NFL Nation: AFC South scenarios 2012

AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Titans in 2012.

Dream scenario (11-5): Jake Locker beats out Matt Hasselbeck in the training camp quarterback battle and never looks back. The second-year signal-caller provides huge energy for the Titans, alleviating concerns about his accuracy. He spreads the ball around to a nice stable if receivers, including Kenny Britt, who’s healthy all season, Nate Washington, who matches last year’s effort, and Kendall Wright, who catches on quickly and doesn’t look like a rookie.

With a running quarterback under center and all those receivers helping stretch the field, Chris Johnson gets room and has a big rebound year. Defenses have to decide: Stack the box and risk yielding big passes or keep numbers in coverage and see CJ break off chunks.

The pass rush fares far better than last season because Kamerion Wimbley proves to be a great signing -- one that's made even more so because the offense gives Tennessee leads that make opponents one-dimensional.

Mike Munchak is a coach of the year candidate in line for an extension as he takes the Titans to the playoffs.

Nightmare scenario (5-11): They head into camp thinking they have two quarterbacks, but wind up with one getting hurt and the other struggling. Britt’s not healthy, Wright’s not effective and Johnson doesn’t rebound from last year, prompting speculation that his time as playmaker has past.

With inconsistent offense and not a lot of points, too much falls on the defense.

Teams get them in nickel and attack the guy in the slot. The Titans roll through several options there and none of them prove nearly as effective as Cortland Finnegan was. Derrick Morgan can’t mount the healthy and productive pass-rush campaign the team was banking on and Wimbley is also unable to lead any sort of consistent charge at opposing quarterbacks.

The Titans finish the year talking about how much better Locker will be in 2013. They also enter an uncertain time with Munchak and his staff, which head into the final year of their contracts not having shown they warrant extensions.
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Texans in 2012.

Dream scenario (12-4): Quarterback Matt Schaub and receiver Andre Johnson return from injuries and have exemplary seasons, providing big plays that sync up beautifully with another excellent campaign by running back Arian Foster. New starters at right guard and right tackle take over and play well and the offensive line continues to be a team strength, providing time for Schaub and room for Foster. They show it’s about the scheme and players with the traits that fit it, not necessarily about the specific people in the lineup.

In conjunction with the excellent offense, Wade Phillips’ 3-4 defense picks up where it left off, swarming opposing quarterbacks and finding big plays that tamp down offenses just about every week.

This talented, deep squad does not get caught up in success and shows it can stand toe-to-toe with teams like the Packers and Patriots. In so doing, the Texans give Houston something it’s never had before: a Super Bowl team.

Nightmare scenario (7-9): Schaub either can’t stay healthy or can’t return to form and he or T.J. Yates winds up throwing more to rookie receivers who struggle than to Johnson, who battles another round of leg injuries. The right side of the offensive line proves a huge issue as the team loses any hint of the cohesion that was such a key in 2011. That means trouble for Foster as well, and he doesn’t break through to the second level nearly as often as we’ve become accustomed to.

Defensively, the Texans can’t generate the kind of consistent pass rush they mounted last season as offenses do a better job countering than they did in Phillips’ first season heading up the 3-4. The secondary is asked to hold up too long and an injury to Johnathan Joseph leaves them susceptible at cornerback, the one spot where they lack depth. Opposing quarterbacks find too many big plays against them.

The return games are worse, not better, with Jacoby Jones now playing in Baltimore.

A nearly unanimous pick to win the AFC South before the season, the Texans fail to make the playoffs.
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Jaguars in 2012.

Dream scenario (10-6): Mike Mularkey’s offensive scheme does for Blaine Gabbert what it did early on for Matt Ryan in Atlanta. Gabbert silences his stable of critics, playing with a newfound poise and confidence and finding himself in situations where he’s comfortable and can show off the arm that was a big reason he was a top 10 pick.

The second-year quarterback is well-protected as he works his way through progressions and spreads the ball around to a much-improved receiving corps headed by Laurent Robinson and Justin Blackmon. With the passing offense faring far better, Maurice Jones-Drew's hammer hits even harder because his carries are less predictable.

Defensively, the team is healthy all season long in karmic payback for last year’s slew of injuries.

Defensive tackles Tyson Alualu and Terrance Knighton put it all together with middle linebacker Paul Posluszny playing great behind them, and no one can even ponder running up the middle against the Jaguars. Rookie second-rounder Andre Branch provides a serious boost to the pass rush and the linebackers get involved in pressuring the quarterback. When they don’t get a sufficient push, the coverage holds up.

And rookie punter Bryan Anger regularly hits bombs and pins teams deep, semi-justifying his third-round draft status.

Mularkey wins coach of the year as the Jaguars qualify for the playoffs.

Nightmare scenario (4-12): New coaches, a new system and new receivers don’t make for a new Gabbert, and he struggles in his second season much as he did as a rookie. A rough start means the fan base calls for backup Chad Henne, and Mularkey finds himself in a tough spot with a quick quarterback controversy.

Henne eventually gets the call but doesn’t play much better, so the team is over-reliant on the run game. The defense, meanwhile, can’t overcome the lack of a pass rush. It gives up too many passing yards and too many big plays because quarterbacks have time to wait for targets to break open. Then the Jaguars begin to blitz more to amp things up, but pay a price by giving up big plays out of high risk, high-reward situations.

Owner Shahid Khan, used to life as a businessman who wins, says or does something controversial that makes things even messier. The Jaguars actually finish a game worse than they did in Jack Del Rio’s final season, leaving Denver’s defensive coordinator shrugging and people removing some responsibility for 2011 from him.
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Colts in 2012.

Dream scenario (8-8): I consider this a pretty optimistic dream, but since we’re dreaming …

This one would require exemplary rookie seasons from quarterback Andrew Luck, tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen and at least a few others from the new regime’s first class.

But beyond that, they’ll need several guys from the old regime to play far better in a new system than they did in the old one for which they were better suited.

Donald Brown or Delone Carter will have to run effectively, for example. From a pool of returning cornerbacks including Chris Rucker, Kevin Thomas, Terrence Johnson and Brandon King, they need to find at least a nickel, and that presumes the guy they just traded for, Cassius Vaughn, will be the second starter. (If I am playing against the Colts, with that collection of defensive backs, I’m trying to get them in dime.)

Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis prove to be pass-rushing demons as outside linebackers in a 3-4 base set, where they are coming from less predictable spots and forcing quarterbacks into all kind of mistakes. Their play offsets the questions at other spots for the defense, and helps set Luck and the offense up with good field position.

Nightmare scenario (2-14): Yes, it’s possible the first year of the Ryan Grigson-Chuck Pagano regime matches the last year of the Bill Polian-Jim Caldwell one.

The Colts will face Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler in 2012. But if things go badly, plenty of second- and third-tier quarterbacks will also shred a patchwork secondary that added only safety Tom Zbikowski in free agency and Vaughn in a trade and got no help in the draft.

The defense can prove to have too few quality pieces to run a 3-4 or a 4-3 effectively, and if it’s giving up a lot of points, Luck will be dropping back a lot to try to lead comebacks. If a line of leftovers and castoffs can’t consistently fend off rushers, there will be trouble.

And should Luck get hurt and miss any time, the team will look to Drew Stanton or seventh-round pick Chandler Harnish. Either one is likely to leave fans pining for the halcyon days of Dan Orlovsky.

Also damaging would be the Texans ability to stay good and improvements from Tennessee and Jacksonville. The Colts got their two wins last season against the Titans and Texans late in the year.

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