NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Titans set out this season to win their first AFC South title since 2008. Each week, I’ll go through each of their three division rivals with an update of where everyone stands in the division.
Indianapolis Colts (0-4 Preseason)
After recording back-to-back 11-5 seasons, the reigning two-time division champs will look to wear the crown for a third consecutive season in 2014. The Colts fell into the preseason category of “keep our quarterback healthy and it’s a success.” Third-year QB Andrew Luck may have made it out of the preseason unscathed, but many of his teammates won’t be joining him week one.
Star defensive end Robert Mathis will miss the team’s first four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Running back Vick Ballard continued his string of bad luck, tearing his Achilles in training camp landing on IR for the second straight season.
The Colts offense is reloaded with Reggie Wayne returning from the torn ACL that ended his 2013 season. Third-year tight end Dwayne Allen was primed for a breakout season in 2013 before a hip injury ended his campaign. He is also healthy and ready to go for Week 1.
Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks serves as the big offseason addition to the Colts’ potent offensive attack. Nicks spent his first five seasons with the New York Giants, compiling 4,622 yards and 27 touchdowns.
Wayne, Allen, and Nicks are joined by tight end Coby Fleener and wide receiver T.Y. Hilton as the receiving options for Luck. Hilton as emerged as the team’s greatest deep threat, recording his first 1,000 yard season in 2013.
Big Question: Is T-Rich the Guy?
The Colts paid a hefty price to acquire 2012 third-overall pick Trent Richardson last season – their 2014 first round pick to be exact. The running back underwhelmed in 14 games with the Colts in 2013, rushing for a mere 32.7 yards per game and a 2.9 yards per carry average.
With Vick Ballard out for the season, veteran back Ahmad Bradshaw serves as the backup to Richardson. Bradshaw has an injury history of his own which makes a rebound season from T-Rich a must for Indianapolis.
Week 1 Matchup: At Denver Broncos – 7:30 p.m. CT
NBC gets its Sunday Night Football slate started off right with the matchup of two favorites in the AFC. Luck vs. Manning. Manning vs. his old team. The storylines write themselves. You can bet the world will be watching this one.
Houston Texans (2-2 Preseason)
After winning their first two games in 2013, the Texans dropped their final 14 contests to earn the first overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Houston turned that into monster defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. Texans fans are seeing stars with Clowney teaming up with two-time All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt, who has 31 sacks over the past two seasons and was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2012. The Texans just awarded Watt with a six-year $100-million contract extension on Tuesday.
Houston’s defense also gets back one of its leaders in linebacker Brian Cushing, who has only played 12 games in the past two years due to consecutive season-ending injuries. Last year it was a Jamaal Charles block that broke Cushing’s fibula and tore his fibular collateral ligament.
Like the Titans, Houston enters the season with a new head coach. Bill O’Brien rejoins the professional ranks after spending the last two years as the head coach of Penn State. Before that, O’Brien spent the 2007-11 seasons in various roles with the New England Patriots.
O’Brien will also serve as the teams offensive coordinator.
Big Question: Is Fitzpatrick the Answer?
All of the defensive hype for the Texans doesn’t come without plenty of questions on the offensive side of the football.
For the first time since 2006, Houston will start the season with a quarterback other than Matt Schaub. Schaub made two Pro Bowls during his seven-year tenure with the Texans, but struggled to produce and stay healthy in 2013. After throwing 10 touchdowns to his 14 interceptions last season, the Texans decided to move on.
Houston’s new man under center is a familiar face to the Titans. Ryan Fitzpatrick will begin the season as the Texans’ starter after spending the 2013 season in Tennessee. Fitzpatrick showed plenty of flashes while with the Titans, but couldn’t avoid his propensity to turn the ball over. In his 11 games (nine starts) last season, Fitzpatrick threw 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
Over the course of his nine-year career Fitzpatrick has 106 career passing touchdowns to his 93 interceptions and a 27-49-1 overall record as a starter.
Week 1 Matchup: vs. Washington Redskins – 12:00 p.m. CT
The Texans will welcome Robert Griffin III and the Redskins to Reliant Stadium to begin the season. RGIII vs. the Houston defensive line is the matchup most are excited to see.
Jacksonville Jaguars (1-3 Preseason)
Second-year head coach Gus Bradley has changed the culture in Jacksonville and the team hopes this is the year that translates into wins. 2007 was the last time the Jags won the division, made the playoffs, and had a winning record. The Jaguars have just six wins over the past two seasons combined.
It was an offseason of change for the Jacksonville offense. Three-time Pro Bowl running back Maurice Jones-Drew is now in Oakland and the Jaguars have turned to former Vikings back Toby Gerhart. The former Stanford Cardinal spent four seasons backing up Adrian Peterson and will now have the chance to be a team’s lead back. Gerhard posted 1305 rushing yards and eight total touchdowns during his four years in Minnesota.
Jacksonville also used the third overall pick in this year’s draft on quarterback Blake Bortles out of Central Florida. The team announced shortly after the draft that Chad Henne would remain the starting quarterback this season in an effort to ease Bortles into the league.
The Jaguars also spent two draft picks on wide receivers Marquise Lee (USC) and Allen Robinson (Penn State). They’ll team up with veteran receiver Cecil Shorts III and tight end Mercedes Lewis to complete Jacksonville’s core of receiving targets.
On the defensive side of the football, the Jags bolstered their line with two additions from the Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks. Veteran ends Chris Clemons and Red Bryant bring proven talent and experience to a young defensive unit. Clemons has double-digit sack totals in three of the past four seasons, giving him 38 over that time span.
Big Question: How Long is Henne’s Leash?
The concept of giving a rookie quarterback a time to acclimate to the NFL isn’t new, but it will be interesting to see how firmly Jacksonville sticks to it. Henne served as the team’s primary starter in 2013 and had more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (13).
The pressure has already started with Bortles performing well in the preseason. The rookie completed 32 of his 51 passes (63.7%) for 521 yards and two touchdowns. Additionally, Bortles didn’t throw an interception in any of the four exhibition contests.
Add a few losses to start this season and the lobbying for Bortles will build significantly. It’s easier said than done to say you’re going to keep the future of the franchise on the sideline.
Week 1 Matchup: at Philadelphia Eagles – 12:00 p.m. CT
Jacksonville faces a tough road test to open the season against the reigning NFL East Champions. The Jags will have their hands full with Nick Foles, LeSean McCoy, and Chip Kelly’s high-powered offense. The Eagles will put points on the board, so pressure will be on Henne to immediately answer on Sunday.