The Texans ultimately showed the progress they expected on offense, becoming one of the league's most threatening units. And for a hot stretch late in the season, they turned aggressive on defense despite some personnel weaknesses. But they failed to make the jump into playoff contender that they expected. Hurricane Ike shook them up early and an injury to Matt Schaub cost them continuity. Ultimately, their inability to close out close games against Indianapolis and Jacksonville highlighted their biggest issue: they are not competitive enough against their division rivals. Will the late-season upset of Tennessee prove to be a big turning point in that department? Grade: C
Biggest surprise: Whether they will admit it now or not, there were plenty of players in the Texans locker room that thought Steve Slaton would be a nice change-of-pace, third-down back. Instead, the rookie was a revelation, topping 1,000 yards and lining up as a Pro Bowl alternate. The slippery Slaton held up to the pounding and worked beautifully behind the first-year of the zone-blocking scheme under Alex Gibbs, who coordinates the run game. The Texans have their No. 1 receiver in Andre Johnson and now they have their lead back in Slaton. Next they need to find the right guy to take some of the carries so he's not overworked.
Biggest disappointment: Amobi Okoye didn't make the Year One to Year Two jump he and the team expected, with a high ankle sprain hampering him. That meant Mario Williams often had insufficient help from the middle of the line and it meant that middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans had more traffic to sort through because blockers weren't having as hard a time dealing with Okoye. He'll be out to re-prove himself in 2009, but like Williams, he'll benefit from upgrades along the rest of the line.
Biggest need: The Texans would really benefit from a dynamic safety who could contain the run, get downfield to help in coverage and deliver big hits after catches. Even when they get who they have healthy, the group is insufficient.
Thing that has to change: Schaub has proved an effective and productive quarterback, but needs two major improvements to approach elite status. The first is to stay healthy, which certainly involves some better fortune but also requires him to recognize hopeless situations or evaluate risk and reward and throw the ball away more often. The second is to stop throwing the ball away to the other team. Turnovers remain a big issue for the Texans, and fewer picks by their quarterback has to be the starting point for a major reduction.
Indianapolis Colts (12-4)
Early season struggles like the Colts went through undo many teams. They could have easily given into the idea of a down year, conceded their string of playoff appearances would end and felt a bit sorry for themselves. Instead, they kept grinding, figured Peyton Manning would come around and talked about stringing together a win streak. And here they are, locked in as the No. 5 seed in the AFC field, riding an eight-game winning streak. Their ability to regain their balance and find ways to win close games was remarkable -- but their trouble running the ball keeps them from a top mark. Grade: B+
Biggest surprise: The secondary's ability to hold together even without top personnel. Safety Bob Sanders played just seven games and starting right cornerback Marlin Jackson was lost for the season after six games. Their other starting corner, Kelvin Hayden, went down for a six-game stretch. The Colts beat the Patriots without their three top cornerbacks. Players like Melvin Bullitt and Tim Jennings did admirable work filling in and now provide the team with quality and experienced depth in the defensive backfield.
Biggest disappointment: Yes, the offensive line dealt with a bunch of injuries early and had to scramble to patch things together. The group never got guard Ryan Lilja back from a knee injury that cost him the entire season. Whether it's been the line, the backs or the way teams have defended the run, the Colts have been a very poor rushing team, which means too much falls on the shoulders of Manning and the receivers. The 2007 Colts were hardly masters of the run game, but they averaged nearly 30 yards more than the 79.6 this group has gotten. Joseph Addai's been banged up, but his production is down and that's a concern heading into the playoffs and looking toward 2009.
Biggest need: This depends on what the team decides about Marvin Harrison. He can still make a contribution, but he's not going to run away from people. It's possible the Colts cut ties with the future Hall of Famer and while they have other areas they needs to address, another threatening pass catcher to go with Reggie Wayne, Anthony Gonzalez and tight end Dallas Clark could be a priority. Defensive tackle rates as a big need -- the Colts need some size to help their run defense. But the kinds of guys that can fill the job for Indianapolis don't necessarily need to be high draft picks.
Area of uncertainty: When they are finished, Tony Dungy will spend time with his family in Florida, then meet with president Bill Polian to tell him if he wants to coach the Colts in 2009 or if he's ready to hand over the reins to Jim Caldwell. It's hard to imagine such a successful coach giving up the job with such a talented roster, but Dungy is wired differently than most guys with his job and if he feels called to walk away, he will.
Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)
The Jaguars failed to live up to expectations, and those expectations may have been a big part of their problem. This team gained an unrealistic confidence out of the playoff upset in Pittsburgh last season. Then the pieces it added to help against the Colts and Patriots didn't pan out. The pass rush was the big defensive issue, and the two top draft picks, Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves, were hardly the difference makers the team sought in its quest to sack quarterbacks. On offense, the Jaguars needed to be more threatening downfield and newcomers Jerry Porter and Troy Williamson did little to alter their limitations in that department. Offensive line injuries right at the start of the season meant the Jaguars couldn't run like they were accustomed to and everything came apart from there. Grade: D
Biggest surprise: Critics look at his 11.7-yard average and three-game suspension and downgrade him. But Matt Jones was never going to be a huge downfield threat. His legal troubles could have been the final straw and the team was not sure at the start of training camp that he would make the roster. Even though he only played in 13 games, Jones will finish the season as the Jaguars' leading receiver with 65 catches for 761 yards and early in the season when they were still competitive, he made a bunch of key third-down conversions -- eight yards on a third-and-seven aren't a bad thing. That catch total is the most for a Jacksonville wide receiver since Jimmy Smith was around. In a terrible season, there weren't a lot of options for this category.
Biggest disappointment: No, it's not fair to pin the disappointing season on David Garrard. His line included several backups, his weapons were insufficient and the defense didn't play up to expectations. Still, there were plenty of occasions when Garrard had the ball in his hands late in a game when he could have moved his team to a tie or lead and too often, he failed. While his contract assures him of time to again prove he's the right guy to lead the offense, he will have to do much more.
Biggest need: The needs are the same as they have been, which is disappointing. Jacksonville needs a dynamic downfield playmaker who can get the team a big chunk once in a while and it needs to upgrade personnel to help pressure quarterbacks. They undervalued Marcus Stroud and could use a physical defensive tackle that demands attention and helps motivate and free up John Henderson. Khalif Barnes' time is probably up as the starting left tackle and a reconstruction of the offensive line needs to be started.
Rebuilding project: Team chemistry was a major issue. This group never jelled in the right way and shifting guys around the locker room like Jack Del Rio did during the season was hardly enough to fix things. All the team's offseason moves need to be made with leadership and chemistry in mind. Del Rio didn't push the proper buttons and his in-season feud with linebacker Mike Peterson further fractured an already broken team.
Tennessee Titans (13-3)
Quick turnarounds in Miami, Atlanta and Baltimore were big surprises, but don't let them overshadow what the Titans did against expectations. They were a playoff team in 2007 that was expected to slip, and once Vince Young took himself out of the picture in the season opener and Kerry Collins was inserted as the quarterback, who expected a 10-0 start, a 13-3 record, an AFC South title and the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs? This team is greater than the sum of its parts, lacking major star power but featuring a confident and poised mentality that trickles down from Jeff Fisher. He and his staff did some of their best work with this group, which has set itself up to be rated a failure if its season ends with anything less than a trip to the Super Bowl. Grade: A
Biggest surprise: When Collins took over, many presumed he would take more sacks than Young would have. But calm and efficient in the pocket, he simply wouldn't allow people to take him down. It started with top-flight protection from an offensive line that also run-blocked quite well. But Collins also mastered check downs and throwaways and only got sacked eight times. He didn't give the ball away very much either, with just seven interceptions.
Biggest disappointment: Receiver Justin McCareins was inefficient as the starter opposite Justin Gage. While McCareins made solid contributions as a run blocker and had his moments pulling in balls on the sideline, he was the symbol of what the Titans simply don't get often enough from their wideouts. He rarely got good separation, dropped too many passes and gave up too early on others where he seemed more interested in getting back to the huddle or the sideline than selling out and hoping to make something big happen. He's a good guy and a good player, but this spot can be and should be easily upgraded.
Biggest need: An answer at quarterback. Collins is a free agent to be, as is third-stringer Chris Simms. Meanwhile Young waits in the wings and is expected to get at least one more big chance at the starting job. But there is great uncertainty at the spot now for 2009. The Titans deserve credit for drafting Chris Johnson, and they were far more explosive because of him. No Matter who's at quarterback, the logical next step is to find a dynamic receiver to go with Johnson.
Pending shakeup: Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz will be on the list of hot prospects for a number of head coaching jobs that will open up. If he leaves, it will be interesting to see if he is able to take anyone else from Jeff Fisher's staff with him. Fisher's got multiple options to fill the spot, starting with his linebackers coach Dave McGinnis, his defensive backs coach Chuck Cecil and his old coordinator, Gregg Williams.