NFL Season Preview: AFC/NFC South

Will experience at quarterback determine the southern divisions?

Josh Helmuthby Josh Helmuth

There was a time in the early 2000's that whoever was at the bottom of the NFC South would inexplicably win the division the next year. That trend continued for almost seven years before the Saints brought in Drew Brees.  At the same time, the AFC south had more than a decade of consistently seeing the Colts easily win the division.  With accusations in multiple scandals surrounding the Saints and the departure of Peyton Manning, the southern divisions have experienced a changing of the guard.  Below is how I see the south shaking out this year.

AFC South
Houston Texans
The clear cut favorite to win the division, it would take a small miracle for the Texans to not repeat. Everybody on offense is healthy right now, but Houston needs to capitalize on that opportunity right now because WR Andre Johnson and QB Matt Schaub have gotten into a bad habit lately of not finishing seasons.  On the defensive side of the ball, many are worried about how Houston will perform with DE/OLB Mario Williams bolting for Buffalo.  But remember, Williams was out or slowed almost all of last season and the Texans still were one of the best defenses in the league.  They should be fine.
Projection: 10-6, 1st in AFC South

Indianapolis Colts
Coming off of their worst season since before the Manning era, the Colts are eager to get 2012 started under their new #1 overall draft pick QB Andrew Luck.  New head coach Chuck Pagano, along with new offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, have completely rebuilt the offense.  The only recognizable name that returns from 2011 on offense is WR Reggie Wayne, but the Colts have added lots of weapons for their rookie QB in receivers LaVon Brazill and T.Y. Hilton, along with tight ends Coby Fleener (who played with Luck at Stanford) and Dwayne Allen.  Luck will need all those weapons, because the defense looks to give up a ton of points while attempting to make the 4-3 to 3-4 switch.  DE's Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are learning new positions moving to OLB and the Colts have had to make a few late trades to make the secondary below average.
Projection: 6-10, 3rd in AFC South

Jacksonville Jaguars
The holdout by Maurice Jones-Drew has hung over this team like a dark cloud and probably will for most of the seasons since holdouts typically don't end well for the player or the team.  The Jaguars' season is going to rely heavily on whether or not Blaine Gabbert can improve on last season and his promising pre-season. Receivers Mike Thomas, Laurent Robinson and Justin Blackmon will be vital to Gabbert's success this season.  
Projection: 4-12, 4th in AFC South

Tennessee Titans
The Jake Locker era has begun in Tennessee.  Locker has the skillset to be a quality starter in the NFL, but needs to improve his accuracy in the pocket.  If he does, receivers Kenny Britt, Nate Washington, Kendall Wright, and tight end Jared Cook will have great seasons.  Tennessee is also hoping that RB Chris Johnson bounces back from a terrible 2011.  If he does, that will take some pressure off of Locker.  The defense is a lot younger this year than last year.  Free-agency drained the defense, but the Titans were able to make up for most of their losses through the signing of DE Kamerion Wimbley and by focusing on defense during the draft.  Locker and the offense might have to win a few shootouts.
Projection: 7-9, 2nd in AFC South

NFC South
Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons defense didn't have much turnover, but the acquisition of CB Asante samuel should give the secondary even more playmaking ability than they already had with Brent Grimes and Thomas DeCoud.  On the offensive side of the ball, everybody seems to be waiting for Tony Gonzalez and Michael Turner to succumb to father time, but I think they've both got one more good year left in both of them.  The offense will really rely on the arm of Matt Ryan throwing to his two headed monster at receiver.  Roddy White has been one of the more reliable receivers in the league while Julio Jones looks to emerge as a true big play threat, evoking comparisons to the Rams' Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce in the early 2000's.
Projection: 12-4, 1st in NFC South

Carolina Panthers
Apparently the Panthers are solely relying on Cam Newton being the greatest quarterback to ever come into the league, because other than the draft there was almost no influx of talent in Carolina.  Maybe they're hoping for an addition through subtraction philosophy.  The offense looks exactly the same as it did last year except the Panthers signed RB Mike Tolbert to an already crowded backfield.  On defense the Panthers are clearly hoping that the drafting of Luke Kuechly and the return of John Beason, Thomas Davis, and Captain Munnerlyn from injured reserve will bolster the defense.  
Projection: 5-11, 4th in NFC South

New Orleans Saints
FINALLY the Saints can get back to playing football!!  It will be interesting to see how the defense responds to half of their coaching staff being gone, though other than Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith, suspensions won't have much affect on player personnel this season.  In fact, the signing of Broderick Bunkley and Curtis Lofton should make the Saints stronger up the middle than they were last year.  On the offensive side of the ball, as long as the Saints have Drew Brees at the helm the Saints have a shot at greatness.  Wide receiver Robert Meachem left to head to San Diego, but there are still more than enough weapons for Brees to have another record breaking year.
Projection: 11-5, 2nd in NFC South

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa had the biggest drop off from 2010 to 2011 other than Indianapolis.  Their response was to fire their head coach and bring in former Rutgers HC Greg Schiano.  Schiano has come in expecting to establish the running game with rookie running back Doug Martin and a massive influx of new talent through free-agency including guard Carl Nicks and receiver Vincent Jackson.  I have never had any faith in teams that "win the off-season", especially one that had such a bad season the year before.
Projection: 6-10, 3rd in NFC South

J. Lance Moose is a contributor and lead football writer for CraveOnline Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @JLanceMoose, and subscribe on Facebook

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