After nearly a decade of trying to get over the hump, the Texans finally broke through last year, going 10-6, winning the AFC South and even winning a playoff game. All that despite an injury plagued season that saw many of their top players go down for extended stretches.
Houston was a money winner for their supporters, thanks to a 9-5-2 ATS mark. They outgained their opponents by 0.9 yards per play, tied for second best in the NFL, and finished with a +7 turnover margin. The Texans were an Under team in 2011, cashing at a 10-6 clip.
But before we get carried away with all of the success, let’s not ignore that the Texans beat up on a very weak slate of opponents. Houston faced third easiest schedule in the NFL based on my numbers – numbers based on my power rating of their opponents for the week that the game was played.
2012 Issues: Houston has fairly good continuity from last year to this year. Head coach Gary Kubiak and both coordinators return, most notably defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Phillips took a defense that had been ranked dead last against the pass and #30 overall, and transformed the unit into the #3 defense in the NFL last year.
The salary cap challenged Texans did suffer some major losses on that side of the football, with DE Mario Williams, LB DeMeco Ryans and CB Jason Allen all departing. Their top four pass rushers return, but this defense is no ‘lock’ to match last year’s stellar numbers.
Houston’s run to the playoffs last year was even more remarkable because it came with third string QB TJ Yates behind center. 31 year old Matt Schaub is coming off another injury plagued campaign. It’s a contract year for Schaub, playing for his future as a starting QB in this league.
From center to left tackle, all three starting offensive lineman return. That trio each started all 16 games last year; a top notch group. But the Texans must rebuild the right side of their line. Top receivers Andre Johnson and Kevin Walter are both on the wrong side of 30 with injury histories of their own. But the RB tandem of Arian Foster and Ben Tate is as good as any in the NFL, capable of carrying the offense on the ground.
Betting Markets: There’s good line variance with the Texans around the betting world. Over bettors can find Houston at 9.5; Under bettors can find them at 10.5, with the prevailing line holding steady at 10. Despite facing another weak overall schedule in 2012, we’ve seen a trickle of money come in on the Under in early betting action, but nothing significant.
After an NFL high nine consecutive playoff appearances, the Colts crashed and burned last year following QB Peyton Manning’s season ending neck surgery. They did face a tougher than average schedule, but a 2-14 SU, 6-10 ATS season can’t be blamed solely on a tough slate of opponents.
The Colts were outgained by 0.8 yards per play in 2011, fourth worst in the NFL. They had a -12 turnover margin and went 9-7 to the Under for the campaign.
2012 Issues: The 2012 schedule tells you all you need to know about Indy’s rebuilding project. The Colts have been primetime mainstays for the last decade, with at least three or four Sunday or Monday Night national TV appearances every year. This year, the Colts play 15 of their 16 games at 1 pm ET. The 16th game is a Thursday Night affair at lowly Jacksonville on the NFL network. The Colts are most assuredly NOT a showcase team for the league this year.
The Colts have a first-time head coach, Chuck Pagano, the former Ravens defensive coordinator. Their new offensive coordinator is Bruce Arians, who developed some very effective downfield throwing schemes in his tenure at Pittsburgh. New defensive coordinator Greg Manusky was fired by the Chargers following his lone season on the job last year. Owner Jim Irsay fired six time NFL executive of the year Bill Polian and GM Chris Polian as well – both the front office and the coaching staff are starting with a clean slate.
Indy is in major rebuilding mode for 2012. They’ll be starting ultra-hyped rookie QB, Andrew Luck, remembering that even future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning’s first season wasn’t pretty as the Colts stumbled to a 3-13 campaign.
To make matters even worse for Luck, he’ll be playing behind a bottom tier offensive line. The OL has only one starter returning from last year, and the replacements are largely underwhelming castoffs that Indy brought in cheaply. Expect the Colts to run first this year, protecting their young QB with a steady ground game from Delone Carter and Donald Brown.
This team still has a number of playmaking receivers: Reggie Wayne, Austin Collie, Donny Avery and a trio of rookies, including TE Coby Fleener and explosive WR TY Hilton. Whether they’ll be able to get the ball in position to make plays is another question entirely.
The Colts are switching defensive schemes, installing a brand new hybrid 3-4 D that has virtually nothing in common with the Cover-2 they’ve been running since Tony Dungy became their head coach more than a decade ago. The Colts did bring in three free agents from Baltimore’s defense to help in the transition. But Indy’s cornerbacks – a group that allowed a woeful 103.9 QB rating to opposing quarterbacks last year – did not enjoy the benefits of any offseason upgrades on a team with literally dozens of holes to fill.
Betting Markets: The Colts are lined at 5 or 5.5 wins, depending on the sportsbook; right on par with Jacksonville and Cleveland as the teams that are expected to be at the bottom of the AFC in 2012. We’ve seen very little betting action on the Colts thus far.
Somehow, the lowly Jags managed to win five games last year against an average schedule in terms of toughness. They were outgained by a full yard per snap for the entire season, but finished with a +5 turnover margin. Jacksonville was an injury plagued disaster by the end of the campaign, with 25 players on injured reserve. The Jags went 7-8-1 ATS and 11-4-1 to the Under.
2012 Issues: Like in Indy, there’s a new era in Jacksonville. The Jags have a new owner, billionaire businessman Shad Khan. New head coach Mike Mularkey held the same position in Buffalo, lasting only two years on the job before getting fired. He’s been the offensive coordinator in Atlanta for the last few seasons.
Mularkey retained Jacksonville defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, but brought in Bob Bratkowski – one of five current or former offensive coordinators on the staff – to coordinate the offense. Bratkowski coordinated the Bengals offense for most of the past decade and was the QB coach in Atlanta last year.
The Jags biggest issue is at the QB position. As a rookie, Blaine Gabbert was awful, finishing the season with a 65.4 QB rating. Dolphins retread Chad Henne was signed in the offseason to give Gabbert some competition, but neither guy is loaded with upside for 2012.
The Jags had plenty of money to spend under the salary cap, and they spent some of that money bringing in a handful of new offensive playmakers, like WRs Laurent Robinson and Lee Evans, along with first rounder Justin Blackmon. With Maurice Jones-Drew involved in a nasty contract dispute, it remains to be seen what the Jaguars running attack is going to look like, although they do have a Top 10 caliber offensive line to open up holes for their backs.
Jacksonville’s defense ranked #6 in the NFL last year after finishing #28 in 2010. Their best playmaker, CB Rashean Mathis, is coming off an ACL injury, and the Jags numbers from last year could be deflated because many of their opponents were simply trying to run clock in the second half of their games against the Jags – six of their losses came by double digit margins.
Betting Markets: The Jaguars are lined at 5.5 wins in most locations, although the LVH here in Vegas hung a 5. We’ve seen the early money come on the Under, with bettors expecting another rebuilding season in Jacksonville.
The Titans were the only team in the NFL last year to finish with a winning record without making the playoffs; losing the tiebreaker with Cincinnati for the final playoff spot in the AFC. Based on my numbers, they faced the single easiest schedule in the NFL in 2011.
Despite the easy slate, Tennessee only outgained their foes by 0.1 yards per play and finished the season with a +1 turnover margin. The Titans were slight money losers for their supporters, going 7-8-1 ATS and 10-5-1 to the Under.
2012 Issues: The Titans enjoyed good continuity this past offseason, returning head coach Mike Munchak for his second year on the job, and both coordinators (Chris Palmer offense, Jerry Gray defense). Tennessee has a real QB battle between the aging veteran Matt Hasselbeck and the second year first rounder Jake Locker. Both look like solid options; neither is likely to light up opposing defenses on a weekly basis.
The Titans biggest offensive issue is not at quarterback – it’s fixing a running game that ranked #31 in the NFL last year. RB Chris Johnson had been in three consecutive pro bowls, rushing for more than 4500 yards in the process, but last year he suffered career lows in nearly everything – yards from scrimmage, yards per carry, touchdowns, etc. The Titans finished the year ranked #31 in rushing; a top priority to improve if they are going to compete for the division title this year.
The free agent addition of aging mauler Steve Hutchinson on the offensive line is certainly a step in the right direction. And with explosive first rounder Kendall Wright joining a group of receiving playmakers including Kenny Britt, Nate Washington and Jared Cook; a solid running game should open up big play opportunities downfield.
Tennessee has numerous questions on the defensive side of the ball as well. Last year, they finished #31 in sack percentage and their third down defense was nothing short of awful. They lost their best player in the secondary, former pro bowler Cortland Finnegan, in the offseason, leaving a huge hole to fill.
Betting Markets: The betting markets definitely noticed that the Titans 2012 schedule is significantly tougher than last year’s slate, even though it still grades out as average when compared to the entire league. Most books have the Titans lined at 7.5 wins, although there are both 7’s and 8’s still available for avid line shoppers. In early betting, we’ve seen very little action on or against Tennessee.