The 2011 NFL Season preview
AFC South and West



This is… and it’s not even close… the most difficult division in football to predict. In Indianapolis we have worries about the health of Peyton Manning. In Tennessee we have worries about Chris Johnson holding out. In Jacksonville… well… do we have a quarterback? And then there’s Houston. We’ll get to them in just moments… but let’s face it… simply put, we’ve all wanted to like them before.

(And we all have liked them before.)

(And we’ve all been disappointed.)

It is so blindingly tempting to declare them a bandwagon-ready candidate that no one really wants to do it. Instead… the media is secretly telling you to like them. How? By constantly mentioning things like Manning and Johnson and the quarterback-to-be-named-later stories and then every so often talking about the Texans in terms relating to fantasy football numbers and not playoff appearances.

I hate this division. Hate it. Hate it… hate… hate… hate… hate it.

Houston (10-6)

I wrote those introductory words for this section a few weeks ago. And now, as I proofread this for publication at the start of the season, the worst of fears has come true… the Texans are a favorite.

Peyton Manning appears down… maybe out. Chris Johnson finally arrived… to play for a team with a new coaching staff in place, questions all over the roster, and a history that suggests he needs to look after himself. And Jacksonville… well… never mind.

Let’s go back to 2002 for a moment. Because that’s where my fears begin… as does the history of the Houston Texans.

You might recall September 8, 2002. That was the day the Dallas Cowboys arrived to welcome Houston to the league. The first regular season game for the Texans. And the Big Brother Cowboys were in town.

And everyone… everyone except those bandwagon can’t name a player while telling you they’ve loved the Cowboys forever fans (Tom Landry must be spinning in his grave)… was hoping Houston could win.

None of us really expected the Texans to win. I mean… come on… let’s be realistic.

But wouldn’t it be nice?

And then… amazingly… wasn’t it nice?

Houston went on to win 19-10, and a curse of sorts was born.

It’s my contention that Houston became better than they were that night… one of those perception becoming the reality moments where we all heard about the Texans winning, and then never saw them in the news much while they were losing.

Heck… more to the point… do you know who else they beat that year? The Giants and the Steelers. Admit it… you’re impressed. They went 4-12 and yet they still developed a reputation. Team on the rise… capable of anything… building it right.

Here’s the thing though… they never live up to expectations.


Every time I’ve thought I had a read on them… and figured they were about to break out and win consistently… they’ve gone on losing streaks or been flattened by inferior opponents in important games. They only win when it doesn’t matter.

And it’s the 4-game losing streaks that kill them.

In 2009 they started out 5-3 and everyone raised eyebrows again. “Could it be?” (My words… but general feeling.) Then they lost four straight, all divisional games, including two against Indianapolis. Suddenly they were 5-7 and out of it. So what did they do at that point? (Tank? Of course not.) Won four straight to end the year, finish 9-7, and just miss the playoffs.

Oh… so close… but building for 2010. Right?

Yeah… well… wrong.

See… they started the year with a victory over Indy. They got to 4-2 and their bye week. And then… well… they never came back from their bye week. The record shows two different 4-game losing streaks and a 6-10 finish.

I’m going with 10-6 this season because…

First… the teams in their division seem to be handing it to them. Peyton Manning is hurting. Tennessee is still trying to get a new staff up to speed. And Jacksonville has problems.

Second… I think Wade Phillips is being given some talent on defense, and he will make them one of the strongest in this division, and possibly one of the best in the AFC.

Third… I know they have some incredible talent on offense, including arguably the best receiver in football and a fantasy football god at running back. (That’s a late joke there. The running back and fantasy football. Ha ha.)

And yet…

Ok, the bad news.

The schedule is out to kill them.

The rotation gives them the NFC South. (New Orleans… Atlanta… Tampa… yikes! And Tampa is a road game.) In the AFC they get the North. (Pittsburgh… Baltimore… and a sleeping improver in Cleveland.) I think it’s very safe to predict 5-5 in non-divisional games for them as a best-case scenario.

I’m taking them. Add me to the list. But they start with Indianapolis, at Miami and at New Orleans. If Pittsburgh is coming to visit in week four, and Houston isn’t 2-1 or better at that point, they could be off the rails in a hurry.

Indianapolis (8-8)

I’m being generous here and expecting Peyton Manning to play more than half the season. I have to. Just can’t write it and now in time to give it perfect editing. If not… well… did you see the rotation the AFC South has? I mentioned it up above in the Houston section. How would you expect the Colts to do against the Saints, Falcons, Buccaneers, Steelers and Ravens without him? Well… hold on… because the Colts also won the division last year, which means they get the addition of the Patriots to that list (road game).

If Manning doesn’t play more than half the year, then start adding in losses to the Chiefs, Browns, and others that I would normally expect to be good but not good enough. (Indianapolis has this habit… with Manning… of winning when they should. Without him… it will be ugly. He has saved them so often over the years that I think we will all end up surprised by how bad they are without him. (Should do wonders for his legend though… he’s got that going for him… which is nice.)

Call me crazy… I don’t think we’ll be seeing the home team in the Super Bowl this year when it’s played in Indianapolis.

Tennessee (6-10)

New head coach.

6-10 last year… 8-8 in 2009… now a new quarterback (as in pretty much an entirely new set of quarterbacks on the roster)… and a star player that sat out virtually the entire preseason in a year when the team had just about zero team workouts between seasons.

So… no consistency in the coaching staff… no recent success stories to build on… and the team leadership is questionable.


And Chris Johnson scares me here, because history suggests that players coming in to camp late just don’t seem to hold up. They pull hamstrings or end up with some nagging injury like an ankle sprain that lasts for weeks.

But let’s not focus on the injury. More to the point… head coach Mike Munchak.

I’ve got nothing against the guy. In fact, a few things I’ve heard indicate he’s a passionate man with some really good ideas. But when it comes to how the offseason in the NFL was going to hit teams turning over coaching staffs, the Titans would be second only to the Panthers for where it hurt most.

Matt Hasselbeck is the new quarterback. This isn’t a journeyman by any stretch… he’s played for two organizations and only in Seattle did he get to start. He’s good for 15-18 touchdown passes and 14-17 interceptions while completing 60% of his passes. In short… if he went to the Jets, they’d be happy… but this is the Titans. And he’ll remain upright and walking only as long as Johnson remains in the backfield.

But more importantly, I don’t know how much of a system Tennessee has in place. I don’t think this is going to be an impressive year for them.

Jacksonville (5-11)

Maurice Jones-Drew is going to single-handedly win four games for Jacksonville. After that… Luke McCown and Blaine Gabbert… do I really need to explain why 5 wins might be a stretch here?


San Diego (10-6)

When has a Norv Turner team ever lived up to its potential?

Honestly. I’m asking. Because I don’t know the answer.

And that’s why I have problems with the Chargers and the division.

Oakland can’t get out of its own way. Denver has a new staff leading a team that has no leaders on the roster. And Kansas City… well… we’ll talk about their coach in a minute.

It’s all there for a team that once again holds that label of talented. Now… hold on, let’s start fresh off of that comment, because talented doesn’t cut it when you’re always labeled talented and you never achieve…

Phillip Rivers. I like Phillip Rivers. How about you? He’s a good quarterback. But I am so very tired of hearing about how he’s a great quarterback. He may very well be… but let’s see if I’ve got this straight. Rivers was handed the keys to a team that had a consistent coaching staff (yup… and while some of you remember Marty and want to call me on this, it was a team with a front office that stayed in place and was making the playoffs with big names on both sides of the ball, which leads me too…), and a talented roster (oh yes, there’s that word again). Since then we see the Chargers trip over their feet early on in most seasons, claw and fight at the end of seasons, and occasionally make the playoffs and occasionally not. That about sums it up… right?

And then after they go home for the year, way too often before the playoffs even begin, we hear about how great Rivers is.

Well… hmm… (and especially for those of you asking about Marty and consistency)… Matt Ryan was handed the keys of an impending disaster in Atlanta (franchise was forecast to fall apart after those quarterback-before-Ryan headlines and coaching changes), and they have a solid club. Three straight winning seasons in fact. Drew Brees was walking into no man’s land in New Orleans and won a championship. Mark Sanchez… can’t hit the side of the Empire State Building if he throws off of its observation deck Mark Sanchez… has led the Jets to two straight conference championship games. And we can go on… want me to? Ok…

Eli Manning ended the perfect season quest.

Ben Roethlisberger has two rings.

(Manning and Roethlisberger… hmm…who else was drafted that year?)

Cassel in Kansas City… and… there, that’s enough.

All I’m saying is that while appreciate he’s good, and maybe even very good, eventually I’d just like a little bit of reward from all the potential and hype. Let’s not kid ourselves folks… remember that Rivers has been the starter in San Diego since 2006, and yet the quarterbacks with him in that first round in 2004 have three titles. And, sorry… when you tell me the team is talented… reaching 8-8 and falling short of the playoffs is not greatness. Check over the record with Rivers as the starter and get back to me. Ok?

But… they do seem to figure out bad year followed by a good year as a pattern… and I think the playoffs and a division win is coming, even with a schedule featuring Green Bay, New England and New York (Jets).

Kansas City (9-7)

Do you know who Kansas City defeated last year? Let me list a few of the conquests…

Cleveland… the Browns were 5-11 on the year…

San Francisco… 6-10…

Buffalo… in overtime… 4-12


Denver… split with them… 4-12…

Tennessee… 6-10…

In other words, they weren’t beating up the very best.

And this year… AFC East and NFC North. Plus the joy of Pittsburgh for winning the division. I see a club that could be ok in general, but definitely will not be returning to the playoffs (and will have a very hard time reaching an even record).

The Chiefs start out with Buffalo at home (I’d say they should win that one… but Cassel may not be 100% and look above, it took them overtime last season). Then we find them traveling to Detroit and San Diego. (Uh-oh.) If they can get Cassel going early in the year, and start out 2-1 with Minnesota and Indianapolis as the fourth and fifth games, they could hang in there for a while and at least put up a nice show. If not… well…

On November 21st the Chiefs travel to New England to play the Patriots. Get this stretch… at New England, home Pittsburgh, at Chicago, at New York (Jets), home Green Bay. Even with a winning start, and the Vikings and Colts lined up, 9-7 is looking very optimistic as a prediction.

Plus, I have a problem with Todd Haley. I don’t like him. Last year he went nuts over his perception of Denver embarrassing his club… and then this year in the preseason he went off again on the opposition after what he perceived as a slight in a lopsided loss. Pretty soon, all of the teams in the league are going to be thrilled to paste a Haley-led club.

Denver (6-10)

I happen to like Kyle Orton. Not a whole lot… not as a team savior in the breath of Brady or Brees… but as a guy who’s managed to rise above many negative comments, I like him.

And, as opposed to most places in the NFL with new coaching staffs, I think John Fox actually might put together a solid group. (Judging by the Tim Tebow efforts, they seem to be looking to make a fresh start with whatever roster gives them the best they have at every slot. Might not be a winning formula for 2011, but it should give them room to grow.)

This is a club bringing a lot of youth to camp, and I expect that to show. There will be mistakes… and it’s part of the reason I think both Kansas City and San Diego can have winning records. But… even without much to talk about… the Broncos face the Raiders twice along with the Bengals, Bills, and… well… I think 6 wins is a good place to put them.

Oakland (4-12)

The Oakland Raiders would like you to know they are very fast. Really fast.

Quick… quick… quick.

Actually, the word I saw recently that stuck with me was speedy. I liked that one. Speedy.

In no place did I see any blurb about whether or not these fast and quick and speedy people can play football.

(I just saying… speedy, yes… football talent, not a word. So let’s look for ourselves…)

New head coach.

Jason Campbell at quarterback.

A schedule filled with opponents like Detroit and Cleveland (meaning clubs I think are improving this season), and the AFC East.

If you think there is no way the Lions or Browns or Dolphins can best the Raiders, things look fantastic. (Of course, if you do believe the Raiders have those games wrapped up, you likely also get impressed by how you can teach football skills but can’t teach speed.)

They’ll have four or five games where they look really good. On those days, the running game will be strong… the defensive line will be shoving the opponent around… Jason Campbell will look like an NFL starter… stuff like that. But honestly, those are going to be few and far between.

If they lose to Denver in week one, they’ll be fortunate to come out of the opening weeks at 1-3. (Which is at Denver, at Buffalo, home New York (Jets), home New England.) And I don’t like the looks of things after that. There isn’t a spot on their schedule where they will be favored in back-to-back weeks, and there are plenty of back-to-back spots (New England and New York as one example) where they should lose consecutive games.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at