2013/14 NFL Preview: AFC South

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With the National Football League teams completing their OTA’s and preparing for the start of training camps in just about a month (the Dallas Cowboys start on July 21 and the Detroit Lions on July 23), it is time to start taking a look at the upcoming NFL season.

In this segment, we’ll take a look at the AFC’S South Division. Long the domain of the Indianapolis Colts, the Houston Texans were able to usurp the top slot in the division last year despite a spirited run by the Colts. The Texans, however, were unable to finish off what was a strong start to the 2012 season, dropping in the second round of the AFC playoffs to the New England Patriots. This season, expect the same two teams to battle for the division crown with a different outcome.

Indianapolis Colts

After suffering through an abysmal 2011, rookie quarterback Andrew Luck led the surprising 2012 version of the Colts to an 11-5 record and a berth in the playoffs. That didn’t last long, however, as the Colts fell to the eventual champion Baltimore Ravens.

Feeling that they have all the tools in the right place, the Colts concentrated in the offseason on shoring up their reserves. Players such as wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey and quarterback Matt Hasselback have been brought in to improve the offense, while the defense picked up Florida State defensive end Bjoern Werner to replace the free agency departure of Dwight Freeney.

Last year, head coach Chuck Pagano battled leukemia and missed half of the season. Led by Bruce Arians for that time, the Colts rallied behind their head coach and nearly stormed to the division championship. With Luck behind center – and a full season of a now-healthy Pagano ready for action – the team should take the next step and topple the Texans from the division championship.

Prediction:  First (Record:  11-5)

Houston Texans

The Texans stormed out of the gate in 2012 in winning their first division championship ever, but injuries slowed them down over the last quarter of the season and led to a dismal showing in the AFC playoffs. While they still have some of the same components of the 2012 team, the 2013 Texans aren’t going to sneak up on anyone this time.

On defense, the Texans signed former Baltimore Raven Ed Reed to a free agent deal but, due to offseason surgery, Reed might not be ready for action when the season begins. The team also drafted another wideout, Clemson’s DeAndre Hopkins, who is expected to take some of the load off of All-Pro receiver Andre Johnson. The team also still has one of the preeminent running backs in the league in Arian Foster.

The question still remains for the Texans is whether Matt Schaub is the man to lead them to further success as the starting quarterback and, with that thought, whether head coach Gary Kubiak can lead a team to a title. After several seasons of flirting with playoff success, the Texans will have to come through this year with a berth in the playoffs pretty much assured.

Prediction:  Second (Record:  10-6)

Tennessee Titans

With a second year quarterback under center in Jake Locker, the Titans struggled in 2012 to make inroads back to the top of the division. That won’t change in 2013, either, as Locker has yet to prove himself to be a top-flight quarterback in the NFL.

The Titans did hit the free agent wire heavily in the offseason, but whether such notables as safety Bernard Pollard (who won’t have any New England Patriots to maim this season), former New York Jet running back Shonn Greene, former Texan wide receiver Kevin Walter and backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick can have an impact on the team remains to be seen. The key to success, however, lies in the hands of Locker.

If Locker can take the next step, the team may challenge for a .500 record this season, especially if running back Chris Johnson keeps his head on straight. Head coach Jeff Fisher has proven in the past his coaching acumen and the addition of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (he of the “Bountygate” infamy) should provide adequate leadership, but to expect anything of excellence out of the 2013 Titans is a huge reach.

Prediction:  Third (Record:  7-9)

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars were simply awful in 2012, ending up tied for the worst record in the NFL along with the Kansas City Chiefs. Entering into the 2013 season, the Jaguars have the bane of what all NFL teams look for, a quarterback controversy.

The incumbent, Blaine Gabbert, failed to wow the team when he was at the helm in 2012, so in comes Chad Henne to provide some competition. The battle between the two quarterbacks will be one of the most hotly watched competitions over training camp, but the winner will have a bare cupboard for the most part after he wins the job.

Although the Jaguars have human bowling ball Maurice Jones-Drew at running back, their hopes for reviving the offense rest on the shoulders of 2012 first round draft pick Justin Blackmon. They will have to wait for Blackmon this year, however, as he has already been suspended (he had a troubled collegiate career with Oklahoma State) for the first four games due to a violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy.

New head coach Gus Bradley will have his work cut out for him as the team tries to gel. With hope, he will be around long enough to see the fruits of his labor, but 2013 won’t be one for his coaching highlight reel.

Prediction:  Fourth (Record:  5-11)

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