Sixth of an eight-part series
Overview: The Texans began the season with an upset of Indianapolis and a stirring comeback win at Washington. It appeared they had finally arrived as serious contenders. However, they would win just four games thereafter. Poor defense doomed the Texans and led to several coaching-staff changes at season's end, most notably Wade Phillips replacing Frank Bush as defensive coordinator. Head coach Gary Kubiak kept his job, but he faces significant pressure to win in 2011, his sixth season at the helm.
Team MVP: RB Arian Foster was the NFL's most productive back, leading the league in yards from scrimmage. Foster earned the starting job in the offseason and never relinquished it, building on the promise he showed at times at the University of Tennessee. Foster possesses very good vision, hits the hole quickly and has a strong all-around game. WR Andre Johnson also merits mention in this category; he played to his high standard despite playing on an injured ankle for the bulk of the season.
Biggest surprise: We'll give the nod to Foster, who as a rookie looked like he had the potential to become a player but far exceeded expectations in his second season. The Texans needed him to emerge with rookie RB Ben Tate missing the season because of injury and third-year RB Steve Slaton having a disappointing season after a fumble- and injury-plagued sophomore campaign. Credit must also go to the Texans' O-line, which may have had its best season collectively since the franchise began NFL play.
Biggest disappointment: No team surrendered more passing yards per game (267.5) than the Texans. Houston's pass defense faltered in some key defeats, most memorably in a loss to the Jets when Houston had one of the AFC's best teams on the ropes — and at the Meadowlands, to boot. Fixing the pass defense is Phillips' top charge.
Offseason outlook: The Texans need to bolster their defense, plain and simple. Phillips has overseen quite a few successful defensive turnarounds, and his input on the team's personnel and the changes necessary to bring the unit up to par will be essential. The Texans' top free-agent decision will be on TE Owen Daniels, a talented player with a history of knee injuries.
Overview: Most teams would be thrilled to win 10 games and a division title in a season in which a league-high 17 players were placed on injured reserve and a host of others missed significant time. Not the Colts, who were left with a bitter taste in their mouths after a frustrating wild-card round loss at home to the Jets.
Team MVP: It's hard to imagine the battered Colts even being in contention without QB Peyton Manning. Playing without many of his favorite weapons, Manning still set career highs in pass attempts, completions and yards, while putting in extra time after practice to tutor his young teammates who were thrust into starting roles.
Biggest surprise: It's not easy to replace an All-Pro tight end like Dallas Clark, but Jacob Tamme was exceptional after Clark went down in Week Six. Tamme reeled in 67 catches for 631 yards and four TDs in the final 10 games, providing Manning with his most reliable target not named Reggie Wayne.
Biggest disappointment: Not only was first-round DE Jerry Hughes a healthy scratch for four games, he was a nonfactor in the 12 games in which he did dress. Hughes' most memorable play of the season was his halfhearted effort on the pivotal Antonio Cromartie 47-yard kickoff return that deflated the Colts in the postseason.
Offseason outlook: Signing Manning, who becomes an unrestricted free agent on March 4, to a long-term contract is undoubtedly the Colts' No. 1 priority. In the meantime, they've locked him up with the franchise tag. Next on the list is bolstering the offensive line, which president Bill Polian attempted to do last offseason with no success — the Colts finished in the bottom four in rushing for the third season in a row.
Overview: The Jaguars weathered an early storm — the club got off to a 3-4 start, with the four losses coming by a combined 99 points — to put themselves within striking distance of their first AFC South title late in the season. But another December meltdown left fans calling for coach Jack Del Rio's job and resulted in the club finishing without a winning record for the third straight season.
Team MVP: Jacksonville was 6-1 when RB Maurice Jones-Drew eclipsed the 100-yard mark. Jones-Drew's six straight 100-yard rushing efforts were a franchise record and personal best. When healthy, M.J.D. took the pressure off QB David Garrard and gave Jacksonville its "smashmouth" identity on offense.
Biggest surprise: Del Rio praised TE Marcedes Lewis for his "dominant" effort during the offseason, but no one anticipated Lewis, who caught just seven TDs in his first four seasons combined, finding paydirt 10 times. Furthermore, he continued his work as one of the better blocking tight ends in the game.
Biggest disappointment: Jacksonville acquired one of the prizes of free agency in DE Aaron Kampman and used its first four picks in the draft rebuilding the D-line. And while the Jaguars tallied 12 more sacks than they did in '09, they still finished 28th in sack percentage and allowed the most points and yards in franchise history.
Offseason outlook: Owner Wayne Weaver decided to retain Del Rio, but this figures to be Del Rio's last chance to capture a division title to save his job. If the Jaguars are to have any shot, GM Gene Smith needs to aggressively continue rebuilding the "D," with upgrades needed at all three levels. Smith will also have to find Garrard's successor.
Overview: In the first half of the season, the Titans played like a legitimate contender to knock off the Colts for the AFC South title. In the second half, they were one of the AFC's worst teams. The fallout led to some major changes. The Titans decided to move on without QB Vince Young, and later in January, they decided to part ways with head coach Jeff Fisher after 17 seasons. The team stayed in-house by elevating longtime offensive line coach Mike Munchak to the post.
Team MVP: This is a tough call, but we'll go with RB Chris Johnson. No, he didn't come close to breaking Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record in 2010, but he still accumulated 1,609 combined yards, and he remains the key to the Tennessee offense. Other Titans who merit mention in this category include DE Jason Babin, who notched a career-high 12½ sacks, and WR Kenny Britt, who had a profound impact on the passing game in the first half of the season. The Titans lost all four games he missed with a hamstring injury.
Biggest surprise: Babin had but 17½ sacks in his first six NFL seasons before his breakout 2010 campaign. Signed to just a one-year contract, Babin could be in demand in free agency. He thrived under the tutelage of DL coach Jim Washburn, who took the same position with Philadelphia after the season, and his future in Tennessee is uncertain. Nevertheless, he was a very productive performer for the Titans this season.
Biggest disappointment: There are no shortage of candidates in this category. The offense and defense could each qualify — the former sputtered in the second half, and the latter struggled for a second consecutive season. But in a year of disappointments, Young's season was most distressing. For the Titans to give up on him with one season left on his contract after he had led the club to a winning record as a starter is a signal of the organization's disenchantment with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2006 draft.
Offseason outlook: With Munchak taking charge, finding a replacement for Young becomes the top priority. GM Mike Reinfeldt said the team will look to add a rookie and a veteran passer. The timing and circumstances for a QB search could be rather trying, considering the NFL's labor uncertainty and the team's dire need for help at the position. And it is not as if the Titans only have a need at quarterback. Improving the defense also looms as a major priority.
Thursday: NFC North team reports