Originally posted on The Sports Headquarters  |  Last updated 8/22/13
Since its 2002 inception, the AFC South was the domain of Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts but in the last two years, there has been a power shift at the top. Houston has grown up and are now considered as one of the more formidable teams in the NFL. While they have had trouble advancing past the second round of the playoffs Houston have won their division each of the last two seasons and will look for their third straight title this year. Indianapolis earned a wild card spot last season on the back of Andrew Luck’s rookie season and the emotional boost from coach Chuck Pagano’s cancer battle. Tennessee had a disappointing year as their stars failed to fire and they ended the year at 6-10 while the Jaguars battled injuries and incompetence to finish at the floor of the division with a 2-14 record. This year the key players in this division are the four quarterbacks as they all have something to prove. Houston Texans Will Matt Schaub be able to step up and get the Texans over their playoff hump? Over the past two seasons Schaub has been an integral part of getting the Texans to the playoffs but he has failed to show up in both playoff runs. The first year was through a legitimate injury that knocked him out for the season but last year’s efforts were poor as Houston stumbled through their first game before being dominated by the Patriots. Despite being rewarded with a contract extension just last year, the Texans will be in position to move on from should they decide Schaub’s shelf life has run its course. With no guaranteed salaries after this season, Houston will be able to cut Schaub with no financial implications after this year and with the quarterback moving into his mid-30’s they may look to get younger at the position. In Gary Kubiak’s quarterback friendly system Schaub has had some solid production posting three 4000 yard seasons but has also had double digit interceptions in each of those three years. To help the passing game out Houston went out and drafted wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins from Clemson to take some of the pressure of the ageing but still effective Andre Johnson. The defense will still be effective with J.J. Watt up front causing havoc among offensive linemen and ball hawking safety Ed Reed coming over from Baltimore to see out the end of his career. Houston is still the most talented team in the division and they will likely find themselves between their 10-6 record of 2011 and the 12-4 efforts from last year. Indianapolis Colts Can Andrew Luck make the second year leap and carry the team back to the playoffs? After an impressive 11-5 record last year, the Colts will be looking to capitalise on their Cinderella story of a year ago and give the current regime their first division title. With 9 of their 11 victories coming by one score or less, the Colts certainly knew how to pull through of a tight spot with Luck being at the center of the drama on more than one occasion. While his win-loss record is impressive for a rookie, his overall stat line left something to be desired. With a completion percentage below 55% and throwing over 600 passes, Luck will need to improve his on-field production to increase the efficiency of the offense. Luck will no longer be the rookie taking the league by storm this season and the Colts will have to come up with a new way to attack opponents. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians has left and in comes Luck’s college coordinator Pep Hamilton who helped guide Luck through his formative years at Stanford. Matt Hasselbeck comes over from Tennessee to provide a teaching voice as Luck’s backup while former Giants back Ahmad Bradshaw (scorer of the most awkward touchdown in Super Bowl history) will give the ground game a sense of legitimacy if he can stay healthy. The offensive line has also been boosted with the additions of guard Donald Thomas and tackle Gosder Cherilus to hopefully give the passing game more time to function. The Indianapolis rebuilding project got off to a better than expected start in year one but the second season will likely see a drop off as the emotion of the first year is hard to replicate. The team will still win more games than they lose but the playoffs appear to be just beyond their reach. Jacksonville Jaguars Does the organization have any faith left in Blaine Gabbert? There is no doubt that the Jaguars are built as a run first team with Maurice Jones-Drew leading the way but he cannot do it alone and after two sub-par seasons, the time is now for Blaine Gabbert to salvage his career. With just 21 touchdowns from 25 games so far, Gabbert has produced well below the expectations of a first round pick. His 2013 rejuvenation project has been made much more difficult however with the news that his top receiver, Justin Blackmon has been suspended for the start of the year and based on his preseason efforts so far, is not the most stable of options. With a healthy Jones-Drew behind him, Gabbert will not be asked to carry the load with a group of subpar receivers. Next in line will be Cecil Shorts who fell just short of a 1000 yard season after a week 16 concussion ended his year. Whether he is able to replicate the production early on in the season or not, he will be supported by rookies Ace Sanders and Denard Robinson who looms as a potential X factor once he finds a role in the system. Overall it is hard to see Gabbert performing at a level where he can salvage his career and it would not be at all surprising to see Chad Henne taking snaps eventually during the season. Jacksonville as a team meanwhile, will double and with a bit of luck, maybe even triple their win total from last year, unfortunately that still won’t be enough to get the team too far up the AFC power rankings. Tennessee Titans Is Jake Locker really the right quarterback for the Titans? After winning the Titans starting job last season Locker’s campaign was marred by a shoulder injury that knocked him out for five games. This year Locker returns as the undisputed starter and leader of the offense that has the potential to be scarily good. One of the knocks on Locker since his college days has been his lack of accuracy but with the receivers on the roster, he does not have to be on the money with all of his throws. Kenny Britt, Kendall Wright and rookie Justin Hunter are all tall targets with long arms giving Locker a wider window to throw too. Even if Britt is unable to stay out of legal trouble, there are enough weapons to keep the passing game going. Needless to say health will also play a part in the success and with Britt and Wright already reportedly battling injuries one of the experienced targets will need to stay healthy. The group is complimented by a solid second string group led by Delainie Walker and Nate Washington who are reliable if not spectacular. With the addition of Shonn Greene to help provide some variety to the ground game the potential is there for Jake Locker to succeed and have a career year in 2013. This is his chance to succeed as the Titans look to return to the playoffs however they do face a tough division and a rough schedule. Breaking even on the season should be the bare minimum level of success but that is about as far as they will go.
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