The AFC South is as tightly packed as a Japanese subway car, and each team seems to have a crippling weakness to go along with itsadmirable strengths.
The Colts can’t stop the run, the Texans and Jags can’t stop the pass, and CJ2K has been more like CJ2Yards for the Titans.
With no team better than 5-3 right now and four 6-2 teams between the AFC North and East, it could be a race for one playoff spot — and expect that race to be between the Colts and Titans.
Houston Texans (4-4)
Second-half schedule: at JAX, at NYJ, vs. TEN, at PHI, vs. BAL, at TEN, at DEN, vs. HOU
MVP: RB Arian Foster. He’s not much of a blocker, but his excellent running and catching are helping the offense try to keep pace with the Texans’ undermining defense.
Most Improved Player: LT Duane Brown. He was pretty brutal his rookie year, but had two good games before his four-game suspension and absolutely dominated last week.
Biggest Disappointment: S Bernard Pollard. Last year, it seemed like the Chiefs had made a big mistake letting him go, but he hasn’t had a single good game in 2010 and is one of many problems in the secondary he was supposed to lead.
Strengths: The offensive line has been one of the best in the league, not that this is saying much in this odd season of DL dominance.
Weaknesses: Wow. That Texans’ pass defense is really struggling (dead last in our ratings). Despite some good pass rush up front, Houston is getting abused in the back — and it’s not only the secondary struggling. Opponents have completed 47 of 51 passes to linebacker Zach Diles’ area, which is almost unfathomable.
Outlook: It’s remarkable to see a team that has most of the hallmarks of a quality unit — passing game, stud running back, pass rush — completely fall short thanks to bad pass defense. With no answers in sight, the Texans seem destined to play more exciting but frustrating games. They have five road games left and a lot of teams ahead of them in the AFC, so it looks like Texas won’t have anyone in the Super Bowl lottery this year.
Projected record: 7-9
Indianapolis Colts (5-3)
Second-half schedule: vs. CIN, at NE, vs. SD, vs. DAL, at TEN, vs. JAX, at OAK, vs. TEN
MVP: Rhymes with Hatin’ Scanning.
Most Improved Player: No one’s really taking a major step forward, but DT Eric Foster has shored up his work against the run nicely and is the Colts’ best option inside.
Biggest Disappointment: Right tackle Ryan Diem has really struggled, giving the Colts’ two struggling tackles and further enhancing Manning’s reputation as a one-man wrecking crew.
Strengths: Pass rush and passing game. What else is new?
Weaknesses: Run defense. What else is new?
Outlook: Considering that this team has been using the same exact formula for a decade and winning 12 games a year for most of that decade, the future should be pretty bright. But we have to wonder how a team with weak tackles, half of its normal receivers, no run defense and a depleted secondary is supposed to keep that formula alive. A soft schedule with five home games the rest of the way helps, but a Super Bowl run seems fairly unlikely.
Projected record: 10-6
Jacksonville Jaguars (4-4)
Second-half schedule: vs. HOU, vs. CLE, at NYG, at TEN, vs OAK, at IND, vs. WAS, at HOU
MVP: DE Aaron Kampman. He’s making an impact in the pass rush (five sacks, 14 hits), something the Jaguars have been craving for a half-decade.
Most Improved Player: Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton has been a bit up and down, but he’s become a factor as a pass-rusher after being a complete zero here in 2009.
Biggest Disappointment: Daryl Smith might be our biggest disappointment in the entire league. He was so great last year, to see him graded in the bottom of 4-3 OLBs this year is just a shock.
Strengths: Offensive balance. The Jags aren’t particularly great at anything, but they’re in the upper-mediocre range in the pass, run and block, and that has basically been enough for their fluky 4-4 record.
Weaknesses: Pass D. They started off the season by facing four of our top QBs in Kyle Orton, Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning and Michael Vick, so maybe there was a bit of an excuse, but they didn’t look much better against Ryan Fitzpatrick, Kerry Collins, Jon Kitna and Matt Cassel.
Outlook: Jacksonville has similar problems to Houston on defense, but doesn’t have the kind of offense the Texans have to go with it. With four likely losses on the road ahead (Giants, Titans, Colts and Texans), it’s wait-until-next-year time.
Projected record: 7-9
Tennessee Titans (5-3)
Second-half schedule: at MIA, vs. WAS, at HOU, vs. JAX, vs. IND, vs. HOU, at KC, at IND
MVP: DT Jason Jones. He’s the leading man on the Titans’ great DL rotation.
Most Improved Player: Jones has certainly emerged from a modestly good season in 2009, but the play of Jason Babin simply came out of nowhere. This is a guy who couldn’t do anything in KC (2008) or Philadelphia (2009) but suddenly is playing like Dwight Freeney.
Biggest Disappointment: What has happened to RT David Stewart? He’s been an absolute rock for the Titans, and while he’s been the best of a bad lot in 2010 he’s still way off the pace.
Strengths: The defensive line is the obvious one, but the CB trio of Alterraun Verner, Cortland Finnegan and Jason McCourty might be as good as anyone has 1-to-3 right now — especially if Finnegan can return to 2008 form.
Weaknesses: The run blocking has been grading at the bottom of the league all year, but the Titans are somehow leading the NFL in scoring average (28.0). Their No. 24 rank in offensive yards seems to be more appropriate.
Outlook: Considering the fact that their team strength (running the ball) has been completely absent but they’ve managed to win five games anyway, the future is pretty bright. That defense is playing really well, and while Randy Moss is no panacea for the passing game, he could at least fill Kenny Britt’s shoes and provide a good No. 3 option when Britt returns. A return to 2009 form by the running game is almost inevitable with the same basic case of characters, and a return to the playoffs is likely.
Projected record: 11-5