By Steve Shackelford
Cold, Hard, Football Facts AFC South Beat Reporter
"I appreciate the fact that people are saying a lot of good things about us" - Gary Kubiak
A buzz is building around the reigning AFC South champion Houston Texans. Opening week is finally here and some excellent match-ups are set to kick-off the 2012 season. The Texans take on the HBO-star Miami Dolphins in Week 1. Interest surrounds No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft, Andrew Luck, and how well he will perform leading the Indianapolis Colts in to battle as a rookie quarterback against the Chicago Bears. Maurice Jones-Drew decided to end his holdout and report to the Jacksonville Jaguars, so he will likely take the field against the Minnesota Vikings. Finally, Tennessee Titans' quarterback Jake Locker is looking to lead his team to victory over the New England Patriots and, by the end of the 2012 season, knock the Texans off their top-step perch. Things are definitely heating up in the South. For more, visit my AFC South 2012 over/under projections.
Here are 5 Things to look for in Week 1:
1. The Texans will establish their dominance early
The Miami Dolphins are in for some hard knocks when they take on the Houston Texans, a team built for the Super Bowl, in Week 1. The Texans hold the top spot in our 2011 Quality Stats Power Rankings, and simply out-performed the Dolphins in 2011.
Houston will be looking to build on their impressive numbers from 2011 early in the season. Unfortunately for the Dolphins, they don't look to stand much of a chance against the Texans after losing all four preseason games.
Preseason win totals are by no means a bulletproof indicator of potential regular season success, but the Dolphins still have a lot of work to do if they want to compete on the same level as the Texans. The Dolphins finished as the third-worst team in the NFL in 2011 in regards to Negative Pass Plays. Bad news for the Dolphins: the Texans were 4th best in the league in Defensive Negative Pass Plays in 2011.
The Dolphins look as if they will be overwhelmed by the Texans defensively in Week 1. Wade Phillips' defensive unit proved their dominance over opposing quarterbacks, finishing behind only the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Don't count on Miami to move the ball very much through the air. And without a passing game, they're toast.
2. The Colts' defense dictates Andrew Luck must score points against the Chicago Bears
The Indianapolis Colts finishing second to last in our Defensive Hog Index for 2011 could be a great thing for Andrew Luck's volume stats in 2012, but most likely it will just cost his team games. Only the San Diego Chargers allowed their opposition a higher percentage of success (49.23) on 3rd down than the Colts (45.37).
With the defense giving opposing teams plenty of opportunity to remain on the field, Luck should at least get plenty of rest.
Sadly, the Colts' terrible defense is going to put pressure on Luck to force throws to receivers in order to make plays on offense. Luck could end up being spectacular in come-from-behind situations, or he could end up throwing multiple interceptions trying to make up for errors committed while he's on the sidelines.
Week 1 opponents, the Bears, didn't end 2011 with a tremendously impressive Real Quarterback Rating, finishing 27th overall. So, if anything, Jay Cutler and the Bears could be relatively easy for the Colts' defense to handle in their first game of 2012. The Colts' defensive unit will still be a liability, despite Cutler's inefficiency at the quarterback position.
Bottom line: The Colts need an impressive performance from Luck in order to win Week 1.
3. Maurice Jones-Drew could be productive Week 1 against the Minnesota Vikings
History paints a cloudy picture for running backs' production levels immediately following a holdout due to contract dispute. In the cases of Chris Johnson and Emmitt Smith, both performed at opposite ends of the spectrum in their first post-holdout appearance.
After sitting out the first two games of the 1993 season, Smith delivered only 45 rushing yards in his first appearance of the year.
Johnson, however, crushed the opposition with 2 touchdowns and 142 rushing yards as the Tennessee Titans rolled the Oakland Raiders 38-13 on the first game of the 2010 season following his holdout.
After the missed time, there's no guarantee on how Jones-Drew will perform.
Jones-Drew missed all of the Jaguars' off-season activities, practices, and games. He might need a game to shake off the rust or he could explode against the Vikings in Week 1.
4. Tom Brady will destroy the Tennessee Titans' defense
In the Week 1 match-up between the Titans and the New England Patriots, the Titans' defense will desperately attempt to improve in the area of Defensive Negative Pass Plays. The Titans concluded the 2011 season dead-last in the category, and managed only 11 interceptions.
They'll definitely find their hands empty in Week 1.
In terms of Real Quarterback Rating, the Patriots with Brady finished 3rd overall in the NFL, with 42 touchdowns to only 14 turnovers. Titans' defensive coordinator Jerry Gray's squad came away with 12 fumbles last season, but that won't be much help at all against New England. Brady is going to slice-and-dice the Titans defense all game long in Week 1.
The Patriots are 7th in our Offensive Hog Index, and ended 2011 as the 5th-most successful team on 3rd down. The Titans didn't experience a great deal of success stopping the opposition on 3rd down, wrapping up 2011 at 23rd overall.
5. Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder will display stunning mediocrity
No matter how brilliant the running back, an effective passing game is essential to success in the NFL. The 2011 Packers illustrated this with crystal clarity. Sadly, in a Week 1 match-up between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings, neither team will be lighting up the scoreboard with touchdown passes.
Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert played in 15 games in 2011, and completed only 50.8% of balls thrown. The fledgling quarterback also managed to turn the ball over 16 times last season, giving away 11 interceptions and coughing up five fumbles.
Ponder's numbers in 2011 are painfully similar to Gabbert's and it isn't likely he will be improving. The Vikings' hurler played in only 11 games last year. Like Gabbert, Ponder fumbled the ball away five times, but Ponder threw 13 picks and his completion percentage was just slightly better at 54.3%.
The saddest thing about these numbers is that their turnover totals exceeded both their touchdowns and total games played.
Gabbert's touchdowns (12) and games played (15) couldn't beat his 16 turnovers. Ponder's touchdowns (13) and games played (11) both failed to exceed his 18 turnovers.
Gabbert and Ponder aren't putting up the kind of numbers it takes to win games in the NFL so far. It isn't possible for both teams to lose Week 1, but history indicates they should both turn the ball over at least once.
Neither Minnesota or Jacksonville fared well in terms of Real Quarterback Ratings for 2011. In fact, Jacksonville (32) played far worse than Minnesota (23). The numbers point to an ugly game at the quarterback position.