by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

HOUSTON (10-6 in 2011; lost 20-13 in Divisional Round at Baltimore)...Houston never did get past Peyton Manning in the AFC South. Only when the future Hall of Fame QB was sidelined for the 2011 season by a neck injury did ascending Houston finally win the division. But now that the Texans have done so, they might stay on top for a while, considering that Houston captured the South even despite losing the likes of LB/DE Mario Williams and QB Matt Schaub along the way. Plus, star WR Andre Johnson was limited to just seven games due to injury.

Even with some offseason personnel attrition (Mario Williams, T Eric Winston, G Mike Brisiel, LB DeMeco Ryans, others), the Texans are now the clear-cut choice to rule the division, thanks mainly to a solid series of productive drafts and a few well-considered free-agent signings. There’s quality and depth at RB, QB and WR. Plus, the Wade Phillips-directed 3-4 defense advanced substantially last season, finishing second in total yards and fourth in points against. It goes into 2012 as one of the top defensive platoons in the league.

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The Texans boast myriad pass rushers, including LB Connor Barwin (11½ sacks last season), DE Antonio Smith (6½), OLB Brooks Reed (6), DE J.J. Watt (5½) , and LB Brian Cushing (4½). Houston believes it has even added to its pass-rushing depth with the drafting of first-round pick Whitney Mercilus (Illinois DE), a natural pass rusher being converted to OLB, and fourth-round pick Jared Crick (Nebraska), another high-motor type to rotate at DE. Last year’s additions of free-agent CB Johnathan Joseph and S Danieal Manning solidified the once-leaky Houston secondary.

With RBs Arian Foster (1224 yards rushing in 2011) and Ben Tate (942) balancing the offense beautifully, Texan players were saying in training camp it’s Super Bowl or bust this season. That’s quite a step for a team that until last year had never even made the playoffs. But there’s nobody in this division that figures on paper to keep Houston out of its second postseason in 2012, so it’s up to those players to see how far the potent Texans can go.

TENNESSEE (9-7 in 2011)...If Jake Locker didn't start the year at QB for Tennessee over vet Matt Hasselbeck, most Titans fans would have been surprised. Now the drama has been removed as HC Mike Munchak announced Locker as his starter after the second preseason tilt vs. Tampa Bay. But with Tennessee trying to drastically increase production at many other positions (C, WR, DE, OLB, CB, S), the Titans are a team searching for answers, not a team that is providing a lot of them going into 2012. The talented Locker was still clearly in “learning mode” in his final year of college at Washington, and he is now still adjusting to the nuances of the pro game. While Hasselbeck is more knowledgeable and consistent, the soon-to-be 37-year-old likely makes a better backup on this still-developing team than he would by absorbing would-be snaps that could go to Locker as the starter.

The $64,000 question regarding Locker is whether he can keep his team ahead of Andrew Luck and Indianapolis. Chris Johnson and the Tennessee ground attack were major disappointments in 2011 after the preseason holdout of “CJ2K.” He was barely “CJ1K” last year with 1047 yards (only 4.0 ypc), as the Titans finished 31st in rushing. Johnson’s situation wasn’t helped by the early knee-injury loss of top WR Kenny Britt, whose upcoming contributions remain dubious because of those two knee-ligament tears and off-the-field problems (two arrests).

HC Mike Munchak hopes the signing of veteran G Steve Hutchinson (now 34) will restore the ground game. And the Titans uncovered a quality WR last season in Nate Washington (74 recs., 7 TDs) and a mobile TE in Jared Cook (49 recs.). But there are too many issues throughout the lineup to project Tennessee overtaking Houston. One must ask whether the Titans can make a run a at wildcard berth, or even whether Tennessee can stay ahead of Andrew Luck and the improved Colts here in the AFC South.

INDIANAPOLIS (2-14 in 2011)...In just a few weeks in the NFL, rookie QB Andrew Luck has given every indication that the prognosticators were right in predicting early success for the heady Stanford product. Running the NFL-style Jim Harbaugh system at Stanford has apparently well-prepared the QB for the needed leadership role on the rebuilding Colts. The bigger question in Indy is whether rookie head coach Chuck Pagano (Ravens’ defensive assistant the last four years), a rebuilt OL, and a new defensive scheme will amount to too many Colts’ changes for the advanced Luck to overcome.

It appears there is enough holdover and incoming talent on offense for Luck be quite productive. Remember, Peyton Manning and the Colts were 10-6 in 2010. Reggie Wayne and Austin Collie are still around at WR, and they are joined this season by promising draftees T.Y. Hilton and LaVon Brazill. Luck’s TE buddy at Stanford, Coby Fleener, wowed scouts at the Combine and was the team’s No. 2 pick.

Perhaps there are more questions on defense, which changes from Indy’s long-familiar 4-3 to a flexing 3-4, where former DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are now “OLBs.” Inside run stuffer Pat Angerer suffered a foot fracture in camp. And the secondary is a work in progress, with Pagano bringing former Baltimore backup safety Tom Zbikowski with him in hopes of speeding up the transition. Luck might indeed outshine the Hasselbeck/Locker duo by the end of the season, but the rest of the Tennessee roster rates an slight edge going in.

JACKSONVILLE (5-11 in 2011)...It’s going to take a lot of improvement for Jacksonville QB Blaine Gabbert to outshine the QB talent in this division, as even Houston backup T.J. Yates rates higher than the former Missouri Tiger. Despite his 14 starts in 2011, Gabbert did not develop in the fashion of fellow rookies Cam Newton & Andy Dalton, being mostly unassertive, often jittery in the pocket, and completing only 50.8% of his passes--way below standard for today’s NFL aerial attacks.

On the plus side, Gabbert eventually did show development late last year, and he seems even more comfortable this season. At 6-5 with some mobility, Gabbert has the tools. And now former Dolphin Chad Henne is around to step in if Gabbert struggles. Too bad for both of them that the ultra-valuable Maurice Jones-Drew (1606 yards rushing to lead the league) is a contract holdout and that top draft pick WR Justin Blackmon (two DUIs in 20 months, one of them with an “impressive” 0.24 blood-alcohol level!) has been problematic.

New head coach Mike Mularkey (Atlanta offensive coordinator the last four years) and semi-new owner Shahid Kahn will have their hands full trying to keep their rugged, but not too deep team competitive in a division that has seen Jaguar competitors add lots of young talent in the last two years. The Jacksonville task has been made tougher by recent disappointing drafts.


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