Part three in our 2009 NFL preview. Teams are ranked by projected finish.
1. Indianapolis Colts
On paper, Peyton’s boys should run away from the rest of the division. In reality, the race for first will likely be a three-team battle that includes Houston and Tennessee, as well.
The Colts have the edge in experience and talent. Their offense is tops in the AFC South, even in spite of the departure of WR Marvin Harrison.
Harrison is replaced in the starting lineup by third-year pro Anthony Gonzalez, a sure-handed threat that should see a significant uptick in production this season. Alongside Gonzalez is the ever-reliable Reggie Wayne, who is quite simply one of the best in the business.
Indianapolis should benefit from a younger, healthier running back corps, led by Joseph Addai. Addai is coming off a subpar 2008 campaign in which his numbers suffered due to injury. Despite the fact that the organization brought in rookie Donald Brown to hold down the No. 2 tailback role, this is Addai’s job to lose.
No, Indy’s defense isn’t what it used to be, but Dwight Freeney is still a pass-rushing gamechanger that will affect every play, and with an offense as potent as the Colts have, winning games should be second-nature to the boys in blue.
2. Houston Texans
The Texans are poised for a breakout season, but they’ll need their franchise quarterback to stay healthy all year in order to contend for a playoff berth.
QB Matt Schaub missed five games last season to injury, and witnessed his team go 2-3 during his absence. He still managed to throw for over 3,000 yards in his 11-game season, but his departure only served to prove his importance to this ballclub.
In addition to Schaub, Houston has superfluous talent at every offensive skill position, including wideout (Andre Johnson and Kevin Walter), running back (Steve Slaton), and tight end (Owen Daniels).
On the other side of the ball, it is defensive end and former No. 1 overall pick Mario Williams that changes games for this Texan team.
Like Indianapolis before them, it is offense that will make the difference for this club.
3. Tennessee Titans
Team 1C in the South, Tennessee is, on paper at least, the third best club in this division.
Unlike the rest of their divisional counterparts, the Titans win games thanks to a powerful defense and a grind-it-out running game.
They say defense wins championships, but in order to compete in this league you need some semblance of offense, as well.
While the Titans were able to surprise a lot of teams last year with QB Kerry Collins under center, they’ll be hard-pressed to sneak up on opponents this season.
The one-two punch of speedback Chris Johnson and powerback LenDale White will be the focus of opposing gameplans, forcing the Titans to throw the ball more and stray from their bread and butter. With an unproven receiving corps (the starters at WR are Nate Washington and Justin Gage) and an aging QB, an enormous amount of pressure will be put on the defense to carry the load for this team.
Can they repeat the magic of 2008? Maybe, but we don’t think so.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
Just one year ago, Jacksonville was everyone’s sexy pick to go to the Superbowl. Uhhh….what?!
A year later, the Jags are a forgotten ballclub after going 5-11 in 2008. I guess that’s what crack cocaine will do to a club.
Not that it’s entirely crack’s fault, but the drug has seemingly vanquished the entire receiving corps (beginning and ending with Matt Jones, though former first-rounder Reggie Williams has also been linked) leaving behind a shell of the talent that used to exist at wideout.
This year, the top three wideouts are completely overhauled from 2008. Veteran Torry Holt is the only guaranteed starter, while former Minnesota Viking Troy Williamson as well as third-year pro Mike Sims-Walker should both receive playing time on the opposite side.
In the Jaguars’ backfield, Maurice Jones-Drew will, for the first time in his career, assume the role of feature back with Fred Taylor’s departure. That’s great news if you’re a fantasy owner, but bad news if you’re the Jaguars. Allowing Jones-Drew the luxury of sitting plays out was a tremendous boon to the team’s offense in past seasons, and the added load could have a negative effect on MJD’s production late in the season.
Jacksonville’s defense is middle-of-the-road, and on top of all that the ballclub plays a tough schedule, going on the road for five games against playoff contending opponents.
In just one year, the atmosphere in Jacksonville has completely changed. Will it work out for the best? Not this season.