By Lenny Del Genio Excuse us for the extended period between our previous division preview (AFC West) and this, our AFC South Preview, the fourth and final installment of our AFC division previews. We wanted to take our time and make sure that the limb we are going out on here was the correct way to go.
Through our first three division previews, there have been no surprises. Everyone will pick New England (East), Pittsburgh (North) and San Diego (West) to win their respective divisions. Thanks to our good friend Larry Ness, we know that there is roughly a 50% turnover rate from year to year amongst playoff teams. The Patriots are an obvious call to rejoin the playoff field, so there has to be a surprise somewhere amongst this year�s potential division winners.
Our surprise call for the 2009 NFL betting season is for the Houston Texans to win the AFC South Division. Since coming into the league in 2002, the NFL�s 32nd franchise has yet to qualify for the postseason (Detroit and Buffalo are only other teams not to make the playoffs this decade), however, 2009 looks like their best shot. Indianapolis is older and going through a coaching change. Tennessee can�t possibly be as good as they were a year ago. Jacksonville looks to be starting over following a very disappointing 2008 season.
Here is our team by team breakdown of the AFC South:
Houston Texans - Following a pair of 8-8 seasons the last two years under HC Gary Kubiak, this looks to be the season for a Texans team that has never posted a winning record in seven seasons of existence. After starting 2008 by losing their first four games (were displaced by a hurricane, not to mention the disastrous finish vs. the Colts in Week 5), Houston won eight of its final 12 games, including the club�s first ever four-game win streak. The key for this team is getting the ball in the end zone (isn�t that true for all teams?) as the Texans are 15-6 SU/17-4 ATS under Kubiak when scoring 23 or more points. They finished last season third in the league in total offense and QB Matt Schaub (missed 9 starts L2 years) must stay healthy and decrease his turnover rate (over 1.0 per game). Helping him do so will be the best WR in the NFL, Andre Johnson, who led the league in both receptions and yards in �08. The emergence of RB Steve Slaton (1659 total yards) was a huge boost to an offense that has never had a true feature back. Note that Kubiak is handing over play calling duties to OC Kyle Shanahan this year. Clearly, improving a defense that ranked 22nd in the league is more important and the catalyst is former #1 overall DC Mario Williams, who is our choice to lead the league in sacks this year. Division play has killed the Texans over the last three years (6-12 SU), but with the regression of the other three teams, they are likely to finish with a better than .500 record against AFC South foes for the first time ever. The schedule sets up nicely with three of the first four games at home and only one is against a playoff team from last year. This team has always played well in December.
Indianapolis Colts - Jim Caldwell replaces Tony Dungy as the head coach in Indianapolis following seven straight playoff seasons, something that simply is not supposed to happen in the present-day NFL. Gone with Dungy are OC Tom Moorem, OL coach Howard Mudd (retired) and their combined 67+ years coaching experience. WR Marvin Harrison is also gone. Much was made of the team�s nine-game win streak to end last year�s regular season, but consider the final five opponents were: Cleveland, Detroit, Cincinnati, Jacksonville and a Tennessee team that was resting its starters. Peyton Manning continues to be one of the game�s preeminent QB�s, but how long can he keep it up? He has the league�s worst rushing attack (79.6 YPG) to work with (although we love #1 DC Donald Brown out of UConn) and like we said, no Harrison, although he had become a non-factor by last year anyway. Despite a new DC (Larry Coyer), the schemes are expected to remain unchanged on that side of the ball. That being said the D-line is expected to be bigger and there will be more blitzing. Who will start as the OLB�s is still a question. In the secondary, Bob Sanders must say healthy and CB Marlin Jackson has to bounce back from a knee injury. Believe it or not, but there are several bad trends to consider for Indy. In September, they are 0-8 ATS off a SU/ATS division loss. In October, they are 0-9 ATS as home favorites in division play. They are also 0-5 ATS the week after playing the Titans.
Tennessee Titans - We really don�t see QB Kerry Collins remaining healthy for a full 16-game regular season and even if he does, who can envision the Titans being as successful as last year�s 13-3 SU campaign. Then, on the other side of the ball, you have the loss of DT Albert Haynesworth. Tennessee was 28-11 SU with him in the lineup and 3-7 SU without. Doesn�t sound very good. They will have to rely on the dual rushing threat of Chris Johnson (1228 yards) and LenDale White (15 touchdowns) because once again the WR corps is weak (TE Bo Scaife led the team with 58 catches last year). All five starters return on the offensive line. They open the year with four of the first six games on the road, two of them at Pittsburgh and New England. If Collins gets injured, that leaves the enigmatic Vince Young at the helm. Not a good thing. We�re worried that Johnson and White can�t work together in the backfield as both seem to want to �be the guy.�
Jacksonville Jaguars - Rewind to exactly one year ago right here on this page and we were predicting a possible AFC Championship Game appearance for Jack Del Rio and his Jaguars. Oops. Last year�s sleeper pick never woke up and before you knew it wound up finishing the year at 5-11 and in last place of the AFC South. Now, after that seven-win decline, Del Rio (just one playoff win in 6 years) is on the hottest coaching seat in the NFL and has to produce results in a division that really doesn�t feature any bad teams. Big things are expected from RB Maurice Jones-Drew, thanks to the departure of veteran Fred Taylor, as MJD has compiled 2,533 yards in three seasons with the club. However, we�re kind of miffed on this one as Taylor had become a non-factor by last season (just 556 yards). One thing is for sure and that�s QB David Garrard should be throwing less (7 games w/ 35+ pass attempts). Part of the problem was that the offensive line was not healthy last year, a big reason why the Jags fell from 2nd to 18th in yards rushing. Bettors are likely to stay away from this team, which lost six games outright as a favorite last year. That could mean some value in the early going. Del Rio has never posted back-to-back losing seasons during his tenure. Signing veteran WR Torry Holt seemed like a desperation move for a franchise that has not had a good WR corps since the days of Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell. Remember what a bust Jerry Porter turned out to be when they signed him? The defense, which ranked second in all of football back in 2006, seems to be in decline as they fell to 12th in 2007 and then to 17th last season. Projected AFC South Standings: