Peyton Manning has long been the face of the AFC South and the NFL in general but this division is filled with talent and might contain one of the NFL's closes playoff races. With Manning still recovering from offseason neck surgery, the door may be open for one of the division's other teams to sneak through to the playoffs as the division champions.
Last year, the Colts finished the season winning the division with a 10-6 record. They lost to the New York Jets in the Wild Card round of the playoffs by one measly point. The Jaguars were on track to possibly go to the playoffs, but they lost their final three games of the season and finished with an 8-8 record. Despite the emergence of Arian Foster and a tough running game, the Texans finished the season with a 6-10 season along with the Tennessee Titans, who also finished with a 6-10 record.
Are you ready for this?
1. Houston Texans (2010 Record: 6-10)
I'm going with 9-7, though 10 or even 11 wins wouldn't totally surprise me. Having to play the AFC North and NFC South is no walk in the park, and I think that'll have a substantial effect on the bottom line. I also think the Texans will lose a division game or two that they shouldn't to the Titans and/or Jaguars, despite the talent being there for Houston to go 4-2 or 5-1 in the division.
What I Think:
I think the Texans are going to surprise some people this year. They have never made a playoff appearance but I'm thinking the 2011 season may change that. If they can merge Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson's passing game with Arian Foster's running game, their offense could be unstoppable. Defensively the Texans added some much needed talent in defensive end J.J. Watt via the draft and cornerback Johnathan Joseph via free agency. This could be the most complete Texans team yet.
Record Prediction: 11-5 -- Division Winners
2. Indianapolis Colts (2010 Record: 10-6)
11 wins. Maybe 12. The key is, obviously, Peyton Manning. If he can stay healthy all year, something he was unable to do last year (despite the team's efforts to assert he was not hurt in 2010), the Colts are a 11-5, 12-4 team. Also important i the health of Dwight Freeney and the development of the team's new offensive line. First round pick Anthony Castonzo has impressed in training camp and preseason. Last year, the Colts offensive line stayed healthy, but was easily the weakest area of the team. Three new starters are penciled in for Week One against Houston, and longtime starter at right tackle, Ryan Diem, is shifting to guard, where he played his first two years in the league.
What I Think:
It's unclear as to whether Peyton Manning will be available for the team's season opener against the Texans. If he's not, recently acquired Kerry Collins will take his place -- an obvious downgrade from Manning. Even if Manning is available, he hasn't practiced with his team or participated in any preseason games and even though he knows what he's doing and he's one of the best in the league, there will still be some rust that needs to be knocked off. Their running game isn't too terribly strong and their run defense is worst. In a division where the Colts defense needs to face Arian Foster, Chris Johnson and Maurice Jones-Drew twice a year, they may not have what it takes to get the job done. The Colts are a very good team, but under the circumstances, I don't think that 2011 is their year.
Record Prediction: 10-6 -- narrowly missing the playoffs
3. Tennessee Titans (2010 Record: 6-10)
The Tennessee Titans have undergone a complete overhaul from 2010 to 2011. Jeff Fisher and Vince Young are no longer a part of the team. Muke Munchak is now the man running the show. He pretty much cleaned house of Jeff Fisher's staff and has tried to change the culture of the locker room. The results have been good so far. 2011 will be a transition year for the Titans. They are going to be better than people think, and they may eve push for an AFC South title with the division being down this year, but ultimately they will probably fall short of the division title and the playoffs with a 7-9 record.
What I Think:
Titans fans collectively breathed a sigh of relief when it was announced that the team and Chris Johnson finally came to an agreement on a new contract and even though he didn't get any work with the team during the preseason, Johnson still has the ability to run wild on NFL defenses. Matt Hasselbeck will be a step up from Vince Young and will be a good mentor for Jake Locker, but the Titans just don't have the offensive firepower of the Texans or Colts. They'll rebound slightly from a 6-10 record -- slightly is the key word.
Record Prediction: 8-8
4. Jacksonville Jaguars (2010 Record: 8-8)
The Jacksonville Jaguars enter the 2011 season after a disappointing 2010 season that saw them have the AFC South division title in their grasp and finish the season with three straight losses. coming into the 2011 season, it has a feel of a "Playoffs or Bust" vibe from the Jaguars front office, but from the looks of it, it very well likely could wind up on the "or bust." I don't want to hit the panic button for Jaguars fans for the 2011 season, but it looks like a tough to of it to make the playoffs. For me personally and what I've seen in practice and the preseason, my guess would be this football team finishes with a 7-9 record. I'm not going to spend the time parsing through wins and losses on their schedule, because a lot can change, but the team has yet to show any significant progress in the areas of dire concern all preseason.
What I Think:
Even though the Jaguars' defense was upgraded with the additions of Paul Posluszny, Clint Session and Dawan Landry via free agency, the team's offense is going to be too inconsistant to allow the Jaguars to have a winning record. Quarterback David Garrard can be brilliant at times and at times he can be brilliantly awful. Maurice Jones-Drew, one of the best running backs in the NFL, has yet to make it on the field in the preseason, but when he does come back, defenses will likely key on him and force Garrard to beat them, which is something I'm not certain he can do.
Record Prediction: 7-9