AFC South: Things to consider

Every team in the AFC South has significant questions to address, but the Houston Texans a little less so than the others. Meanwhile, young QB's Andrew Luck and Jake Locker will get their chance to shine.
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck looks like a potential great one, if his offensive line gives him a little bit of time to operate. (Richard Lipski/Associated Press)

The fourth of an eight-part series on the league's divisions, featuring a look at NFL team's roster changes, 2011 statistics, and 2012 schedule occurrences to consider.

The AFC South, full of the promise of youth. Andrew Luck (Indianapolis) will be watched closely after being selected first overall, joining the division's youth brigade under centre along with Jake Locker (Tennessee) and Blaine Gabbert (Jacksonville).

Even heavy division favourites Houston aren't all that old.

Of course, focusing on youth is a polite way of saying that this division will possibly house three mediocre teams.

The AFC South teams this season will battle with those from NFC North and AFC East, meaning they face Green Bay and New England, who were a combined 28-4 last year. 

Recent division winners

  • 2011: Houston
  • 2009-10: Indianapolis
  • 2008: Tennessee
  • 2003-07: Indianapolis
  • 2002: Tennessee

Statistics below refer to 2011 regular season games unless otherwise noted. End of season trend includes playoff games. Close games refer to games decided by seven or less points.

Houston Texans

  • Average wins, past 5 years: 8.2
  • 2011 record: 10-6
  • Record in close games: 4-4
  • Avg. loss margin: 14.5 points
  • Avg. win margin: 7.7 points
  • Games with 20 or more points scored: 11
  • Games with 20 or less allowed: 11
  • End of season trend: 5-3

Good vibes: Coming off franchise's first postseason appearance ever …They just simply have better skilled players and more depth than their division mates  … Arian Foster and Ben Tate might be the best 1-2 running punch in the league … Matt Schaub had second best passer rating in AFC … WR Andre Johnson one of the best when healthy … Core group of players and coaches who've battled adversity to reach playoff team status … Wade Phillips helped spearhead a significant defensive improvement, with a nice pass rush … Wisely drafted a pair of receivers for a group that's not deepest in NFL. 

Caution signs: Johnson is great, but has missed a dozen games the last two years … QB also needs to stay healthy; T.J. Yates was admirable in a tough spot but he or John Beck can't keep team at Schaub's level … Will need to go with Plan B after the rookie kicker they drafted just suffered a season-ending injury … There's room to grow in the department of forcing turnovers and secondary was solid not great … Schedule's OK but still have to face GB, NE, BAL, DET (Face Lions on the road, on four day's rest).

Who knows: The key questions are the health of Schaub and Johnson and whether his group will have the fire to get to the next level of greatness, given a division that could make a group complacent.

Indianapolis Colts

  • Average wins, past 5 years: 10.2
  • 2011 record: 2-14
  • Record in close games: 1-5
  • Avg. loss margin:  14.6  points
  • Avg. win margin: 8.5 points
  • Games with 20 or more points scored: 4
  • Games with 20 or less allowed: 4
  • End of season trend: 2-2

Good vibes: Return a number of decent players who won't face adversity as disastrous as last year. They could have packed it in around Week 10 but the last six games were all close … Rookie QB Andrew Luck is heralded as possessing the skills, intelligence and maturity to succeed for years … Replaced a passive coach with a first timer, Chuck Pagano, from Baltimore's fiery defensive side … Hired the respected longtime Steelers OC Bruce Arians …Schedule pluses: CHI-MIN-JAX to start off is not a murderous start, they face other 2011 strugglers CLE, KC, and they don't face presumed division-best HOU until their 14th game … Change to a more attacking style of defence long overdue.

Caution signs: Schedule negatives: Bye week after just three games, plus those contests with the Pats and Packers … Drafted eight out of 10 picks from offensive side of ball, which seems a bit imbalanced given the fact they had some defensive issues … Passionate LB Pat Angerer will miss start of season, one of a number of injury issues already … Perhaps rookie Vick Ballard will wow, but on paper the ground game is merely OK … Defensive attitude change welcome, but probably lack the depth to pull it off right away … Were next-to-last in 3rd down and red zone defence.

Who knows: Luck will be put to the test of durability given a so-so looking offensive line and running game … How will they replace Pierre Garcon's 70 catches? … Unless the defence significantly improves, Luck could be playing a lot of catch-up ball.

Jacksonville Jaguars

  • Average wins, past 5 years: 7
  • 2011 record: 5-11
  • Record in close games: 3-5
  • Avg. loss margin: 11.6  points
  • Avg. win margin: 15.5 points
  • Games with 20 or more points scored: 2
  • Games with 20 or less allowed: 9
  • End of season trend: 2-5

Good vibes: QB Blaine Gabbert has a ton of room to grow given last year's struggles, and now has a head coach who is more offensive minded (Mike Mularkey) … Can't do much worse than just two games over 20 points … If Gabbert is dismal again, Chad Henne is better than a lot of backups …  It appears Maurice Jones-Drew and the team will make up after some tenseness, which is vital to the team's success … Depth bolstered at receiver: Justin Blackmon may have off-field issues, but has looked like a top draft pick in the pre-season, and they signed Laurent Robinson, who impressed last season in Dallas … Retained DC Mel Tucker after a strong performance from group, who forced a good number of turnovers … Play just two 2011 playoff teams in first six games, and none who won more than 10 games during that span.

Caution signs: Gabbert was jumpy last season, which is on him and the offensive line play … Offence and defence combined, were a poor red zone team … Given their location, they log many air miles, and consecutive October road games in Oakland and Green Bay are not ideal … Secondary isn't the youngest such group in the league, and some are coming off significant injuries … Don't get the kind of boost other teams do from their fanbase.

Who knows: When Jones-Drew comes back, will he brood or suffer from lack of reps like Tennessee's Chris Johnson did last year? … They'll figure to need tight end Marcedes Lewis more closely resemble his 2010 season, not his production of last year.

Tennessee Titans

  • Average wins, past 5 years: 9.2
  • 2011 record: 9-7
  • Record in close games: 5-4
  • Avg. loss margin: 13.3 points
  • Avg. win margin: 10.8 points
  • Games with 20 or more points scored: 8
  • Games with 20 or less allowed: 9
  • End of season trend: 5-3

Good vibes: Just lost out on a playoff berth on a tiebreaker …Worked to quell any incipient controversy at QB by naming Jake Locker as starter … That said, if Locker falters, probably have league's best backup in Matt Hasselbeck … You might be surprised to learn that five Titans had at least 45 catches in 2011, even without Kenny Britt … Super talented RB Chris Johnson, who should be motivated after off season … Mike Munchak seems like a coach for the long haul despite his relative newness  … After a couple of initial bumps, they were competitive in every one of the last 10 games … Offensive line now fully adjusted to last year's changes in blocking schemes.

Caution signs: Locker not universally touted by tape hounds … Locker being thrown into the fire big time to start: NE, @SD, DET, @HOU, @MIN, PIT … Face the Steelers just four days after facing Vikes… Lost strong kick returner Marc Mariani to broken leg last week … Former top receiver Britt coming off injury and will likely have to serve suspension to start for off-field shenanigans … Poor third down defence last season.

Who knows: It's a real gutsy call not giving Hasselbeck first shot given the daunting first six games they face … This season will answer whether Titans have a strong enough core group to make a playoff push as they only made a couple of veteran signings in the offseason.