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The Road To The Super Bowl, AFC South

   by Wayne Root - 08/07/2012

This is a series of Conference Previews as the 2012 NFL Season is just 1 weeks from the Preseason start. As the season progresses, I will be updating these predictions as upsets and "key" injuries can change the course of action in a nano-second. There have been some off-season trades and the chemistry and the locker-room antics will be closely monitored during the two-a-day practices in the heat of August. This early season guide will allow you to stay updated on last seasons strengths and weakness and what lies ahead for each team this season.

AFC SOUTH:

Last season the Texans had no problems getting to the playoffs without their QB, RB, WR and LB all out with injuries. This season is NOT about winning their Division but about winning the Super Bowl. All they need to do is stay healthy. They have but one rival worthy of beating them in the Tennessee Titans. But the Titans have to first decide if it's Matt Hasselbeck or Jake Locker at QB. Jacksonville is rebuilding at QB and will be just below .500 and the Colts will need some "Luck" on their side to win 4 games.

HOUSTON TEXANS---The 2011 NFL betting campaign was a long time coming for the fans of the Houston Texans. Tons went wrong for the Texans, including the fact that RB Arian Foster started the year injured, WR Andre Johnson spent two different stints on the sidelines, LB Mario Williams was out for basically three quarters of the year, and QB Matt Schaub and QB Matt Leinart both suffered season-ending injuries within about a half of football of one another. It was amazing to think that this team was able to make the playoffs for the first time in team history and win a playoff game in spite of these facts. However, in the end, Houston finally got the job done and got into the playoffs. One would think that if the Texans would have had a healthy Matt Schaub, they might have gone a little deeper into the playoffs. Rookie QB TJ Yates got the Texans out of the first round of the playoffs for the first time, though the dream of getting to the Super Bowl tapered out in Baltimore a week after beating the Cincinnati Bengals. Hopes are high this year for Houston once again though, and it is one of the favorites on the odds to win the AFC as well. The Texans did have some notable losses in the offseason, including those of Williams (to the Buffalo Bills) and OT Eric Winston (to the Kansas City Chiefs). However, if healthy, this is clearly the best team in this division, and it should get back to the playoffs once again this year. The passing game didn't have the same explosion when T.J. Yates was in the game. Losing Mario Williams won't prove to be that big of a loss, as they played almost the entire season without him, but losing Joel Dreessen might be devastating. He caught passes, run-blocked, pass-blocked—everything. There wasn't any area in which he didn't excel in the Texans offense. The offense should be back and healthy in the end, though the team is going to be searching for one of its rookie receivers, Dwight Jones, Keshawn Martin, or DeVier Posey to flank Johnson. For four weeks straight during the season, the Texans won't leave Houston. Weeks 6, 7 and 9 are all home games, while their bye is in at Week 8. It will be a good time for them to kind of regroup, as three of their four previous games will be on the road prior to Week 6. Houston should have no problem running away with the division for the second straight year.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS---The long road to rebuilding begins once again for the Indianapolis Colts. The last time that the Colts rebuilt like this was when the team hitched to QB Peyton Manning. After an iffy rookie year though, Manning was able to lead the team to prominence. Now though, he is a member of the Denver Broncos after leaving via free agency, and the hopes of the franchise are on the back of QB Andrew Luck, who was the top pick in this past year’s NFL Draft. Luck is a once-in-a-lifetime type of prospect, just as his predecessor, Peyton Manning was, but now that Manning is gone, there isn't a lot for Luck to learn from. The rushing game was terrible last year, and the passing game still really doesn't have much in the way of weapons. Andrew Luck, Coby Fleener and Reggie Wayne sounds a little odd when you compare it to Peyton Manning, Dallas Clark and Reggie Wayne. The latter group has a lot more tradition behind it, but the Colts can't look in the rear-view mirror forever. Sometimes, blowing things up and starting over is the best way to do things, especially when a whole new regime comes in and takes over. There will be plenty of growing pains along the way, but with new players who have proven themselves in other cities, one has to feel like the offseason was a success. Unlike with Manning though, there just aren’t all that many pieces to the puzzle around Luck that can really help him immediately. It just isn’t a good feeling for Luck to have a patchwork group of receivers and an even more embarrassing defense to work with. Winning four or five games and staying remotely competitive has to be the goal for the Colts in 2012 after a horrifying season last year. Starting in Week 2, the Colts have a three-game stand that has a couple winnable games for their taking, but after that, the Colts won't see Lucas Oil Stadium two weeks in a row for the rest of the season. Having quite a few home games early in the season might allow Luck to feel more comfortable, which could help him during the tail end of the season.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS---Times, they are changing for the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jags now have some new ownership and a new coaching staff that will hope to lead them in the right direction once again after years of disappointment under old Head Coach Jack Del Rio. RB Maurice Jones-Drew (hold-out) is clearly going to be the catalyst for this offense after leading the team in rushing in 2011 and surpassing the great RB Fred Taylor for the franchise lead in rushing yards. WR Justin Blackmon should help stretch the field, but QB Blaine Gabbert was atrocious last season, and that doesn't figure to change all that much in 2012. So many things can be said about the Jacksonville Jaguars, but not very many of them are positive. During free agency, the Jaguars made a model of how to overspend for mediocre free agents. Laurent Robinson and Aaron Ross both received more money than they should have. Robinson is coming off of a season in which he was finally healthy and showed he could catch the ball without suffering a drop on every other target. Will Robinson prove that he was just more than a one-year wonder? Doubtful, considering Blaine Gabbert is his quarterback. However, there has been a clear effort made at trying to stretch the field just a bit. QB Blaine Gabbert had a disastrous rookie campaign, but he did get at least a little bit better at the end of last year and should be a candidate for a big improvement this year. He now has the best rookie receiver in the league in WR Justin Blackmon to work with as well, and that can only help a team that was a disaster basically everywhere else but in the running game in 2011. The Jaguars face a tough road again this year. Jacksonville has a pretty standard schedule, minus the fact it has two sets of back-to-back home games.The Jags have two division games during the first half of the season and four in the second half. Still, with a new coaching staff and new ownership, at least the tide is changing in Jacksonville, but there is still a big question as to whether it is for the better or not.

TENNESSEE TITANS---If there is a team that is going to come out of nowhere to win the AFC South this year though, it is going to be the Tennessee Titans. The rest of the South is weak, and the Titans know that they snuck up on some teams last year and nearly were contenders for a spot in the postseason. The Titans only missed out on the playoffs in the last week of the year, and they might be a sneaky pick at +475 this year to win the AFC South. It is clear that the time is coming for QB Jake Locker to take over as the quarterback for Tennessee. RB Chris Johnson held out at the beginning of the offseason in 2011, finally got the contract that he wanted, and then proceeded to arguably be the biggest disappointment in the league. Whether Matt Hasselbeck or Jake Locker is the starting quarterback, it's important Chris Johnson runs like he means it and Kenny Britt returns as the threat he was before he was injured. Kendall Wright has been added to take some of the pressure off Britt, so expect him to stretch the field and draw plenty of attention on downfield targets. What’s even better is that WR Kenny Britt back from his early season ending injury from 2011, and RB Chris Johnson can’t possibly end up being as bad as he was a year ago. QB Jake Locker is likely to end up taking over under center for Tennessee, and he definitely showed some moments of potential brilliance last year. If the offense can get back on track, a young defense should be able to make the Titans a force in this weak division. On defense, Kamerion Wimbley was added to help kick-start the pass-rush. Cortland Finnegan left for St. Louis, but he wasn't worth the money, as Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner have proved to be just as reliable. The Titans only play back-to-back home games and back-to-back away games once each. In the first half of the season, the Titans only have two division games scheduled, one at home and one on the road. Tennessee won't knock off Houston, but it should finish strong. Will it be enough? Though we don’t think that it will be to win the AFC South, getting into the playoffs is at least a possibility in the top-heavy AFC.

WARs PREDICTIONS: Houston should have no problem running away with this Division. You can throw out the Jags and Colts so that only leaves the Titans. I think the middle of the schedule is one of the biggest advantages I've seen of late. Houston will be well rested when week 10 begins for their run to the Playoffs.

1st...HOUSTON

2nd...TENNESSEE

3rd...JACKSONVILLE

4th...INDIANAPOLIS.

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