.

Indianapolis Colts (record 6-10)
Andrew Luck is here, in case you have not heard. He is the greatest quarterback since John Elway, in case you have not heard. He is going to work miracles with the Colts, in case you missed it. Well, even though I do believe that Luck is a tremendous talent, I do not think the team around him is the type of talent that miracles can be performed with. Some analysts look at the Colts almost as an expansion team this season, and I think that is pretty accurate. Luck should be fun to watch, but the team was dreadful on the offensive AND defensive side of the ball in 2011, and I am not impressed with the Colts on the defensive side of the ball at all this season. That being said, they will be better than last season on that side of ball just because they have to be. I know that is not very scientific, but I just believe they will be. I still do not believe they can pull off more than 6 wins at most, but hey, 6 is better than 2!

Jacksonville Jaguars (record 3-13)
So, how do you take a team that finished with a record of 5-11 and predict them worse? Have your biggest start (MJD) hold out for the whole pre season and not be ready at all for the first game of the season and have Blaine Gabbard as your quarterback. I am sorry, but I do not have a lot of faith in Gabbard, and with the lack of production that is bound to come out of Jones-Drew the first few weeks of the season, Gabbard is going to be spending a lot of time either looking at the sky or chasing down the guy who just intercepted him. They did pick up last year Cowboy surprise Laurent Robinson, but I think that is success was mostly thanks to Tony Romo throwing him the ball. I believe his production will drop way off with Gabbard throwing him the ball instead.
On the defensive side of the ball, they were not good and I see no significant improvement this season looking at the roster. They have to play the Texans twice, the Colts twice, the Patriots, Packers, Bills and Bears. Out of those 8 games, I see them winning 2 at most. Then I see them winning 3 more on top of that. So if you are a Jags fan, I am sorry to tell you that you will be one of the worst teams in the NFL this season, but, cheer up, you have a owner who is not afraid to get out there and challenge you top player in a who is more macho contest. Oh, wait, that is not good. Good luck Jags fans.

NFC South
By Nathan Hague:

Atlanta Falcons (11-5)
Mike Nolan takes over as the team’s new defensive coordinator while Dirk Cutter takes over the offense. The Falcons will rely heavily on the arm of quarterback Matt Ryan, possibly even more than years past. His favorite from last year, Julio Jones has a year under his belt and the Ryan/Jones combo will be a nightmare for opposing defenses.
The team’s biggest weakness is third down defense where they finished 29th last year. That’s where the team hopes their biggest offseason acquisition Asante Samuel will help. Samuel made it clear he wanted out of Philadelphia and Andy Reid didn’t want him around if he was going to cause trouble, so he gave the defensive back away for a late round draft pick. The team also added linebacker Lofa Tatupu. The two should help the team be a lot less one dimensional.
You can pretty much guarantee wins when for the Falcons when they go up against teams such as the Cardinals Chiefs, Raiders, Redskins, and Buccaneers twice.

New Orleans Saints (11-5)
Where to begin? There’s new coaching staff for now. This team was by far the most talked about team in the offseason and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see them win the division. Drew Brees re-signing was the best thing for everybody all around. With him, the Saints are contenders. Without him, they’d be lucky to finish third in the division.
There are really two ways this whole Bounty Gate thing could go. The first is it could completely destroy the team and not just this year but for good. It could leave such a bad taste in the mouths of players, coaches and others in the organization that they choose not to have anything to do with the Saints as an organization as the team gets completely dismantled. The other possibility is the Saints get motivated by it. If Jonathan Vilma and his teammates truly believe he’s innocent, they could take their anger and aggression on the field and stick it to Commissioner Roger Goodell. Either way, it’s not going to be easy but it will be an interesting year for sure.
If that last scenario is the case, don’t be shocked to see them make a run at the Big Dance, which by the way, will be in the Big Easy and you know they’d love to make history by becoming the first team to play in the Super Bowl in its home stadium.
Because the Saints finished first in the division last year, they have the tough task of going up against Green Bay and San Francisco and because this division plays the East, you can count on at least three other tough battles.
Just out of curiosity, how can the NFL stop Sean Payton from communicating with the Saints? What would happen if he texts Brees?

Carolina Panthers (8-8)
It starts with Cam Newton whose 706 rushing yards for 14 rushing touchdowns along with his, 4051 passing yards and 21 touchdowns passing were enough to earn him rookie of the year honors last year. The question is whether or not he’ll be able to repeat that type of performance or if he’ll have a sophomore slump like we’ve seen before. We’ve fallen in love with quarterbacks based on their rookie year only to see them become busts for the rest of their careers.
Even if that’s not the case for Newton, the team needs help just about everywhere else. The secondary is week as is the rush defense and, well the whole defense. The Panthers will depend on Newton to pretty much do everything, which could mean trouble as he’s more likely to get injured. He’ll need help from receivers Steve Smith and running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart to take pressure off him. Look for them to pound the ball, whether with Newton, Williams or Stewart and try to improve on their already impress 5.41 yards per carry.
This team has a tough schedule but the one guaranteed win comes against Seattle. Just go ahead and chalk that up now.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12)
It’s pretty safe to say this is a rebuilding year for Tampa as new head coach Greg Schiano takes over for a team that went 4-12 a year ago. Unfortunately, other than having Schiano on the sideline, not much has changed. That’s why my prediction is the Bucs will finish with another 4-12 record.
Josh Freeman seems to get hurt often and is unproven. He’ll be backed up by Dan Orlovsky who ran 5 yards out of the end zone in the lions 0-16 season. The team lost quarterback Josh Johnson and tight end Kellen Winslow Jr., but added veteran tight end Dallas Clark and drafted strong safety Mark Barron who could make an immediate impact.
Although they’re not projected to win but a handful of games, they will plenty of opportunities when going head-to-head with teams like Minnesota, Oakland , St. Louis and Washington. Truth is though, there are not guarantee wins for this team. There aren’t even any guarantee points, and no Orlovsky, it’s the other end zone.
Maybe Orlovsky can give the 2008 Lions a run for their money.

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