The release of the NFL schedules will be more important to the success or failure of any NFL team. The schedules are not created equally and with just 16 games there can be great disparities between the various paths to the playoffs. Here is a look at the AFC South and the upcoming schedule for each team.
Houston Texans: The Texans finally broke through with a playoff berth last season, winning the AFC South at 10-6. Houston was 10-3 but lost the final three games of the regular season before getting a playoff win over Cincinnati and giving Baltimore a very tough game in the divisional round. The Texans played late in the year with rookie 3rd string QB T.J. Yates so this is a team that can again be a serious contender with better health in what looks like one of the weaker divisions in the NFL.
The South teams will play the AFC East teams and the NFC North teams which is a fairly challenging group of teams. 10-6 could well win the division again this season and Houston should be able to get off to a strong start to the season. The first five games are against teams that finished 9-7 or worse last year and although three of those five games will be on the road they will catch several teams that are in transition or have questionable QB situations. The big proving ground games for Houston will be in October facing the Jets on the road and then hosting big games with Green Bay and Baltimore before a week 8 bye.
The second half of the schedule is difficult with four road games in five weeks starting in mid-November and road games at Chicago, at Detroit and at New England in what will be big late season tests. If there is a close race for a playoff spot the Texans do finish the season playing the Colts and Vikings at home and then going to Indianapolis for a very light final three games. The Colts and Vikings could be much better teams late in the year than at the beginning of the year however. Houston's had to play a fairly tough schedule last year and they will again have a difficult draw but all things considered another strong year can be the result if Houston can handle playing as the favorites for a change.
Indianapolis Colts: The Colts finished with a 2-14 record last season and the 0-16 watch was in full effect, starting 0-13. Indianapolis was in the news a lot in the off season with big changes in the front office, on the sidelines, and under center. Presumably rookie Andrew Luck will be the starter for the Colts and we have seen several rookie quarterbacks have early success in recent years even if that may not be the norm. The expectations will be low for the Colts but this team has a schedule that can allow for some early season success.
The Colts play the Vikings, Jaguars, and Browns at home in the first half of the season and those games could be winnable contests even for a team in transition. The Colts will also have home games with Miami and Buffalo as they will only face two 2011 playoff teams at home all season. The fourth place schedule means that the Colts will be the only team in the division that plays the Browns and Chiefs which should be more favorable match-ups and an improved record is very possible for this team solely based on the schedule, coming from a franchise that has almost exclusively played first place schedules in recent years.
The Colts will have a hard time rising to a playoff caliber level or even flirting with .500 as the AFC East and NFC North should feature six quality teams but the Colts have the ability to win games in this division. Houston may not be as strong as last season with some key personnel losses and Tennessee and Jacksonville both have some question marks heading into the season. Don't be surprised if the Colts exceed expectations and they could top last year's win total in the first half of the season.
Jacksonville Jaguars: The 2011 season started very awkwardly for the Jaguars. It was a season where head coach Jack Del Rio had very little chance to succeed and the decision to cut presumed starting QB David Garrard right before the season started proved unpopular and unsuccessful. Jacksonville had a respectable defense last year and started 1-0 but then lost five straight games and Del Rio was eventually removed midseason. Matching last season's 5-11 mark won't be easy considering the coaching transition and some big question marks at QB as rookie Blaine Gabbert did not impress last season.
The schedule presents some opportunities for Jacksonville as the first two road games of the year will be winnable games, playing at Minnesota and at Indianapolis in the first three weeks. The early season home games are difficult with Houston, Cincinnati, Chicago, and Detroit coming to Jacksonville in the first eight games. Drawing Cincinnati and Oakland as part of the third place schedule is a mixed bag, both of those teams showed flashes last season of being very good but neither is consistent. They are teams Jacksonville could beat on the right days and it will be those types of games that determine whether or not it is a respectable and promising first season for Mike Mularkey in his second stint as a head coach.
Jacksonville was 1-7 on the road last season so that is an area that needs improvement and with only two 2011 playoff teams on the road schedule there should be a great opportunity to snag a few more road wins this year. The Packers and Patriots are still on the schedule so there are some very difficult games and all things considered a year similar to 2011 is the most likely scenario. Jacksonville could have a promising start to the year but if they fail in the winnable early season games it could be a very long year.
Tennessee Titans: The Titans were quietly 9-7 last year and nearly in the playoff picture. The late season loss against then 0-13 Indianapolis could haunt the team as they played great late season ball with the exception of that game. The Titans normally might be a quality sleeper team to look at in this division but the second place schedule presents great challenges as San Diego and Pittsburgh are on the schedule. The Titans could certainly have the toughest schedule in this division so they would likely need to go 4-2 or better in the division games to realistically win the title and return to the playoffs.
The Titans have an absolutely brutal start to the season, opening with New England at home and then heading to San Diego. It doesn't get much easier hosting the Lions in week 3 and then heading to Houston in week 4 for the first critical division game. In week 5 Tennessee plays at Minnesota and that should be an easier game but it will be a second straight road game and in week 6 they have a short week game on Thursday night against Pittsburgh. For a team with a second year coaching staff and potentially starting a young QB that could make for a very rocky opening to the year.
The middle of the season should present opportunities for the Titans so if they can weather the first few weeks without falling into too big of a hole it can be a successful competitive season. If Tennessee is in the playoff hunt they will face a challenging close to the season with the Jets and Packers in weeks 15 and 16 so there may not be much of a margin for error in the middle of the schedule. The Titans also have a very late bye week in week 11 so they could face some fatigue in some of the key midseason games. The Titans only play back-to-back road games once this year and with all the South teams facing fairly tough schedules it won't take a great record to win this division so the games with Houston could make or break the year.