Teams in predicted order of finish
1. HOUSTON TEXANS: Defense should shine with addition of Reed
- How they did in 2012: 12-4 (4-2 vs. South); in playoffs, beat Bengals 19-13 in Wild Card round, lost to Patriots 41-28 in AFC Divisional round.
- 2012 top performer: DE J.J. Watt (Pro Bowl, 69 tackles, 20.5 sacks, 16 passes defensed, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and a partridge in a pear tree. We swear.)
- Key losses: DE/OLB Connor Barwin, S Glover Quin
- Key additions: WR DeAndre Hopkins, S Ed Reed
- Why we picked them here: Can 34-year-old safety Ed Reed help Houston take the next step? Will Arian Foster stay healthy AND reverse his yards-per-carry average decline (4.9 in 2010, 4.4 in 2011, 4.1 in 2012)? The good news is with backup Ben Tate around, the Texans have the best 1-2 RB punch in the league. QB Matt Schaub completed 64.3 percent of his passes for 4,008 yards and he has a 4,770 (2009) on his resume. With Reed around, Houston’s fourth-ranked defense in 2012 should be even better.
2. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: Luck tries to avoid sophomore jinx
- How they did in 2012: 11-5 (4-2 vs. South); in playoffs, lost to Ravens 24-9 in Wild Card round.
- 2012 top performer: WR Reggie Wayne (Pro Bowl, 106 catches, 1,355 yards)
- Key losses: OT Winston Justice, DE/OLB Dwight Freeney
- Key additions: DE/OLB Bjoern Werner, WR Darrius Heyward-Bey
- Why we picked them here: Can the team build on its success from 2012, Year 1 of QB Andrew Luck? Normally we would assume a natural progression of improvement, but last year’s success (11-5) was fueled by great emotion concerning coach Chuck Pagano, who missed 12 games while receiving cancer treatment. Ageless WR Reggie Wayne had a career-tying best of 1,355 yards. He will be 35 by the end of the season, but we can probably count on another 1,000-yard campaign. Despite the 11-5 record, Indy was outscored by opponents.
3. TENNESSEE TITANS: Chris Johnson gets help from Greene
- How they did in 2012: 6-10 (1-5 vs. South); missed playoffs.
- 2012 top performer: RB Chris Johnson (1,243 yards, 6 TDs)
- Key losses: TE Jared Cook, OLB Will Witherspoon
- Key additions: G Chance Warmack, G Andy Levitre
- Why we picked them here: RB Chris Johnson has raised his bar so high that when he runs for 1,243 yards, as he did in 2012, it is considered a down year. The playbook has been adjusted to get the most out of Johnson, but the Titans also brought in Shonn Greene to share the load. The defense was 29th in the league last year and allowed 144 yards rushing per game.
4. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: Jones-Drew provides lone bright spot
- How they did in 2012: 2-14 (2-4 vs. South); missed playoffs.
- 2012 top performer: WR Cecil Shorts (979 yards, 7 TDs)
- Key losses: DT Terrance Knighton, S Dawan Landy
- Key additions: OT Luke Joeckel, CB Marcus Trufant
- Why we picked them here: Jacksonville doesn’t have many positives. RB Maurice Jones-Drew supplies most of the optimism. He is two years removed from a 1,606-yard season, but last year he missed 10 games with a Lisfranc injury in his left foot. He appears to be 100 percent, and although it seems he has been around forever, he’s only 28. The defense dropped from a top-10 unit in 2011 to No. 30 last year.
FANTASY FRIENDLY AFC SOUTH SLEEPER: WR DeAndre Hopkins, Texans
- Why we like him: If the rookie from Clemson is cleared to return after suffering a concussion in the preseason, he should start opposite Andre Johnson in next Monday night’s opener. You also can’t go wrong with backup Texans RB Ben Tate; even as a backup, he puts up some big numbers.