Twelve or more is an important number in the AFC South. That’s the number of wins the Indianapolis Colts have finished with each of the last 7 season. Two of those seasons ended with a trip to the Super Bowl. And, as long as Peyton Manning is able to take snaps from center, the Colts have to be the favorite in this division. The Titans are the only other team to have won a division title since realignment in 2002. Even Tony Dungy’s retirement did nothing to derail the Colts’ freight train. The Jaguars are down and the Texans are forever trying to put it all together. Here’s how we see the South, with some quality inside perspective on the division added by our man Nate Dunlevy of 18to88.com, and also the author of Blueblood, a fantastic history of the Colts.
1. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS
Do I Hear 5? Last year, #18 won his record 4th MVP award and took his team to a 2nd Super Bowl. After coming up short, expect him to have a big chip on his shoulders, and his normal stellar numbers. Thirteen years in, there are no visible sign of aging. He could take Sen Dog’s squad of local 11 year olds into battle and make one or two of them All-Pros. Seriously, it doesn’t matter who’s catching passes for the Colts. He is the ultimate quarterback, and with 6 or so more top years, he may take the title of greatest pure passer ever.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. So close, and yet so far. The Colts have to feel like they left one on the field in Miami. Either it serves as the fuel to the championship engine, or the kindling for a raging inferno of disaster. In this case, the former seems far more likely. You know Manning has replayed that slant to Reggie Wayne (or perhaps more accurately, to Tracy Porter) over and over again in his head. If it’s possible, he’ll be even more focused after coming within sight of his second Lombardi trophy. And unlike on most teams…it really is pretty much all about #18. As he goes, they go.
DIVISION INSIDER’S TAKE: It’s business as usual in Indianapolis. Expect a big season from Manning and his deep pool of receiving talent. The biggest concern in Indy is with the offensive line. They don’t run block well, and Manning makes the pass protection look better than it is. The Colts’ defense has the potential to be a top five unit, but they are not necessarily a deep group. Injuries are the only thing that can stop Indy from winning the South and making run at the Super Bowl.
2. HOUSTON TEXANS
The Meathook. That’s what we call the 6-3 225 beast that catches passes in Houston. Anything that comes in his area is snatched up. He is one of the most devastating weapons in the league. He’s an outside linebacker playing wideout. How do you stop someone that size with that speed, quickness, agility and technical prowess? Well, his averages of well over 80 catches and 1100 yards say you don’t. The last 2 seasons have been especially dominant, so look for the Texans to compete for a Wild Card spot this season.
This is us waiting. Is it just us, or does it feel like the Texans have been on the cusp for a decade now? Sooner or later, all those lottery picks have to amount to something, and there is no more room for excuses. This is a team that needs to make the leap, or change will be in the air.
DIVISION INSIDER’S TAKE: Houston finally got a full season out of Matt Schaub, and he delivered a Pro Bowl season. One healthy year does not a trend make, however. The loss of Brian Cushing for four games due to suspension could be the cause of the Texans undoing. They play one of the toughest schedules in football, and losing their star linebacker for their week one showdown with the bully Colts (15-1 all time vs Houston) only makes things tougher. This is a good team, but they’ll need a lot of breaks to make their first playoff berth.
3. TENNESSEE TITANS
2500 or bust. Yet another marquee name in this division is Titans running back Chris Johnson. Last year he cracked the 2000 plateau and has not only the rushing record of 2105 in his sights, but has also stated his goal to reach 2500 total yards. That’s an average over 150 per game. If you’ve seen even a portion of his first two years, you know he can’t be counted out. If you’ve looked at the history books, you know nobody’s ever done it twice. Something’s got to give. But we wouldn’t want to be charged with stopping him.
Carpe Diem. That’s what Vince Young needs to do. Now that he seems to have bounced off his rock bottom, let’s see what he does with the rest of his NFL career. To this point, he’s been largely inconsistent. His athleticism can’t be questioned, but with a quarterback, judgment is the key trait. You either have good judgment, or you don’t. He showed signs in 2009 of becoming a complete NFL quarterback, pocket passing and all. Let’s see if he can be the leader his team needs in order to again challenge for the top spot in the AFC South.
Defensive newcomers. Not long removed from having one of the most feared defenses in the league, the Titans have been trying to overhaul the unit without giving in to the much-reviled “rebuilding phase.” Last year they let Haynesworth walk. In 2010, they must replace the emotional centerpieces of their club, defensive end Kyle Van den Bosch and linebacker Keith Bulluck. The tackles and sacks are one thing; the leadership is another. Who will fill the void?
DIVISION INSIDER’S TAKE: Chris Johnson was all the rage last year, but lightning will have to strike twice for the Titans to join the upper echelon of the AFC. Even if Johnson has another banner year, it might not be enough. While Vince Young played the best football of his professional life at the end of last year, his development as a quarterback is still very much in question. The Titans once formidable defense has been decimated on the line. Jeff Fisher is going to have to work some magic to get Titans a wild card spot.
4. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS
Hercules, Hercules! That’s our man MOJO! Maurice Jones-Drew has delivered at every level. As a highly recruited back from Concord De La Salle, he took over the UCLA football team and led them to a 10-2 record in his junior season. Now a bonafide star in the NFL, he has surpassed 10 touchdowns in 3 of his first 5 years in the league. Of course, most of that he did splitting time with Fred Taylor; when they finally gave him the full-time gig last year he rushed for 1391 yards and 15 TDs. He’s also a threat out of the backfield, and in the return game. There’s nothing he doesn’t do. Just ask Shawne Merriman.
Hey, LA still has no team. Rumors of a stadium being built in Southern California have been thrown around for awhile, with Ari Gold the most recent (though fictional) candidate to return this once 2-team city to the league. These rumors are almost always tied to the relocation of an existing team, and ever since the Saints re-upped and the Vikings got moving with a stadium plan, well…that leaves the Jags. How real is it? Too soon to tell. Regardless, declining attendance, and more importantly declining victories, render their status tenuous. Even after their playoff appearance in 2007, they still lost ticket sales and endured blacked out games the next year. Step up J-Ville: This is the NFL.
DIVISION INSIDER’S TAKE: The Jags are in the second year of a major rebuilding project, but one has to wonder who will be around to see it through. The team is struggling to sell tickets, and head coach Jack Del Rio’s seat is getting hot. David Garrard is a serviceable quarterback but not a franchise player. Meanwhile the team is burning through Maurice Jones-Drew’s prime seasons with little to show for them. By the time the team is finished retooling both lines, they’ll be looking for a new head coach, a franchise quarterback, a younger runner, and possibly a new city in which to play. The 2010 Jags may be better than the 2009 Jags, but that doesn’t mean they’ll win more games. The clock is ticking for everyone in Jacksonville.