Will the Houston Texans Repeat As AFC South Champs?
1. Houston Texans
2011 RECORD: 10–6
Houston is coming off its first playoff appearance in franchise history and has a loaded squad this season. The Texans showed a lot of toughness in 2011, winning the AFC South title despite losing QB Matt Schaub, WR Andre Johnson, and DE Mario Williams to injuries. With Schaub and Johnson now at full strength and RB Arian Foster (1,224 yards, 10 TDs) in his prime, Houston will have one of the most powerful offenses in the NFL. The team also has dependable backups in QB T.J. Yates and RB Ben Tate. The defense was dealt a blow when Williams signed with Buffalo in the off-season, but LBs Brian Cushing (114 tackles) and Connor Barwin (11.5 sacks) can help the unit hold down opposing offenses. Rookie DE Whitney Mercilus, a 2012 first-round pick, could make an instant impact with his pass-rushing ability.
BOTTOM LINE: No team in the division can match Houston's firepower and depth.
[Photo Gallery: NFL's Hardest Working Players]
2. Jacksonville Jaguars
2011 RECORD: 5–11
This off-season was all about finding help for QB Blaine Gabbert, who had a rough rookie year (2,214 yards, 12 TDs). Jacksonville signed WR Laurent Robinson (11 TDs) from Dallas and selected WR Justin Blackmon in the first round of the draft. Jacksonville needs to balance an offense that has relied on NFL rushing leader Maurice Jones-Drew (1,606 yards). The Jags' defense is in good shape. LBs Daryl Smith (107 tackles) and Paul Posluszny (119 tackles) anchor a unit that allowed just 313 yards per game, sixth-best in the NFL.
BOTTOM LINE: The passing game has to get much better for the Jags to finish with a winning record.
3. Tennessee Titans
2011 RECORD: 9–7
The Titans pulled out some gritty wins last year despite two major issues: their weak pass rush and poor offensive line. In the off-season Tennessee signed veteran DE Kamerion Wimbley (seven sacks) to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks and G Steve Hutchinson to open running lanes for RB Chris Johnson (1,047 yards, four TDs), who averaged just 65.4 yards per game in 2011. Hutchinson will also help protect the quarterback, either veteran Matt Hasselbeck (3,571 yards, 18 TDs) or QB of the future Jake Locker.
BOTTOM LINE: For Tennessee to keep pace with the Texans and Jaguars, Johnson must have a bounce-back year.
[Photo Gallery: NFL's Gutsiest Offseason Decisions]
4. Indianapolis Colts
2011 RECORD: 2–14
After a woeful 2011 season, the Colts are ready for a fresh start with rookie QB Andrew Luck. The Number 1 pick of the 2012 draft could make an immediate impact throwing to receivers Reggie Wayne (960 yards, four TDs) and Austin Collie (514 yards). The Colts also replaced TE Dallas Clark with rookie Coby Fleener, Luck's teammate at Stanford. Indy will need to score a lot because the aging defense, led by pass rushers Robert Mathis (9.5 sacks) and Dwight Freeney (8.5 sacks), will have trouble stopping teams.
BOTTOM LINE: With Luck under center the Colts' future is bright, but six wins is the most the team can expect in this rebuilding year.