The AFC South division was created in 2002 out of the former AFC Central, AFC East and one expansion team. Between then and 2011, only two teams had won the division: the Tennessee Titans, winning it in 2002 and 2008, and the Indianapolis Colts, who won it every other year. With the Colts severely weakened by the absence of its stalwart leader, Peyton Manning, the Houston Texans seized the opportunity to shoot for the top of the AFC South in 2011. They did just that, earning the first playoff appearance in its franchise’s history. To say that they achieved this feat in convincing fashion would be an overstatement, however: the division championship wasn’t sewn up until Week 14, and they had to win their game against the Cincinnati Bengals and rely on New Orleans to beat Tennessee. Other than the Titans, who finished the season with a 9-7 record, Houston didn’t have much competition for the division title last year: the Jaguars finished 5-11 and the Colts earned the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft with an abysmal 2-14 record.
|An all-too-familiar sight in Houston|
This season, the Texans are out to prove that the absence of Peyton Manning wasn’t the only reason they won the AFC South. As with so many other teams, much depends on the health and production of their quarterback. Matt Schaub is the clear starter at QB, but his health is always a concern: Schaub has missed at least five games in three of his five years in Houston, including the last six of last season (and the playoffs) with a foot injury (above). He’s managed to stay healthy so far this preseason, and looked good against San Francisco this past weekend, completing 11 of 14 passes for 128 yards before letting second-year backup T.J. Yates take over in the second half.
The Texans should also feel encouraged by the performance of Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson, who is recovering from a groin injury; and a downright monster performance by Trindon Holliday, who returned a punt 87 yards for a touchdown. Holliday, starting his third year in the NFL, is battling for a roster spot at wide receiver, but like so many other young players in the league, hopes that he can earn that spot by making a name for himself on special teams.
NEXT GAME: @ New Orleans Saints, Saturday 8:00 PM ET (CBS)
The Andrew Luck era has begun in Indy. So far, he’s shown that he was worth the #1 overall pick in this year’s draft. Sure, he’s made some rookie mistakes, but he’s got to learn sometime, and the preseason is the perfect time to do it. He got off to a shaky start against the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday night, completing only two of his first eight passes, one of those passes being an interception that was returned 49 yards for a touchdown. However, with the poise that many players at the position take years to develop (and some never do), Luck stayed resolute and from that point on, he completed 14 of 17 passes and got his team the lead at halftime.
Luck is actually in an enviable position: with a new head coach and many new starters on the team (eleven long-time starters like Jeff Saturday and Dallas Clark left after the 2011 season), Luck should find comfort in the knowledge that the Indianapolis offense is being built around his talents, and many of his colleagues on offense are growing up with him. Still, he will probably always be the subject of comparison with the player that was selected just behind him in the draft, at #2 overall, Washington Redskins’ quarterback Robert Griffin III. For years, it was “Manning vs. Brady”; this weekend, the rookies have their turn as it’ll be Luck vs. RG3* when the Colts face the ‘Skins on Saturday.
NEXT GAME: @ Washington Redskins, Saturday 4:00 PM ET (NFL Network, NFL.com)
With an offense that ranked dead last in the league last year, you would think that the Jaguars would be anxious to strike a deal with Maurice Jones-Drew—a.k.a. “MJD.” Jones-Drew (left) was the Jags’ lone bright spot on offense as the league’s leading rusher with 1,606 yards. However, the MJD holdout continues to be the big story in Jacksonville. The two sides appear to be no closer to reaching a deal on a new contract than they were at the end of last season. Why? For one thing, Maurice is still in the middle of a 5-year contract that he signed in 2009. Knowing that their star running back is still theirs for two more years gives the Jacksonville front office and rookie owner Shahid Khan (below) little reason to break down MJD’s door.
Aside from lack of motivation, the Jags may simply feel like they can get along without their Pro Bowl back. Although observers and fans shouldn’t place too much emphasis on preseason results, the Jaguars have managed to beat both the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants and the former Super Bowl Champ New Orleans Saints in the first two preseason games. Their second-year quarterback, Blaine Gabbert, seems to have come into his own this summer, performing well and proving to be a steady presence in the pocket (remember what I said last week about keeping an eye on second-year players?). Moreover, the backs that are standing in for Jones-Drew—Rashad Jennings and his backup, Montell Owens—seem more than capable of filling his shoes: Jennings has averaged 5.1 yards per carry so far this preseason, and Owens has shown his ability as a power runner, barreling through the New York Giants to score on a goal line play.
NEXT GAME: @ Baltimore Ravens, Thursday 7:30 PM ET (network not yet available)
I was going to write about the battle over the starting quarterback job in Tennessee between second-year player Jake Locker and 14-year veteran Matt Hasselbeck, but fate intervened. Yesterday, the Titans ended the suspense, naming Locker (right) the starter for the season opener against the New England Patriots. Although neither gunslinger has made a strong case for himself (Locker has completed fewer than half of his passes and Hasselbeck threw two interceptions in the preseason opener against his former team, the Seahawks), Locker apparently has outshined Hasselbeck in practices and has impressed teammates with his hard work. Don’t feel too bad for Hasselbeck, though. He was signed by the Titans after last year’s lockout ended and knew going in that he was just keeping the seat warm for Locker. With the lockout drastically shortening the 2011 preseason, the Titans weren’t going to adopt a “sink or swim” approach in developing their top-ten draft pick. But now? Let’s hope Locker’s got his floaties handy.
NEXT GAME: vs. Arizona Cardinals, Thursday 8:00 PM ET (ESPN)
*The QB vs. QB thing is actually a pet peeve of mine. Since the two quarterbacks are never on the field at the same time, how can it be a head-to-head battle royale?