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Season in review: AFC and NFC South

Last week I reviewed the seasons of the teams in the AFC East and NFC East and in the AFC North and NFC North. Today we’ll review the interesting seasons from the AFC and NFC South divisions.

In the AFC South, I had the bottom three teams projected for between 5 and 6 wins for a five week stretch starting after week two. As we now know, that was resolved quite definitively by the end of the year:

AFC South

Houston Texans

Pre-season Projection: 10 wins
Maximum wins: 14 (after week 15)
Minimum wins: 10 (after week 1)
Week 1 comment: Going to win the AFC South going away; this team could win 12 games, but concerns about injuries and the potential to rest starters late keep them at 10 wins for now.

A miserable December ruined what should have been a marvelous season in Houston. At no point did I project any of the other AFC South teams to finish within even three games of the Texans. When they were 5-0, I wrote: Not only do the Texans still have 6 home games remaining, but they have 4 more games against the AFC South and get the Bills and Lions. Even without Brian Cushing, I don’t see why they don’t win 8 more games.

The Texans schedule was easy, but they also had dominant seasons out of J.J. Watt and Andre Johnson. Left Tackle Duane Brown was outstanding, and Houston is as good as any other team in the league when they’re at their their best. Unfortunately, they might be undermanned in a gunfight with the Broncos or Patriots, and it looks like now they’ll have to beat both of those teams to get to New Orleans. Still, I give the Texans a fighting chance; Matt Schaub has struggled in primetime games, but that doesn’t really mean anything. In the end I think the week 17 loss submarined their playoff hopes, and the team will be left wondering how good they could have been if Cushing stayed healthy.

Indianapolis Colts

Pre-season Projection: 5.5 wins
Maximum wins: 10 (after week 12 through the end of the year)
Minimum wins: 4 (after week 1)
Week 1 comment: There will be growing pains in Indianapolis. But nobody feels bad for their fans, nor should they; the Colts will be contenders each year for a decade, starting next season.

I never got on board with the Colts this year and it only looks worse in retrospect. On the other hand, even though Indianapolis finished 11-5, they were still outscored by 30 points in 2012. They struggled to beat Brady Quinn and the Chiefs and split with the Jaguars. The Colts won just two game by more than a touchdown.

While I missed on the Colts overall, I was on board the Andrew Luck bandwagon early on even when his numbers were terrible. I wrote this before the Colts-Packers game: Andrew LuckAaron Rodgers I won’t steal the spotlight from Tom BradyPeyton Manning XIII; by the time these two teams play again in four years, we may be looking at the best two quarterbacks in the league. I highlighted how Luck was being undervalued by conventional statistics after week 7, and wrote this after week 8: A wildcard darkhorse? I don’t think the Colts are very good — they’re just 29th according to Football Outsiders — but a win over Miami this weekend puts them in the driver’s seat. I finally projected them at 10 wins after week 12, and noted: Basically clinched a playoff berth with win over Buffalo and Steelers loss. Hard not to like this team.

They may not be very good, but they certainly are likeable. Even after the upset win over the Texans, Houston is just the 10th team to make the playoffs after being outscored by at least 30 points.

Tennessee Titans

Pre-season Projection: 7 wins
Maximum wins: 7 (after weeks 7, 10, and 11 )
Minimum wins: 5 (after weeks 2, 4, 5, and 15)
Week 1 comment: I don’t love Jake Locker, and the Titans had an SRS of -1.0 last year. Chris Johnson continues to struggle, and I’ve got my doubts about their defense.

My doubts about Jake Locker and the defense were appropriate: Locker struggled throughout the year while Tennessee finished last in points allowed. Still, Chris Johnson did have a strong year, even if it was in typical inconsistent fashion. But after five years, Johnson is now just the 7th running back with 6800+ rushing yards in his first five season; interestingly enough, he’s only the third player in franchise history to hit that mark.

I kept Tennessee in that tight 5-to-7 win window the whole year, so I’ll give myself a pat on the back for that one. Only once did I up their win total in consecutive weeks. That was after they beat the Steelers and the Bills in weeks 6 and 7, also the only two time in 2012 that the Titans won in consecutive weeks. My comment after week 7: I’m pretty sure this team is still garbage – they’ve been outscored by 89 points – and I don’t expect them to beat Indianapolis this weekend.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Pre-season Projection: 5.5 wins
Maximum wins: 5 (after weeks 1 through 6)
Minimum wins: 2 (after weeks 15 and 16)
Week 1 comment: Blaine Gabbert looked a zillion times better than he did last year, and the Jaguars have more talent than you might think. But Minnesota was one of the more winnable games on the schedule.

It was wise of me to place all of my wrong predictions in one comment! The Jaguars graph is a depressing one reflecting a steady decline: I dropped them, they would plateau for a few weeks, I would drop them, they would plateau, and then I would drop them again. Not once all year did I project the Jaguars for more wins than in any prior week. That’s pretty much all you need to know about the 2012 Jaguars.

What would this team have looked like with a healthy Maurice Jones-Drew and say, Tim Tebow? Who knows — perhaps we find out next year. Do I actually think Tebow ends up in Jacksonville? No — the Jaguars have no reason to rebuild around Tebow, and make no mistake, this is a rebuilding project. After week 13, I wrote: Best case scenario is Chad Henne plays well enough to convince the team to move on from Blaine Gabbert but not so well as to convince them in Henne himself. For better of worse, that best case scenario came to fruition. In October, I asked When should the Jaguars give up on Blaine Gabbert? I think that question has now been answered.

Let’s move on to the NFC South, which ended up being much less interesting than anyone would have guessed. After week 1, I had all four teams projected to finish with 7, 8, or 9 wins; three weeks later, I had Atlanta at 12 wins and no one else within five games of them.

NFC South

Atlanta Falcons

Pre-season Projection: 9 wins
Maximum wins: 14 (after week 13, 16)
Minimum wins: 9 (after week 1)
Week 1 comment: Matt Ryan should have a big year, but the Chiefs were missing four defensive starters in week 1. A tough division drops the Falcons to the 9-win tier, as they may only get 3 wins against the NFC South. Week 16 in Detroit should have playoff implications.

If the Jaguars graph was a story of steady decline, it was the opposite story in Atlanta this year. I was right about the division: Atlanta finished 3-3 in the NFC South and was actually outscored by 6 points. But the Falcons dominated the rest of the league, which was more than enough to handily take the division. After week 4, the Falcons had become such obvious front-runners to win the NFC South — the rest of the division had just two total wins — that the only thing left to do was talk about how they weren’t as good as their record. After week 4, I wrote: Atlanta looks very good and should be able to run their record to 6-0 with games against the Redskins and Raiders before the bye. Still, what could have easily been a home loss to the Panthers doesn’t make me feel warm and fuzzy about them.

After week 9, I started getting soft, and wrote: There are nits to pick, but an 8-0 start positions them well to quiet the doubters. Well, the Falcons responded by going out and losing their next game. I’ll pat myself on the back here, because my comment the next week was: Their first loss doesn’t change their outlook — this is a 13-win team that should get the #1 seed in the NFC.

Atlanta was so boringly good this year that well, let’s just move on to the interesting teams in the division.

New Orleans Saints

Pre-season Projection: 10 wins
Maximum wins: 9 (after weeks 1 and 21)
Minimum wins: 6 (after weeks 8, 14, and 15)
Week 1 comment: New Orleans had a tough opening day, and only have 7 more home games. 9 more wins may even be pushing it considering how bad this defense looks, but Drew Brees is too good to bet against.

Week 4 comment (at 0-4): New Orleans has a horrible defense, but at some point the offense will just start winning these shoot-outs. The fact that they’re favored this weekend by 3.5 points is a sign that Vegas still believes in the Saints.

Week 8 comment (at 2-5): A difficult schedule and a terrible defense mean I’m ready to revise my predictions down to 6 wins for the Saints for the first time this season.

Week 11 comment (at 5-5): Saints fans may want to start calculating tiebreaker scenarios with the Giants, Cowboys and Seahawks.

That was probably the high point of the season for Saints fans, as it looked like New Orleans might be able to sneak into the playoffs. But Brees threw 9 interceptions in the next three games, all losses, and even the vindication of Jonathan Vilma wasn’t enough to propel New Orleans to the playoffs.

Carolina Panthers

Pre-season Projection: 7.5 wins
Maximum wins: 8 (after weeks 1 and 2)
Minimum wins: 5 (after weeks 7, 8, and 13)
Week 1 comment: An improvement over last year, but what happened in week 1? The Panthers will be able to run on teams, and I like their offense, but I can’t predict a winning record until they actually start, you know, winning games.

If the Panthers played the Colts in Indianapolis, I’d take the Panthers. I don’t know if that says more about the Panthers or the Colts — or me — but it was an odd season in Carolina. The Carolina running game struggled in the first half of the year, and there were many people wondering what was wrong with Cam Newton. I took the approach that he was having an interesting year, and was simply pressing too much (and suffered from poor coaching).

By the end of the year, Newton ended the season with improvements over his rookie season in Y/A, NY/A, ANY/A (he finished 10th in the league), rushing yards and yards per carry, but he won’t be able to silence the doubters until the Panthers start winning games. When the Panthers were 3-9, I said they should be good in 2013, and I see no reason to change that prediction now. And while I was probably too bullish on them for most of the year, it’s a good thing I didn’t get too down on them once they were 1-6.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Pre-season Projection: 6 wins
Maximum wins: 9 (after weeks 10, 11, and 12)
Minimum wins: 6 (after weeks 4 through 7, and 16)
Week 1 comment: I was pretty low on Tampa Bay before the season, but they wildly exceeded my expectations in week 1. A tough division, but the Bucs don’’t appear to be an easy out anymore, and they’ve already got a confidence-building win.

It took me awhile to get on the Bucs bandwagon — I pegged them at 6 or 7 wins in each of the first 9 weeks. While there was a lot of drama in the first half of the season — the Greg Schiano kneel-gate, some monster Doug Martin games — things really picked up in the second half. In week 10, the Chargers beat the Chargers and ran their record to 5-4. I wrote: Josh Freeman is having a magnificent year. The schedule is difficult but a 9-win season is within their grasp.

In week 11, Tampa Bay had an incredible comeback win against the Panthers, causing me to center my New York Times article that week on the terrific job General Manager Mark Dominik had done in rebuilding the team. A close loss to Atlanta in week 12 didn’t seem like a big setback at the time, but it was the beginning of the end for Tampa Bay. What followed was a loss in Denver, a shocking loss to the Eagles, and a 41-0 shutout in New Orleans, which relegated to Tampa Bay to playing out the string. I still like this team going forward, as I think Josh Freeman, Doug Martin, and Vincent Jackson form a great trio capable of big things. The rush defense completed a remarkable worst to first turnaround, meaning the main item on the off-season agenda is improving the league’s worst pass defense.

  • sunrise089

    Chase, since you talk again about the Tampa 32nd->1st run defense I might as well bring up the issue I’ve been thinking about since you first started talking about it – namely it isn’t impressive AT ALL to rank highly in either defensive metric at the expense of the other. On offense if you average 10 ANY/A passing and 2 yards rushing it’s no problem, just pass all the time. On defense though you don’t get to select the play calls! I could coach New Orleans (or pick your favorite bad defense here) to first in the league in rush defense if I wanted – just put 9 in the box every play, never blitz, and make sure you have contain.

    If Tampa was at least giving up on the run in order to have better pass defense (like some of the successful Manning Colts team did) that would at least mean they were trying to focus on the more dangerous threat. But in 2012 to hyper-focus on run stopping to me suggests a coach who cares a lot more about soundbite affirmations than he does about winning.