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AFC South Preview

by Photo of Andrew Lontos

Peyton Manning’s health is question one when you talk about the AFC South.

AFC South Preview

In the AFC South, it begins and ends with number 18. The Colts have obtained double digit wins in every season since 2001. During that period, they finished first in the division seven times. The one constant has been Peyton Manning. Even a head coaching change didn't hurt Indianapolis in the slightest, as Jim Caldwell went 14-2 and 10-6 during his first two years taking over for Tony Dungy. But injury concerns to Manning combined with a talented Houston Texans team have some questioning who the kings of the South will be in 2011. Houston addressed some issues with their defense by signing Wade Phillips and his 3-4 scheme as defensive coordinator. They also used the draft and free agency, selecting lineman J.J. Watt in the first round and signing former Bengals' cornerback Jonathon Joseph. With Manning out for Week 1 at Houston and possibly more, will this be the year that the Texans finally live up to the hype and send Manning's boys home early?

The Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars both drafted quarterbacks in the first round, which shows the current state of each team. David Garrard has already been cut in favor of Luke McCown and Matt Hasselbeck will be on a tight leash. Any prolonged struggles should result in Blaine Gabbert and Jake Locker taking over. If and when that happens, their prospects for successful 2011 campaigns diminishes even more. It appears that the AFC South will come down to Peyton Manning's health versus Wade Phillips' implementation of the 3-4 defense in Houston. If the Texans are ever going to take the division, this is the year.

Here's a look at our preseason rankings for the AFC South:

Indianapolis Colts

Record Last Season: 10-6

Key Additions: Kerry Collins, Ernie Sims, Delone Carter

Key Losses: Bob Sanders

The Skinny: I'm not counting out the Colts until they actually have a bad season. They've finished first in the division seven of the last eight seasons. In 2008, they finished second but still finished 12-4. There's obviously reason to be concerned about Peyton Manning's neck injury. But Kerry Collins will be able to keep Indy in it until Manning's return. When he comes back he'll have Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Pierre Garcon, and Austin Collie waiting for him. Indy has a solid running back tandem with the veteran Joseph Addai and rookie/fantasy sleeper Delone Carter.

The Colts have an outstanding defensive foundation with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis anchoring the defensive ends. Each had double digit sacks last year, and make the rest of the defense better by putting consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. With Gary Bracket at linebacker and Antoine Bethea at safety, Indianapolis has playmakers at every level on defense. The rest of the defense doesn't consist of big names, but the system works and they get the job done. They'll be relying on some veterans that may not work out; they've already cut former Bears' defensive tackle Tommie Harris. However, the offense has always been the strength of the team and that won't change this year.

Player to Watch: Peyton Manning. This is always true when you talk about the Colts, but it's especially true this year. Manning's health has never been as big of an issue as it is now. If he is unable to go for an extended period of time, expectations dramatically change. However, I can't see Peyton allowing himself to miss a significant portion of the season. And anytime he's on the field, he produces. Even if Manning struggles early upon his return, he'll hit his stride in time to make the playoffs.

Over/Under Regular Season Wins: 10.5. As I stated before, until proven otherwise, I'm picking the Colts. The Texans have been a popular pick for the last few years, but they always come up short. It's the proven versus the unproven. If anything, Manning and the Colts will probably use the low expectations as motivation.

Houston Texans

Record Last Season: 6-10

Key Additions: Jonathon Joseph, J.J. Watt

Key Losses: DeMaria Pressley, Andre Brown, Vonta Leach, Amobi Okoye

The Skinny: The Texans look great on paper. But they're the anti-Colts. They get preseason hype and never deliver. Only once in their 9-year history have they had a winning record; they went 9-7 in 2009. Matt Schaub is a good quarterback who will continue to put up great numbers, and Arian Foster is an incredibly talented young running back poised for his second straight big year despite hamstring concerns. Ben Tate is a solid running back who will produce if Foster misses time. They also have Andre Johnson, the best wide receiver in football, with Kevin Walter, Jacoby Jones, and Owen Daniels. Offense hasn't been and won't be the problem for Houston.

But something has been missing from this talented team the last couple years. They've been labeled soft by the media, and it's hard to argue with that statement. And that's where the defense comes in. While the offense was ranked 3rd in the NFL in 2010, the Texans' defense came in at an abysmal 30th. This despite playmakers Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans, and Brian Cushing. Houston's pass defense was the worst in football. To their credit, they addressed this issue by signing cornerback Jonathon Joseph. This takes some pressure off former first round pick Kareem Jackson, who has been a  huge disappointment during his short career. In addition, they drafted defensive end J.J. Watt, who received rave reviews in the preseason.

Player to Watch: Mario Williams. Former Dallas Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips is the new defensive coordinator for the Texans and is switching to a 3-4 scheme. Williams, a Pro-Bowl defensive end, will be moved to outside linebacker and used how Phillips used Demarcus Ware in Dallas. It's interesting that they would change what has worked so well with Williams. It'll be fascinating to see how it works out.

Over/Under Regular Season Wins: 9.5. The Texans have a high octane offense that will put points on the board. They also improved some of their defensive holes, but will have to shed the soft label before being taken seriously. I also find it hard to believe the struggling defense will be able to adapt to a brand new system the first year with a limited training camp. Gary Kubiak has been on the hot seat for years has yet to be able to get the most out of his talented roster. Perhaps a coaching change is needed before this team is able to surpass the Colts. Still, with their roster, they should be a fringe playoff team and be in good position to take a wild card spot. 

Tennessee Titans

Record Last Season: 6-10

Key Additions: Matt Hasselbeck, Jake Locker

Key Losses: Vince Young, Randy Moss, Bo Scaife

The Skinny: The Titans have been able to put together decent seasons despite frequent changes at quarterback with less than stellar options in Kerry Collins and Vince Young. Newly acquired Matt Hasselbeck should bring some stability to the position in 2011 before rookie Jake Locker takes over long term. Hasselbeck, who threw for 3,001 yards, 12 touchdowns and 17 interceptions in Seattle last year, is not exciting but should be more than capable to replace Collins in Tennessee. The Titans offense, which should consist mainly of handoffs and short passes to Chris Johnson, will suit Hasselbeck's game well. He's best when completing short, quick patterns. Johnson is finally with the team after a prolonged holdout. Assuming he doesn't suffer from the same problems Darrelle Revis faced last year, he'll still be the most explosive player in football. Troubled wide receiver Kenny Britt has had over 700 yards receiving in each of his first two seasons and is primed to break out; he'll form a decent tandem with Nate Washington, who has scored six touchdowns each of the last two seasons.

The Titans defense has been a strength in recent years, but finished 26th in overall defense in 2010. Led by a talented secondary consisting of Cortland Finnegan, Michael Griffin, and Chris Hope, the Titans defense will look to regain its 2008 form, when they were a top 10 unit. Second round pick Akeem Ayers has impressed in training camp and will be a starting linebacker. Veterans Barrett Ruud and WIll Witherspoon round out the linebacking core. The Titans will need to play a tough, physical style defense to grind out games with their running attack.

Player to Watch: Chris Johnson. This is the obvious choice, but the right one. Johnson is probably the most exciting player in the NFL. He's rushed for over 1,200 yards in each of his first three seasons, scored 38 total touchdowns, and eclipsed the 2,000 yard mark in 2009. He also totaled 1,008 receiving yards in these last three seasons. No matter how well the team does, Johnson is must see TV.

Over/Under Regular Season Wins: 7. Tennessee has two great playmakers in Johnson and Kenny Britt, but it'll come down to Hasselbeck managing the offense and the defense regaining its reputation as an intimidating presence. While there are bright spots, they just don't have enough talent to challenge Houston or Indianapolis this year.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Record Last Season: 8-8

Key Additions: Blaine Gabbert, Paul Posluszny

Key Losses: David Garrard, Mike Sims-Walker

The Skinny: The first round selection of Blaine Gabbert and the release of David Garrard shows that this team is thinking long term. Luke McCown, who has played 16 games, thrown 9 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in his 7-year career, has been named the starter until Gabbert is ready. That quarterback combination solidifies Jacksonville as one of the worst teams in football. Maurice Jones Drew is the star of the team; he's exceptional running the ball and as a receiver as well. Despite only rushing for 5 touchdowns in 2010, Jones Drew has been a touchdown machine, rushing for 54 touchdowns in his career and catching 7 more. He had surgery in the offseason, but the team is satisfied with his progression and believes he will be healthier and more productive than last year. It's imperative for him to stay on the field, as talented backup Rashad Jennings is out for the year. The wide receiving group is weak, especially with the loss of Mike Sims-Walker. Mike Thomas is the only proven pass catcher, but he's nowhere near a number one target. Marcedes Lewis had a breakout year at tight end, but it'll be interesting to see how the big target plays after getting a big, new contract. This just means even more touches for the 5 foot 7 Jones Drew, which is not a bad thing for this season, but will likely prove costly long term.

The Jaguars' defense ranked 28th last year, due to a lack of playmakers on every level. Former Pro Bowl cornerback Rashean Mathis' mediocre season was a big part of their struggle. He reportedly had a great camp, but relying on a bounce back year from a 30-year-old cornerback shows how much trouble the defense really is in. Jacksonville improved the defense only by signing linebacker Paul Posluszny, a very good linebacker who recorded 151 tackles with Buffalo a year ago. The 26 year old is a solid piece moving forward, but won't be enough to dramatically improve the weak defense in 2011.

Player to Watch: Blaine Gabbert. There's no way Luke McCown holds the starting spot for the entire season. Gabbert's development could be the only interesting storyline for an otherwise disastrous situation.

Over/Under Regular Season Wins: 4. Head coach Jack Del Rio has had moderate success since 2003, but the team hasn't made the playoffs in three years, finished last year poorly, and failed to improve their roster. Del Rio's job has been justifiably in question. Look for Jacksonville to rebuild and go in another direction at head coach, just as they did at quarterback.

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