It was two seasons ago when I projected Houston Texans would dethrone the Indianapolis Colts for AFC South supremacy. The fruition of my forecast was delayed  a season, but in its 10th year of existence, the Texans (10-6) beat the Tennessee Titans (9-7) by a hair to claim the 2011 AFC South trophy.

The changing of the guard that I originally foresaw took on a greater meaning; one which saw an overhaul of the majority of the division.

As Peyton Manning went down, so went the Indianapolis Colts. A lack of preparation for such an emergency resulted in a 2-14 record for the two-time Super Bowl and seven-time AFC South Champions.

In Tennessee, rookie Jake Locker first took the wheel as quarterback in week 11 of 2011, after an injury to veteran signal caller Matt Hasselbeck. From there, Locker would finish out the season as backup and occasional relief to Hasselbeck.

Once upon a time David Garrard was the starting quarterback of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Less than a week before the start of the 2011 season, Garrard was sent packing. After realizing Luke McCown was not the solution at quarterback, week two saw the installment of rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert.

Finally, there’s Houston’s Matt Schaub. Unlike his quarterback brethren before him, he is the only starter from a season ago to maintain his position after suffering injury.

Now that the smoke has cleared, Schaub (31) is the elder statesman of this division’s quarterback pool. The other teams are led by a youth movement of Locker, Gabbert and the first overall draft pick of 2012, Andrew Luck.

Luck (Stanford University) and Locker (University of Washington) had memorable battles against one another, in what was then known as the PAC-10. Now they’ll see each other twice a season for years to come.

Here’s what you need to know about the “Dirty South”:

Houston Texans (10-6 in 2011, AFC South Division Champions)

Key Losses: OLB Mario Williams, LB DeMeco Ryans, RT Eric Winston, RG Mike Brisiel, TE Joel Dreessen, PK Neil Rackers, WR Jacoby Jones.

New Faces: OLB Whitney Mercilus (first-round pick), LB Bradie James, WR DeVier Posey, WR Keshawn Martin, RB Justin Forsett

If a team is often bit by the injury bug, losing starters like Andre Johnson, Mario Williams, Arian Foster and Matt Schaub and still win its division in the process, not only is it a testament of this team’s resilience, it speaks on the depth Houston has and it makes the “too many injuries” excuse invalid.

Long term, it also gives this fan base the assurance that they’ll fair well in response to the departure the players listed as “key losses”.

Could Houston become the youngest franchise, in terms of existence, to advance to the Super Bowl, and maybe even win it?

Indianapolis Colts (2-14 in 2011)

Key Losses: RB Joseph Addai, LB Gary Brackett, S Melvin Bullitt, TE Dallas Clark, G Ryan Diem, WR Pierre Garcon, C Jeff Saturday, QB Peyton Manning

New Faces: WR Donnie Avery, TE Ben Allen, CB Vontae Davis, TE Coby Fleener, RT Winston Justice, QB Andrew Luck (first-round pick), DE Cory Redding, C Samson Satele, S Tom Zbikowski

There’s only one fitting response to what has been seen of Andrew Luck in the preseason…HE’S READY!  Playing under a pro-style system, which was implemented by former Stanford and current San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh, has given Luck the acumen and wherewithal of a veteran. As if his accuracy, deception and arm strength aren’t enough to sell anyone on his potential, he has an underappreciated mobility that can get him out of the most compromising of situations.

With all that he offers, are his surroundings conducive to winning?  In reevaluating the Peyton Manning situation, the last thing Indianapolis wants is for history to repeat itself. What that means is they do not want to be that team whose shades were pulled opened, leaving them exposed. With the exceptions of Reggie Wayne, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Austin Collie, Antoine Bethea and Donald Brown, Indianapolis has gutted itself of anyone connected to the Peyton Manning era. In response to this mass exodus, do the Colts have all the pieces, starters and depth, needed to improve on a forgettable two-win season? It will likely take time for the Colts to return to championship glory, but it’ll be a treat to witness the development of Luck along the way.

Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11 in 2011)

Key Losses: CB Drew Coleman, DE Matt Roth

New Faces:  Owner Shad Khan, coach Mike Mularkey, WR Laurent Robinson, WR Justin Blackmon (first-round pick), CB Aaron Ross, DE Andre Branch

Welcome back to Jacksonville Maurice Jones-Drew! It’s good to see that you and your front office were able to iron out your differences.  Your team is the biggest beneficiary of this deal since you are the best player on the team. Although your absence from training camp has earned you third down duties in the season opener, you’ll be back in your rightful role by the third quarter. The question is, “Can your supporting cast meet you where you are?”

The presence of Laurent Robinson and Justin Blackmon gives Jacksonville its best wide receiver combo since the days of Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell. Both are big targets that can go up get anything Gabbert throws their way. Barring any personal hindrances, these two should help Gabbert a great deal. At 6’6″, 272 pounds, Mercedes Lewis should be the most difficult tight end to contain. Can he recapture, maybe even surpass his productivity from 2010?

If former New York Giant corner back Aaron Ross can come in and give added leadership, the spotted cats could collectively project a fighting spirit.

Tennessee Titans (9-7 in 2011)

Key Losses: CB Cortland Finnegan, DT Jason Jones, C Eugene Amano, WR-RET Marc Mariani

New Faces: DE Kamerion Wimbley, WR Kendall Wright (first-round pick), LG Steve Hutchinson, pass-rush specialist coach Keith Millard

With just 28 sacks in 2011, Tennessee desperately needed help in pressuring the quarterback. Enter defensive end Kamerion Wimbley and pass rush specialist coach Keith Millard. Will these two be enough to elevate its numbers in this department?

The return of Chris Johnson should not only see the restoration of Tennessee’s buzz-saw rushing attack, it should also open up a greatly desired passing game. Veteran receiver Nate Washington is out to prove his 2011 campaign was no fluke. Lining up as the second receiver is a former target of Robert Griffin III, Kendall Wright. Then there’s Jared Cook! In each of his three seasons, Cook has shown improvement. His progression must continue if Tennessee’s passing attack is to be respected.

Look for the Titans to pose the biggest threat to another Texans divisional title run.

To put a cap on the AFC previews…the AFC West!

By Antoine Hoffman


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