The question is not "Will the Texans win the AFC South?" but "What will the Texans do once they win the AFC South?" The Colts are the Texans' only serious competition, but all indicators except Jim Irsay's bank balance point toward regression to the mean after their inspiring/stunning/lucky 2012 season. So it is up to the Texans to scratch and claw into position to host the playoffs, and to prove that their 1990s nostalgic offense can win after New Year's in 2014. The Titans and Jaguars are in various stages of rebuilding. (The preceding sentence provided by Microsoft AutoText 2010.)
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In a tweet: Beating the Bengals in the playoffs is like kissing your sister. On the hand. During the Belk Bowl.
What's New: Ed Reed provides all of that winnery-leadery stuff to a playoff-timid franchise, though at age 35 (come September) he does not provide that significant an upgrade. Rookie DeAndre Hopkins diversifies a passing game that started and ended with Andre Johnson last year. Randy Bullock and Shane Lechler improve the kickoff and punting units. Bullock is a second-year kicker with a big leg who missed 2012 with a groin injury. Lechler is like Reed: an all-time great who would have had a more meaningful impact two or three years ago. Yes, the Texans are grasping for any tiny edge they can get.
What's Old: These are the same Texans you have grown to know and love (or at least tolerate) over the Gary Kubiak years. Arian Foster runs the zone stretch. Duane Brown and the offensive linemen work the fringes of cut-blocking legality. Matt Schaub fakes the handoff to Foster and rolls out in search of Johnson. J.J. Watt plays like the love child of Bruce Smith and Dikembe Mutombo. It's a successful business plan that collapses in early January, kind of like a Christmas tree farm.
Football Outsiders Stat: The Texans use shotgun formations on just 22 percent of offensive plays, the lowest percentage in the NFL. They "big blitz" six or more defenders 17.8 percent of the time, the highest percentage in the NFL. Texans strategies may not be chic, but they are distinctive.
Best Case Scenario: All of the little improvements add up. Bullock and Lechler prevent opponents from killing the Texans in the return game. Hopkins takes double coverage from Johnson and eight-man boxes from Foster. Reed provides a few interceptions and a little magic. The playoffs roll though Houston instead of Denver or Foxborough, and the Texans finally stop playing like they get nosebleeds in mid-January.
Worst-Case Scenario: Double-digit wins, a playoff victory over the Bengals, a loss to a true contender, wash, rinse and please don't repeat.
Bottom Line: The Texans are too good, and the bottom of the AFC South is too bad, to predict anything below a 10-win finish and postseason appearance. But the Texans are trapped on that second rung of playoff contenders, and the last step is a doozy. Look for the Ravens-Seahawks-49ers slate in Weeks 3-5 to reveal the true nature of this team. Winning all three would be a tall order, but demonstrating that they have multiple ways to win -- that they can come from behind, win with special teams or win without a big game from Foster, for example -- will show that they are more championship-ready. Conversely, a couple of losses will show that these are the same old Texans, even if they waltz through the easy parts of their schedule.
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In a tweet: "IN MY CONCORDE, POURIN CHIVAS, TOSSIN $, JAMMIN TO KATY LIED, HERE COMES A SUB.500 SEASON!" Jim Irsay.
What's New: Someone replaced the Steely Dan in Jim Irsay's eight-track player with Macklemore. Unfortunately, Irsay listened to "Thrift Shop" without really hearing it. Like a socialite buying ripped jeans and faux-retro clothing at a downtown boutique, Irsay paid top dollar for dollar-store free agents like Erik Walden, Ahmad Bradshaw, Gosder Cherilus (more of a Target free agent, but you get the idea), Ricky Jean-Francois, LaRon Landry and others. Irsay spent the offseason gleefully tweeting about the SERIOUS COIN he was spending, which is always a sign of well-thought out investment planning.
What's Old: Reggie Wayne, Robert Mathis and Adam Vinatieri are just about the only recognizable names from the Peyton Manning glory days. Wunderkind general manager Ryan Grigson's fingerprints are all over the roster (Irsay just writes checks and pours shots), and the legion of free agents joins an Andrew Luck-led blob of genetic material that has not really formed into a nucleus yet.
Football Outsiders Stat: Luck was knocked down a league-high 122 times last year. For all the hand-wringing about read-option tactics, Bruce Arians' vertical offense and makeshift offensive line was just as dangerous to a young quarterback's health. New coordinator Pep Hamilton brings the Stanford tactics that made Luck a household name and helped make the 49ers contenders: The running game and checkdown targets are back in the game plan. Also, good luck with Arians and a bad line in Arizona, Carson Palmer.
Best-Case Scenario: At least some of the free agents become the players Irsay and Grigson are paying them to be. Hamilton's system sticks, a defense that was quietly terrible in 2012 gels and the Colts return to the playoffs.
Worst-Case Scenario: It turns out that Landry is a beat-up injury case, Bradshaw a broken down committee back, Cherilus and Jean-Francois so-so journeyman and Walden … heck, no one is really sure what the Colts see in Walden.
Bottom Line: Going 7-9 would not be a catastrophe; anyone can see that last year's 11-5 finish was the result of a soft schedule and some lightning-in-a-bottle wins. Long-term cap problems caused by a delusional offseason could turn out to be a larger problem. Cherilus, Landry, Jean-Francois and Walden eat up more than $18 million in 2014 and $24 million in 2015, serious coin for a bunch of journeymen. If the Colts are forced to let a member of the Luck nucleus go in a few years so they can pay old bills from this year, we may look back at Irsay's tipsy-flyboy tweets and Grigson's golden boy reputation, and do something other than laugh.
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In a tweet: The Titans are going back to their roots? Someone get Eddie George some extra-strength Tylenol.
What's New: Bud Adams did one of those kinda-sorta house cleanings you do when you are not really sure what a clean house looks like anymore. General manager Ruston Webster moves up to replace departed team president Mike Reinfeldt, while former quarterback coach Dowell Loggains takes over for offensive coordinator Chris Palmer. Mike Munchak is still the head coach, and he insists that the team will re-establish the run. Also, Gregg Williams is in town as part of his post-Bountygate penitence tour. So the unheralded subordinates for ineffective coaches-execs were promoted and the head coach is spouting clichés about outdated tactics. GET YOUR SEASON TICKETS NOW!!!!
What's Old: Yes, the Titans are still waiting around for Chris Johnson to have another 2,000-yard season and Jake Locker to get the football within three yards of a receiver's hands. A lot of talent is still around from the team's 9-7 finish two years ago, but that is more bug than feature: That team was an easy-schedule and close-win fluke that needed much more than cosmetic upgrades.
Telling Stat: In the last three years, the Titans have ranked 31st, 29th and 28th in running back "stuffed" percentage, as a CJ2K-powered running game guarantees that a quarter of all running plays will end in a loss. On the bright side, the rankings above suggest that the Titans are getting better, and Shonn Greene's arrival as the change-up back means that nine stuffs and a 60-yard run will be replaced by 10 three-yard runs.
Best-Case Scenario: Locker blossoms. The rebuilt Andy Levitre-Chance Warmack interior line escorts CJ2K to the second level where he can do some good. Mid-tier free agent acquisitions like Sammie Hill and Bernard Pollard toughen the defense. The division is weak enough for another surprise 9-7 finish.
Worst-Case Scenario: Another wasted year of Locker indecision, highlight-per-month Johnson performances and general organizational wheel-spinning.
Bottom Line: The Titans are not as bad as they are dormant. They feel like a placeholder franchise, existing to keep the schedule even and generate fantasy production for Johnson. There's .500 talent in a lot of places, but no playoff talent anywhere, including the coaching staff or front office. It may be too early to give up on Munchak and Locker, but neither has offered much cause for optimism. There does not even appear to be a coherent rebuilding plan in place: another example of how a fluky playoff run at the start of a coach's tenure can be as much a curse as a blessing.
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In a tweet: The David Caldwell-Gus Bradley Jaguars are working hard. The Gene Smith-Mike Mularkey Jaguars were hardly working.
What's New: The Gene Smith era of duhhhhhhh has ended. That means no more third-round punters or free agents who go on record calling the Jaguars a paid "vacation" (see Aaron Ross). Bradley will try to remake the Jaguars in Pete Carroll's image, while Caldwell brings from-the-ashes rebuilding tactics he learned in the Falcons front office. Left tackle Luke Joeckel and slashtastic Denard Robinson headline a productive draft. The Jaguars also have new uniforms, though it looks as though the designers got halfway through painting the helmets and just stopped.
What's Old: Watching Blaine Gabbert develop over three years has been like watching someone try to fly a kite in a swamp. Maurice Jones-Drew is back after an injury-marred season. The Jaguars still have no national identity and massive ticket-sale issues, making them the first team to cross the pond whenever Roger Goodell decides he wants kippers for breakfast.
Football Outsiders Stat: Mularkey used a no-tight end set on 15.1 percent of offensive plays last year, highest in the NFL, even though Marcedes Lewis was one of the Jaguars' few reliable offensive weapons. The Jaguars ran the ball only twice from those no-tight end sets. In other words, Mularkey took one of his best players off the field 15 percent of the time, then made sure his plans were as predictable as possible on those plays. On the other hand, he did not draft a punter in the third round or spend $13-million guaranteed on Laurent Robinson, so he had several legs up on his general manager.
Best-Case Scenario: Gabbert is younger than many 2013 rookies, so it is not crazy to think he could blossom suddenly. There is talent speckled across the roster, and Bradley was a hot commodity on the coaching interview circuit. Everything could come together for a .500-ish season. Or, Gabbert could flat-line with some finality, allowing Bradley and Caldwell to undertake an even more thorough rebuild.
Worst-Case Scenario: If the Jaguars go into 2014 dithering between Gabbert and Chad Henne, they might as well do it overseas.
Bottom Line: The Jaguars wasted the 2011 and 2012 seasons on Smith, Mularkey and the dregs of the Jack Del Rio era. The outgoing brain trust was so overmatched that they squandered many of the franchise's meager resources. The new regime has better football ideas but must deal with talent deficiencies that cannot be solved with one draft and some new-age offensive and defensive tactics. The Jaguars are not preordained to become the London Monarchs or the NFL's perennial 98-pound weaklings, but they are sentenced to another year on the rebuilding treadmill. At least this time they have a chance to get some traction.
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