Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Long And Suite Preview: The AFC South

Andrew Luck is the best quarterback in the division. But can he stay upright long enough for the Colts to take advantage?
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

The AFC South was a joke last season. They had the worst cumulative record (24-40) of any division in football. In fact, it was the worst cumulative record of any division from any year since the 2008 NFC West (22-42).

It was a weird season. The Colts beat each of the three best teams in football (Seattle, Denver, and San Francisco), then lost to the Rams and Cardinals by a combined 59 points. The Texans went 2-14, but five of those losses came by three points or less, and they under-performed their expected record (based on point differential) by a full two wins. The Jaguars went 4-12, but three of those wins came against the other crap teams in the division (two against Houston, one against Tennessee), and the other came against Cleveland. And none of the wins were by more than a touchdown. They lost their first eight games by an average of 22.5 points. That's some world-class suck. The Titans were your generic average team. They beat the crap teams and lost to the good teams. The only really surprising result was beating the Chargers.

The division should improve this year top to bottom. The two divisions they played last year were the AFC West and NFC West, far and away the two best divisions in football. The four teams in the AFC South played the four hardest schedules in the AFC (Houston played the hardest, then Jacksonville, Indianapolis, and Tennessee). This year, they'll play the NFC East (which could under-whelm again), and AFC North (ditto), offering an easier path towards respectability.

Here's how the division breaks down - separated into two groups. Teams better than you think they are, and teams not as good as you think they are:

(It should be noted here, and will be repeated, that how a team is classified here is not indicative of their relative quality within the division. For example, the Texans are listed as being better than advertised, and the Colts are listed as being worse. That doesn't necessarily mean that the Texans will be better than the Colts. It just means that one team is over-valued and one team is under-valued.)

These Teams Are Better Than You Think They Are

Houston Texans

2013 Result: 2-14, 4th in AFC South, Missed Playoffs
Odds To Win Division: +250
Over/Under Wins: 7.5

If they weren't starting Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback, I might pick them to win the Super Bowl. Granted, I am an idiot, but that's how much better Houston should be this year.

Consider what happened last year - Matt Schaub went full Section 8 and became entirely unplayable. Case Keenum took over and performed exactly as well as you'd expect an undrafted free agent with no previous NFL experience to perform. Brian Cushing broke his leg and missed half the season. Arian Foster missed half the season with various injuries of his own. They flirted with Ed Reed at safety before realizing what everyone else had already realized, which is that Ed Reed was washed up. They started the year 2-0, but once losses started racking up, the team pretty much gave up on the season and the coach.

So it's a new year, with a new coach, a new quarterback, and new beginnings. As mentioned above, they finished a full two wins below their expected win-loss record, so even if they just rolled back the same exact team with the same exact 53 guys, they would almost certainly improve by at least a game or two. Probably more.

But this team is actually better. Say what you want about Ryan Fitzpatrick, but he was substantially better during his time in Tennessee last year than the Schaub/Keenum combo were for Houston. Is he the savior of the franchise? No. But he's a decidedly average quarterback, which is far superior to the dumpster fire Houston had under center last year.

They lost Ben Tate to Cleveland, which means they don't quite have the depth at running back they're accustomed to, but when he's healthy, Arian Foster is a workhorse, capable of toting the ball upwards of 300 times a season, and Houston has shown a propensity to pull backs out of obscurity and turn them into productive backs (most famously, Foster, a former undrafted free agent). Andre Johnson is back, and DeAndre Hopkins had a promising rookie season - the two of them offer Houston one of the best 1-2 punches at receiver in the conference.

Defensively, all the relevant guys are back - J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus had good seasons rushing the passer last year, and their jobs are about to get easier thanks to the addition of All-World Superfreak Jadeveon Clowney, the first overall pick in the draft. If Houston has a weakness, it's in their secondary, but Watt, Clowney, and Mercilus harassing opposing quarterbacks from all angles should render than irrelevant.

If you're going to bet on any underdog to win their division, this should be your pick.


These Teams Aren't As Good As You Think They Are

Indianapolis Colts

2013 Result: 11-5, 1st in AFC South, Lost in Divisional Round
Odds To Win Division: -175
Over/Under Wins: 9.5

Which team is going to show up this year? The one that started 5-2, with wins over San Francisco, Seattle, and Denver, and an average scoring margin of +8.0? Or the team that finished 6-3, barely beating Houston and Tennessee, with blowout losses to St. Louis and Arizona and an average scoring margin of victory -0.1? The team that mounted a 28-point second half comeback against Kansas City in the playoffs? Or the team that fell behind 28 points in the first place (and the team that lost by three touchdowns to the Patriots the following week)?

For the second half of the season, the Colts were a decidedly average team. They out-performed their expected win-loss by a win and a half (an average differential of +3.4 for the season suggests they should have been closer to 9-7). Some of that could have to do with Andrew Luck's durability. No quarterback in the league was hit as often as Luck was last year, and it may have worn on him. In the first half of the season, playing a harder schedule, Luck had a quarterback rating of 91.5, averaged 7.5 yards per attempt, and had a 13-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. In the second half of the year, against a much easier schedule, he had a QB rating of 83.2, averaged 6.2 yards per attempt, and his TD-INT ratio fell to 10-6. Could the cumulative effect of all the hits caused a decline in performance? Even if that is, the case, it seems doubtful that the effect would still linger and be a factor 9 months later. But if they can't protect him, it could become an issue later in the season, like it may have last year.

They did add a few nice pieces, including wide receiver Hakeem Nicks and defensive tackle Arthur Jones. Nicks, if he stays healthy, will allow T.Y. Hilton to transition to a slot role, where he's probably better suited (which is not meant pejoratively - he was great on the outside last year), but for the most part, it's the same team as last year. Ahmad Bradshaw will also return from injury, but with a general inability to run block on the offensive line, I'm not sure how much of an impact that will bring.

The Colts should still be a good team, maybe even a playoff team, but it seems like the first half of last season was their best-case scenario, and they couldn't sustain it. Having an easier schedule won't help them much this year, because the good teams they played last year they already beat - it was the mediocre teams they had trouble with. And there are a lot of mediocre teams on their schedule this year. Improving on last year just doesn't seem very likely.


Jacksonville Jaguars

2013 Result: 4-12, 3rd in AFC South, Missed Playoffs
Odds To Win Division: +1800
Over/Under Wins: 5

Somehow the Jaguars only won four games and still exceeded their expected win-loss. They were outscored by 12.6 points per contest last year, the worst figure in the league, a number which suggests they should have won just over three games.

The Jaguars were garbage. They threw 16 touchdown passes as a team, and two of those came on trick plays from Maurice Jones-Drew and Ace Sanders. They were dead last in scoring offense, 31st in yards per rush, 31st in net yards per pass attempt, 30th in average drive time, 27th in average plays per drive, dead last in average points per drive, 31st in yards per completion, 24th in sack rate, and that's just on offense.

Defensively, they were at least an NFL-quality unit. 23rd in yards per play allowed, and were actually right at league average in rushing defense. But the combination of an abysmal offense and a bad (but not outrageously so) defense put them in the cellar of the league.

So now they have a new quarterback. They drafted Blake Bortles No. 3 overall out of Central Florida, and took receivers Marquise Lee and Allen Robinson in the second round to help him out. This may imply optimism (as change often does), but remember that the last time the Jaguars drafted a quarterback, it was Blaine Gabbert. So I'm not sure I trust their judgment on the subject. They ditched Maurice Jones-Drew and replaced him with Toby Gerhart, who has been a good back in limited reps in Minnesota, but has never held a full-time starting job.

The defense should take a step up. Red Bryant and Chris Clemons, two key figures on the Super Bowl Champion Seahawks' defense signed in north Florida during the offseason, which will at least give them some consistency on the defensive line. But their back seven is still a hodge-podge of no-name's, has-been's, and never-will-be's. In some instances, you can say a dominant defensive line can negate a shaky secondary, but Jacksonville's defensive line is not dominant. Adding Bryant and Clemons puts the Jaguars front four in the neighborhood of "approaching average."

Bortles very well may develop into a good quarterback. But he's a rookie. And rookie quarterbacks usually perform like Geno Smith, not Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III. The offensive line is still shaky at best, which means there won't be much on the ground, either. With an offense that still barely scrapes "terrible" without being "historically terrible," the Jaguars should be the worst team in the league again this year.


This Team is Exactly What You Think It Is

Tennessee Titans

2013 Result: 7-9, 2nd in AFC South, Missed Playoffs
Odds To Win Division: +500
Over/Under Wins: 7

It would be great for me to sit here and tell you how the Titans are either going to shock the world or go down in flames, but the truth is far less interesting. This is a boring, boring team. A team with a capable offensive line and solid tight end, but no quarterback that can stay healthy and a top receiver named Nate Washington, best known for being Pittsburgh's third best receiver in 2008.

Tennessee has 6-8 wins written all over it, and none of its games will be fun to watch.

If Jake Locker stays healthy, give them eight, but Shonn Greene isn't the answer at running back, and Shaun Phillips, at his age, isn't the dynamic edge rusher they need to complement powerful tackle Jurrell Casey.

Tennessee is a part or two away in every facet. Give them a healthy Jake Locker and a decent receiver, then that offensive line, which features Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack at guard, plus veteran Michael Roos and first round pick Taylor Lewan at tackle, could really do some damage.

Defensively, the Titans are built strong up the middle, with Casey on the line, veteran Wesley Woodyard at LB and the pair of Bernard Pollard and Michael Griffin at safety, but Tennessee will be sorely lacking coverage guys on the outside with Alterraun Verner now departed and a slew of aging veterans at outside linebacker.

It's not that Tennessee is bad. They have the foundation of a good team, but they need a true play maker here or there to take the next step. Bascially, they're ok, but they're not good, and you already knew that.


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