AFC South Preview (August 15, 2010)

HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK

INDIANAPOLIS DYNASTY
AS STRONG AS EVER

by Mathew Hurley, Managing Editor

It seems like every year the pundits expect the Indianapolis Colts to fall back to earth. Peyton Manning CAN'T keep winning all the close games. That undersized defense CAN'T keep winning as opponents keep getting bigger and stronger. They're not as 'well coached' as New England. They're not as 'explosive' as San Diego. They're not as 'physical' as Pittsburgh. Yet, IT'S STILL A DYNASY!

The Bill Polian/Peyton Manning/Tony Dungy era gave way to the Polian/Manning/Jim Caldwell era without missing a beat. If anything, the team got better! Indianapolis posted a 14-2 record last year that could have been 16-0 if they had any reason to keep winning in late December. A bye and home field throughout the playoffs were already locked in, so they took six quarters off and finished 14-2. In the playoffs, two solid home victories over Baltimore and the NY Jets were followed by a heartbreaking loss to the New Orleans Saints.

Now, Indy did win a lot of close games. They surely caught some breaks in the midst of those. Still, you'd be hardpressed to point to a team that was clearly better than the Colts from September to February. A lot of teams were in the neighborhood in a league that has several quality quarterbacks. Who was better?

We enter 2010 asking the usual questions. Can somebody in the AFC South rise up and take the Colts down? Will Peyton Manning every start showing the signs of age? What do the Colts have to do to take that extra step forward? The one that puts them in the class of the very best San Francisco 49ers teams of the Joe Montana era, or the very best Dallas Cowboys teams of the Troy Aikman era.

You watched Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith get inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame last week. You'll watch future Hall-of-Famer Peyton Manning take his first snaps of the 2010 campaign this afternoon in Indy's preseason opener with San Francisco. That makes this the perfect time to talk about the Colts...and the AFC South as we continue with our summer series of NFL Divisional previews.

As always, we start with a few strong indicator stats from last year...

2009 FINAL AFC SOUTH STANDINGS
Indianapolis....14-2...+2 turnover differential...11nd ranked schedule
Houston..........9-7...-1 turnover differential.....22nd ranked schedule
Tennessee.......8-8...-4 turnover differential.......8th ranked schedule
Jacksonville.....7-9...+2 turnover differential....18th ranked schedule

Indy wasn't a fluke. They didn't have a great year in turnover differential, so it's not like they were getting lucky wins off choking opponents. They played a better than average schedule, so it's not like they padded their record the way Minnesota, Green Bay, and San Diego might have. The right team earned the top seed in the playoffs, and the right team won the AFC.

What about the rest of the AFC South? Looks like three 8-8 caliber teams to our eyes. Houston made it to 9-7, but had a softer than average schedule. Tennessee played a tough schedule, but was a bit too sloppy with turnovers as they tried to figure out what the heck to do about the Vince Young era. Jacksonville was 7-9 against an average schedule. That's within a stone's throw of .500 if not quite making it.

Give Indy credit. They went 6-0 against a motivated group of rivals who weren't half bad. And, heck...give everyone else some credit! When not playing Indianapolis, Houston went 9-5, Tennessee went 8-6, and Jacksonville went 7-7. You'd have to call this the most 'solid' division top to bottom last year. Washington's 4-12 season took that title away (possibly temporarily) from the NFC East.

Let's look at Drive Points (those scored and allowed on drives of 60 yards or more) and third down conversions, our favorite stats in pro football because they virtually eliminate pollution and show off true quality.

OFFENSIVE DRIVE POINTS PER GAME
Indianapolis 18.3
Houston 14.4
Tennessee 11.4
Jacksonville 11.2
NOTEBOOK: The Colts seem more methodical these days than they were in the past. But the sure grind in a way that gets the job done! You regulars know that anything at 14.0 or better in offensive drive points is strong. You break 17, and you're stellar. Indianapolis was up over 18 long distance points per game even though it's not a team that wows you with individual talent. None of their receivers call themselves 'Ocho-something.' Maybe the boring uniforms lull defenses into a fall sense of security.

Houston grades out very well here, as they typically do in the Kubiak era. He's a former quarterback. He emphasizes offense. Unfortunately, as you'll see in a moment, the Houston defense makes everyone else look as good as the Houston offense.

Not disasters for Tennessee and Jacksonville as they stay in double digits. These are roughly league average offenses on league average teams.

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DRIVE POINTS ALLOWED PER GAME
Indianapolis 9.1
Jacksonville 13.6
Houston 14.0
Tennessee 15.4
NOTEBOOK: We keep mentioning some of the 'great untold stories of 2009' in these divisional previews. One has to be the Indianapolis defense. Many stop units were overshadowed by the Jets last year. It's worth nothing that the Indy defense had a fantastic season (anyone in single digits is doing a great job since the liberalization of holding rules). They were dominant in the playoffs against the Ravens and Jets too. Baltimore didn't score an offensive TD in two tries against the Colts last year. Mark Sanchez sure wasn't ready to win a road playoff game against THAT defense either.

It's okay to celebrate Peyton Manning. He deserves it. Remember to credit the DEFENSE for much of that 14-2 regular season performance as well.

The rest of the defenses struggled a bit...though part of that is having to face Peyton Manning twice in decent weather. They were a little better than this full season stat makes it seem when not playing a superstar quarterback. Still, there's work to do. You know, it's hard enough catching Indy from behind at the quarterback position. To even have a shot, you need a top flight defense.

OFFENSIVE 3RD DOWN PERCENTAGE
Indianapolis 49%
Jacksonville 45%
Tennessee 42%
Houston 40%
NOTEBOOK: Opposing defensive coordinators must have nightmares about Manning and the Colts. That's almost 50% for a full season on third downs...just marching down the field with merciless precision. Jacksonville was a lot better than many realized at this skill. Houston was surprisingly poor. The Texans have no chance to become an elite team until they figure out how to run clock and protect leads. Big plays on offense can get you to .500. They also help you lose a lot of shootouts that wear down your defense.

In our mind, those are important numbers for the coming season. Jacksonville isn't as bad as you think...we keep hearing talk like they were a 5-11 or 4-12 team or something last year. Houston may never take that final step to the playoffs. Third down conversions MATTER!

DEFENSIVE 3RD DOWN PERCENTAGE
Houston 39%
Tennessee 41%
Indianapolis 45%
Jacksonville 45%
NOTEBOOK: Oops...what surprising reversals! Houston actually did a very good job on defensive third downs last year. They were prone to allowing big plays in shootouts, but were better than most realized when push came to shove. Jacksonville completely nullified their better than average offense on important plays with troubles on defense.

What's up with Indy? They have a tendency toward a 'bend but don't break' defense...which allows third down conversions well away from the end zone, but tightens up infield goal range. They have the luxury of using that approach because Manning allows them to trade TD's for field goals on a possession by possession basis. That's how you can go 14-2 with traditional yardage stats more in line with 10-6 or 11-5.

2010 AFC SOUTH OUTLOOK:
It's not a division that saw a lot of dramatic moves in the offseason in terms of head coaches or major personnel...so you're very likely to see more of the same.

That being said, we're dealing with some impatient cities. So...

*This may be the year that Jacksonville finally sends head coach Jack Del Rio packing. He's always been good enough to keep the job, but not good enough to make an impact in the postseason. A slow start may send him packing, then it's bedlam with the Jaguars.

*This may be the year that Houston finally gives up on the Kubiak era. There's been a lot of talk from pundits expecting Houston to breakthrough. Apparently they haven't studied the demanding schedule! A slow start...and something may happen on the Texan's sidelines that changes the course of history.

*This may be the year that Tennessee decides Vince Young just isn't going to ever be the man. His teammates may react in a variety of ways that are tough to gauge from this far out.

Amazingly...it's an offseason of stability in the AFC South that could ignite bedlam during the season, or at the very least in January of 2011 if Indianapolis keeps winning, and the other guys keep falling short.

Enjoy the NFL action on the light Sunday slate. We'll be back Monday to crunch boxscore numbers from the first full week of action. Our Divisional Previews will resume Tuesday with the AFC North. We'll finish out the gauntlet with a couple of days out West. We hope you're taking notes! We invented DRIVE POINTS many years ago. We're still the only place that shows you pro football through this very informative lens.

Don't forget that great rates are still available for our Preseason service. Call 1-800-323-4453 to get the latest prices. Game day football (and baseball) will always be available here at the website with your credit card.

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