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FOA 2010-The AFC South

Every year, the Football Outsiders publish their guide to the new season.  The Football Outsiders 2010 Almanac went on sale yesterday, and is the second most important book that a Colts fan can buy this summer.  Every serious football fan ought to give it a look.  All week, I’ll be reviewing the book to share some of the great insights they have into the Colts.  Today:  the rest of the South.

2009 was another strong year from the South.  True, only the Colts made the playoffs, but the Jags, Titans, and Texans managed 7,8, and 9 wins respectively.  With no true ‘weak sister’ in the group, it makes it difficult for multiple teams to emerge from the division, because all three beat up on each other.  It is in vogue these days to project a major leap forward for the Texans, specifically, as they’ve finally found a quarterback capable of elite play, something the Titans and Jags sorely lack.

Surprisingly the Outsiders foresee the Colts dominating the South with little opposition from the other three teams.  They foresee major regression from the Texans.  They project Houston to finish with 5.6 wins, and give them a 70% of finishing with fewer than six.  I was stunned by the projection, but FOs reasoning is sound.  The Texans benefited from one of the easiest schedules in football in 2009 and had spectacular injury luck with their offensive line and quarterback.  Though they lost six close games in 2009, they also won five. In summary:

All told, there are too many question marks in Houston to expect a playoff berth. Schaub, Slaton, and Daniels can’t be counted on to stay healthy. The offensive line may not gel with the new group of running backs. Cushing’s absence may be too much to overcome. There may be other injuries along the front seven. The secondary may struggle as it did last year. And then there’s the brutal out-of-division schedule.

What of the Titans, then?  Will they challenge Indy for the top of the division?  The Outsiders say…no.  The Titans come out with just 7.4 projected wins and only a 31% chance of being a playoff team.  Essentially, they’ll be what they were last year…but in a different way.  The Outsiders see a rebound for the Titans defense from terrible (in the first six games last year) to pretty average.  The real reason to expect the Titans to struggle contending is simply that Chris Johnson isn’t going to run for 2,000 yards this year.  To counteract that, the Titans will need Vince Young to take yet another major leap forward.  He did take one last season, but assuming that Johnson has the natural regression, he’ll need to play better than he ever has before to carry the slack.  They (and I) am betting that he can’t.

And the Jags? FO sees them as exactly the same kind of team they were last year.  The projection is for 6.8 wins, but with almost no upside at all.  The Jags only have 21% chance of being a playoff contender (with a 41% chance of losing 10 games or more).  The Jags simply have too many holes on the field to be competitive.  They need help at wide receiver, safety, corner, and lack depth at end, OT, and quarterback.  The bottom line is that this team just doesn’t have the horses to compete.  Oh, and they still have Mad Jack Del Rio, who FO blames for a lot of the problems in Jacksonville.

Blame for these poor performances has to fall primarily on coach Jack Del Rio. Del Rio returns for his eighth season as head coach, despite only making the playoffs twice during his first seven seasons. In the early years of his career, the Jaguars’ on-field results tended to fairly consistently track the team’s overall talent level; since then, though, the Jaguars have tended to play either inconsistently or poorly. 2007 was the best team Del Rio has had in Jacksonville, as the Jaguars were third in the league in DVOA. That year, though, they had the highest variance in the league.

So the good news for Colts fans is that it looks like it could be a rough ride for the rest of the division.  If the Outsiders are right about Houston, we could be looking at more “Painter-time” come late December.