AFC South Could Be Wide Open

AFC SOUTH COULD BE WIDE OPEN

The news breaking this week about Peyton Manning's slow recovery from neck surgery may have thrown the AFC South race into a tizzy. How bad would the Colts be if Manning missed a month? Two months? What if he came back too early, made things worse, and missed more than half the year?

You'll be able to evaluate the Colts without Manning tonight in their dress rehearsal game against the Green Bay Packers to be televised nationally on CBS. For now, you have to assume that a team who was trending downward in 2010 may be in deep trouble in 2011.

The AFC South was already one of the most condensed divisions in the NFL last year. Only four games separated first place (10-6) from last place (6-10). That wasn't as tight as the woeful NFC South, where four pretty bad teams finished between 7-9 and 5-11. It was dead even with the NFC East…who also had 10-6 and 6-10 bookends (Philadelphia on top, Washington on the bottom). But, in the NFC East, it's assumed Philadelphia just got better while Washington may have gotten worse. Here in the AFC South…the cellar dwellers are talking playoffs…while first place has a pain in its neck!

Let's review what happened last year before talking any more about what might happen in 2011…

2010 FINAL AFC SOUTH STANDINGS
Indianapolis: 10-6 (-4 turnovers, 21st schedule)
Jacksonville: 8-8 (-15 turnovers, 22nd schedule)
Houston: 6-10 (even turnovers, 17th schedule)
Tennessee: 6-10 (-4 turnovers, 19th schedule)

Pretty poor showing all things considered. Nobody in the group played a schedule that was tougher than league average. Nobody in the group managed to have a positive turnover differential! There weren't any true doormats like Carolina or Buffalo in the division. But, the fading Colts didn't measure up to the league powers either. Just kind of a nice, generic conference that played exciting games that were often decided by goofy plays or turnovers.

Houston was probably better than its 6-10 record. They wouldn't have been the Steelers or the Jets if they had caught some breaks. Tennessee had some off-field issues that got in the way. It's not like Vince Young was going to lead them to the Super Bowl if everyone would have behaved. Vanilla ice cream in a league where you need flavor to win big.

When you start breaking down the indicator stats, some interesting tendencies start to emerge…

OFFENSIVE DRIVE POINTS PER GAME
Houston 16.8
Indianapolis 16.2
Tennessee 12.1
Jacksonville 9.7
Notebook: Peyton Manning could still move the ball. Both the Colts and the Texans were just behind San Diego and New England as the best Drive Point offenses in the NFL (points scored on drives of 60 yards or more). Nobody in the NFC broke 14.5, so they were third and fourth in the whole league not just the AFC. Tennessee managed league average despite all of their soap operas. Of course, a lot of that was thanks to a superstar running back who may sit out on strike all season because he's not paid enough! Jacksonville's 8-8 record is going to look like a miracle when we're done with the run-through. You regulars will remember we talked a lot about that last year. This was a team that couldn't move the ball consistently…couldn't stop anybody…got annihilated in turnover differential…yet still went 8-8!

DRIVE POINTS ALLOWED PER GAME
Tennessee 11.4
Indianapolis 12.4
Jacksonville 16.3
Houston 18.7
Notebook: The worst defensive division by a mile. Some of that was having to face Indianapolis and Houston twice. But, Houston didn't have to play themselves…and they were still the very worst in the league in this stat. Jacksonville was second worst by the way. Indianapolis was only league average, but looked like studs in this group. Tennessee was probably better than this result would suggest because they played four games against the Colts and Texans. That will give them something to hang their hat on this year, at least on one side of the field.

We haven't been running the Drive Point differentials in every division. We're going to do so here because they really tell the story of last year, and paint a picture of what we might expect this year.

DRIVE POINT DIFFERENTIALS
Indianapolis: +3.8 points per game (but, now Manning is hurt)
Tennessee: +0.7 points per game (but, now Johnson is holding out)
Houston: -1.9 points per game (hard to say bad luck killed them)
Jacksonville: -6.7 points per game (a miracle that they won)

We'll provide a 2011 outlook in a second. Not hard to see how Houston or Tennessee could make a run at the top from 6-10. Kind of hard to see anyone being as good as 11-5 unless they make dramatic strides in one of our indicator categories.

OFFENSIVE THIRD DOWN PERCENTAGE
Indianapolis 45%
Houston 41%
Jacksonville 40%
Tennessee 35%
Notebook: Peyton Manning knows how to move the chains. Houston was surprisingly poor for a team coached by a quarterback that scored a lot of Drive Points. Disappointing results otherwise. Tennessee's chemistry issues really show up here. You can tell people weren't on the same page when it was time to make a key play. And, Chris Johnson isn't the kind of physical back who can grab those one or two extra yards after contact (as ESPN discussed the other day when comparing him to Adrian Peterson). Johnson makes big plays. Sometimes you have to make little plays too.

DEFENSIVE THIRD DOWN PERCENTAGE
Indianapolis 39%
Houston 40%
Jacksonville 41%
Tennessee 43%
Notebook: Not great, but not horrible. Indianapolis always has a better defense than their given credit for because of some 'bend but don't break' tendencies. They'll give you the middle of the field, then force a field goal…figuring Manning will get them at least a field goal on the next drive. Houston grades out surprisingly well here. They were extremely vulnerable to the big play. Tennessee's a disappointment. You can probably trace the Vols 6-10 record to their minus 8 point differential in third down conversions. Just takes one extra productive drive per game for opponents to beat you in this league.

2011 AFC SOUTH OUTLOOK

Pretty simple it seems…

The INDIANAPOLIS COLTS could be in big trouble if Peyton Manning misses a lot of time. They fell of the pace from the elite last year when he played the whole way through. Be sure you watch the TV game tonight for a sense of what the talent on the field is going to look like out of the gate.

The TENNESSEE TITANS should play more focused and enthusiastic ball under new coach Mike Munchak. And, having Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback will fix a lot of what ailed them last year. Had Johnson been in camp the whole way, playing with a purpose…it would be easy to pick the Titans to surge back to the top of the division. Without Johnson, the quarterback position gets better, but running back gets worse. Tough to explode from 6-10 in that scenario. Not hard to reach Wildcard caliber though.

This is it for the Gary Kubiak era for the HOUSTON TEXANS. They either make the playoffs or he moves on to get immediately picked up by some lousy 4-12 team next year! Kubiak has established that he can take a team to the 8-8 or 9-7 range…but not that he can get over the hump. Houston wants to get over that hump. They may have no better chance than 2011 given the fadeout in Indianapolis.

It's hard to be optimistic about the JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS given our indicator numbers. But, we kept saying that all through November and December last year and they just kept chugging along. Jack Del Rio is on the same kind of hot seat that Kubiak is. No excuses any more if Indianapolis really does fall off the map. We trust our numbers. And, 8-8 vs. the 22nd ranked schedule isn't playoff caliber to begin with.

You already know that Indianapolis plays tonight on TV against Green Bay. Everyone else in the South plays Saturday:

JACKSONVILLE at Buffalo
Chicago at TENNESSEE
HOUSTON at San Francisco

This wraps up our series of divisional previews for the summer. Please check the archives if you missed earlier reports. We'll finish off our college football conference previews this weekend…with the Sun Belt on Saturday and the Independents on Sunday. It's great that regular season football is just around the corner!

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Nov

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