- Paul Kuharsky, ESPN Staff Writer
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After running the numbers, ESPN.com pro football writer John Clayton arrived at a win total for every team in the division for 2012. Is the figure too high, too low or spot on?
HOUSTON TEXANS: If injuries have a way of evening out, then the Houston Texans should have a relatively healthy season, though they certainly don’t want anyone saying that out loud. Last season they lost Mario Williams after five games, Matt Schaub after 10 and Andre Johnson for nine. And those were just the headliners.
The Texans were 4-2 in the AFC South last season. I don’t buy that they should run through the Titans, Jaguars and Colts this season, but I do expect them to fare at least that well. This season’s AFC East will be a bit easier than last season’s AFC North was. But Houston was 2-2 against the NFC South, and I think the 2012 Packers, Lions and Bears will prove tougher opponents than the 2011 Saints and Panthers were. And the Texans draw the Ravens and Broncos as a result of finishing atop the AFC South last season.
A healthier Houston should be a better team and could rate with the very best in the AFC. But a schedule I view as more difficult prevents me from thinking the Texans will fare more than a game better and they could very well be the same.
More or less? I’m going to give Clayton a bull’s-eye on this one and say he’s right on it.
TENNESSEE TITANS: Last season’s 9-7 record was padded by a Week 17 win in Houston that meant nothing to the Texans. Can the Titans in Mike Munchak’s second season turn around and match or surpass it? I’m skeptical.
While the Titans' offense looks like it can be filled with playmakers, it’s also filled with question marks. Can Kenny Britt bounce back from a reconstructed ACL? Can Chris Johnson bounce back from an uninspired season? Can the team consistently steer the ball to Jared Cook and can he make plays regularly instead of in spurts? Can Kendall Wright catch on quickly and become an immediate impact guy? Can Nate Washington be the guy he was in a great 2011? At this point it’s difficult for me to answer yes to enough of those to give the Titans a high-flying offense, especially without knowing who the quarterback is and how he performed to win the job.
And that’s the good side of the ball. The defense is loaded with guys in roles where they’ve not yet proven they can excel over 16 weeks -- from lead cornerback Jason McCourty as the top dog to Tommie Campbell or another unknown as the third corner, from Kamerion Wimbley and Derrick Morgan as the lead pass-rusher in Jerry Gray’s system to Akeem Ayers as a strongside linebacker who’s supposed to contribute to pass pressure.
More or less? Clayton’s a touch high. My general sense and my run through of the schedule are having trouble getting me past 7-9 right now.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: While the Texans’ injuries got the headlines in the AFC South because of the way Houston survived them, the Jaguars also had a defense that may have been in line to be very good. Theirs got ripped apart by injuries, particularly at cornerback, and they simply didn’t have the sort of depth they needed to hold up. A one-dimensional offense simply couldn’t do enough to help out, and five wins was all the team could muster as Jack Del Rio was fired before it was over.
Beyond staying healthy, this team needs three things to happen to get past the prevailing outside opinion. The Jaguars need Blaine Gabbert to be far closer to an average NFL quarterback than the 34th best one in the league, as he was a season ago. They need the receivers, starting with Laurent Robinson and Justin Blackmon, to consistently dictate defenses pay attention to them outside. And they need some combination of guys on the edge, including second-round draft pick Andre Branch, to mount a much better pass rush.
I think it’s possible they get those things, and I think Mike Mularkey and a fresh-start coaching staff can put people like Gabbert, Maurice Jones-Drew, Marcedes Lewis, Robinson and Blackmon in position to make a lot more plays, while a linebacking corps of Daryl Smith, Paul Posluszny and Clint Session anchor a much-improved defense.
More or less? Call me crazy, and I know a lot of you might join Clayton in doing so, but I think the Jaguars will be at least a touch better than Clayton thinks and could even land in second place.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: In their first eight games, the new-look Colts face Minnesota, Jacksonville, the Jets, Browns, Dolphins and Titans. While all of those teams will expect to beat a rebuilding team, none of them is a lock to do so. If the Colts can play well over the first half of the season, they could well be in position to make a significant step forward from last season’s total of two wins.
Andrew Luck will have some good days and the Colts will have some leads. Their tight ends, while young, and at least their top receivers will be solid threats for him. He’ll be good enough quickly enough that if the patchwork offensive line and run game can’t protect him, he will get rid of the ball and avoid a lot of potential blows.
The trouble is, even if the Colts get to play from ahead, which will allow them to be exotic in the ways they rush Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis and anyone else, the secondary looks to be an issue. I’m not certain Tom Zbikowski will solve the problem opposite Antoine Bethea at free safety and beyond Jerraud Powers no one outside the organization would covet their corners. If I have to throw to get back in a game against the Colts, that might be just fine -- I might want them to be in nickel and dime to take on those matchups, anyway.
More or less? More, but probably only one more.