The AFC South is segregated (in a not so severely, traditional way). For many years, the Peyton Manning led Colts have more often than not controlled the inside track on the division. Since the South was formed in 2002, they have won it seven of nine seasons, making it to the Super Bowl twice and winning it once. Last year was no different, as they represented the AFC on Super Bowl Sunday again. However, while they have been running thing from above, the other tenants in the division have been not so quietly preparing to knock them from their throne.

The division hosts some of the greatest individual talents in the game. Besides Manning, his record four MVP performances and laundry list of other stats and records, each other team has at least one distinct All-Pro talent to build around. In Houston, Andre Johnson has caught over 3,000 yards in the last two years alone and has become the league’s top receiver. Maurice Jones-Drew has only failed reach double digits in touchdowns once in his career for Jacksonville. All of this comes before Tennessee’s Chris Johnson is mentioned, who became a phenom in his second season, ending up with the highest single season total yardage mark in NFL history in his second season with 2,509 yards, of which 2,006 came on the ground. To put it short, every game in-division game comes against one of the NFL’s greatest threats.

However, can any of these All-Pros put it all together and come for the Colts’ and throw them from the throne? All things must pass, but it’s going to take more than one determined fighter to win the war in the South. Let’s see how the troops are looking for this go around.

Indianapolis Colts (14-2 in 2009; AFC Champions)

Offense: P. Manning-QB, R. Wayne-WR, D. Clark-TE, J. Saturday-C (A+)

Defense: D. Freeney-DE, B. Sanders-SS, G. Brackett-LB, A. Bethea-FS (B)

The Good: For the 13th consecutive year, it all starts with Peyton. In route to his record 4th MVP, he directed the 2nd best passing attack in the game and he actually adds more depth to it this year. Anthony Gonzalez returns from missing the entire year to injury last season. He joins an already deep group of receivers and gives yet another proven option to make Manning even more dangerous, if that’s possible.

Manning could have even more weapons at his already military-status disposal this year. Scary thought.

The Bad: There are cracks in some fundamental parts of the Colts’ foundation. The offensive line is shaky on the edges, and Manning hasn’t had to worry about protection for at least 10 years. The defense is solid on the pass, but standing down against the run has to improve, after finishing 24th in the league last year. Also, despite favoring the pass heavily, the running game has to give a better constant result when used, as Joseph Addai and Donald Brown averaged 3.7 yards per carry between each other.

X-Factor-Donald Brown: The Colts 2009 first round pick was supposed to be used in alternation with Addai last year, but he never really got going. A chest injury took most of the end of the season away from him and he never got back into the mix. While the Colts run less than any other team, they need for Brown to become the high production, change of pace back that they drafted him to be.

2010 Projection: @ Hou (W), NYG (W), @ Den (W), @ Jax (L), KC (W), @ Was (W),  Hou (L), @ Phi (L), Cin (W), @ NE (L), SD (W), Dal (W), @ Ten (W), Jax (W), @ Oak (W), Ten (W)

Summary: Even without a fully healthy offense, they ran through the AFC and reached the Super Bowl. With those players back, they are deeper than they were after making it to the Bowl. They are controlled by arguably the game’s greatest player and have enough defensive presence to once again take the South and make another strong playoff run. RECORD: 12-4

Houston Texans (9-7 in 2009)

Offense: A. Johnson-WR, M. Schaub-QB, O. Daniels-TE (A-)

Defense: M. Williams-DE, B. Cushing-LB, D. Ryans-LB (C+)

The Good: On offense, nobody goes to the air better than them, with the league’s most productive quarterback/receiver combo in Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson. Owen Daniels, Kevin Walter, Jacoby Jones and Andre Davis, while not getting the notoriety of Johnson, are all very effective and keep defenses from only focusing on him. On defense, they have steadily drafted well and added several impact players. Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing give them a strong youthful core that’s steadily improving.

A more dependable running game could make Schaub's frequent passes even more dangerous.

The Bad: The running game is an unknown factor and gives an inconsistent result. After a breakout rookie season, Steve Slaton became a huge possession liability to the Texans, fumbling seven times and losing five of them. He is projecting as a change of pace/receiving option (ala Reggie Bush) over a pure runner. His setbacks forced the Texans to try several different options, eventually settling on Arian Foster, who ran for 216 yards over the last two weeks of the season. Finding consistency here will be crucial to any breakthrough the Texans have this year.

X-Factor-Kareem Jackson: Counting on rookie cornerbacks to contribute immediately is a risky proposition for any team, but Jackson adapting quickly will be big for a Houston team that lost its best defensive back, Dunta Robinson, to free agency during the offseason. The 18th overall pick showcased was an athletic attacker at corner for Alabama’s BCS Championship and was seen as potentially the best overall prospect available at cornerback. Quickly playing up to expectations will make life a lot easier for a growing Texans defense.

2010 Projection: Ind (L), @ Was (L), Dal (L), @ Oak (W), NYG (L), KC (W), @ Ind (W), SD (W), @ Jax (W), @ NYJ (L), Ten (W), @ Phi (W), Bal (L), @ Ten (W), @ Den (L), Jax (W)

Summary: There is a lot to like about the Texans, they can move the ball down the field exceptionally and the defense is no longer a complete liability. They will be a tough matchup weekly, but they still have to find better balance on offense and prove the secondary can show up consistently to be considered a definite playoff team. They are on the edge of a breakthrough however, and could easily win one to two more games and be in the picture this year. RECORD: 9-7

Jacksonville Jaguars (7-9 in 2009)

Offense: M. Jones-Drew-RB, D. Garrard-QB, M. Sims-Walker-WR (C+)

Defense: K. Morrison-LB, A. Kampman-DE, D. Smith-LB (D+)

The Good: They are a tough running team with a developing young offensive line. Maurice Jones-Drew is as versatile of a back as you can hope for and they rightfully lean on him heavily. In year two, Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton should be ready to step up to start fulfilling their 1st round potential at the crucial offensive tackle spot. They are the key to opening up the holes that are so critical to MJD being able to run free across the entire field.

Finishing strong: Sims-Walker having a consistent year is a must for a thin Jags passing game.

The Bad: They seemingly refuse to upgrade their passing defense, which has been a concern for several years now. After allowing 280 yards a game last season, they bring back the same group this season. They’ll continue to decline before they better themselves by continuing to ignore this issue. Despite the breakout of Mike Sims-Walker, they have a lackluster receiving group after Sims-Walker, letting defenses focus almost exclusively on limiting the rush.

X-Factor-Aaron Kampman: The Jaguars pass rush just hasn’t been able to materialize the last few years. In acquiring Kampman, they hope they have solved part of this problem. A mix of injury and placement issues kept him out of seven of the last eight games in Green Bay last year and he played out of position in their 3-4 scheme, finishing with only 3.5 sacks. They hope to get the version of him that averaged 12 sacks a season from ’06-’08 and become an immediate catalyst for an average front line.

2010 Projection: Den (W), @ SD (W), Phi (L), Ind (W), @ Buf (L), Ten (L), @ KC (W), @ Dal (L), Hou (L), Cle (L), @ NYG (L), @ Ten (L), Oak (W), @ Ind (L), Was (W), @ Hou (L)

Summary: The Jags are in a rut. They have a solid core, but the offense has little punch after Jones Drew and the defense is lacks proven impact players up front, followed by big issues in the secondary. In a division where you they wouldn’t play Indianapolis and Houston twice, that may work, but not here. They will fall victim to the improvements in around the division and remain the cellar. RECORD: 6-10

Tennessee Titans (8-8 in 2009)

Offense: C. Johnson-RB, V. Young-QB, K. Britt-WR (B+)

Defense: C. Finnegan-CB, W. Witherspoon-LB, C. Hope-FS (C+)

The Good: They have the ability to make big plays. In Chris Johnson they have the league’s most explosive player and after Vince Young’s return to prominence, a quarterback that can make plays with either his arm or feet like no other in the game. Johnson’s record setting 2009 campaign shot him into the elite of all players in the NFL and his job should be potentially easier if Young can open up the Titan passing game more. The offensive line, led by tackles Dave Stewart and Michael Roos, will give them plenty of chances to make an impact.

Will Johnson be able to provide an encore to '09's record setting campaign? The Titans will need every bit of it.

The Bad: The defense may force them away from their strength, which is running the ball. The Titans finished 31st versus the pass in ’09, giving up 258 yards per game. With few changes to the secondary, there could be a repeat performance this year. The only hope is that new help on the defensive front from Raheem Brock and rookie Derrick Morgan will create more pressure to force worse passes. The problem of playing from behind is that it forces the Titans from utilizing their greatest strength, their running attack. The defense has to enable Johnson to be used as much as possible.

X-Factor-Kenny Britt: He had a solid rookie season and provided a needed big, quick receiver to stretch the field and keep defenses who over compensated against Johnson honest. Also, he was a constant from a receiving group that struggled staying healthy all year. However, this year he was reported as showing up out of shape and slower. In order for the Vince Young to maximize his ability to keep defenses off-balance he needs a focused Britt to be a ready and available deep threat.

2010 Projection: Oak (W), Pit (W), @ NYG (L), Den (W), @ Dal (L), @ Jax (W), Phi (L), @ SD (L), @ Mia (L), Was (W), @ Hou (L), Jax (W), Ind (L), @ KC (W), @ Ind (L)

Summary: The Titans are finally getting what they drafted Young for; a game breaking dual threat QB (now if he can just leave it all on the field). Paired with Johnson they can give any defense matchup nightmares for a week. However, the defense is still in the midst of an extreme rebuilding stage and doesn’t have to ability to match up with many of the tougher offenses in the game. The fact they play two of them, in Indianapolis and Houston, a total of four times this year doesn’t bode well for breakthrough success in Music City. RECORD: 8-8


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