This week, SI.com is rolling out previews for all eight NFL divisions. Today, we tackle the NFC South and AFC South, following up Tuesday's breakdowns of the AFC East and NFC East. The AFC North and NFC North follow Thursday and the AFC West and NFC West conclude things Friday.
Indianapolis' vise grip on the South has made it nearly impossible for any other team to rise to the top. There's no reason to think the Colts won't claim another division crown at season's end, but their three rivals won't be making it an easy coronation.
Tennessee appears poised to emerge as Indy's strongest challenger, as it has the talent to play the kind of keepaway, clock-control game to protect leads and the quick-strike ability to come from behind. The Texans have a big-play offense to rival the Colts, but the loss of linebacker Brian Cushing for the first four games of the season could have them playing catch-up the rest of the season. As for the Jaguars, they don't stand a chance if they can't dial up the pressure in the pocket.
What the Colts do best: Throw the football.
Indy is all about the passing game. It has maybe the best to ever sling it (Peyton Manning) running the show, and he'll have perhaps the league's deepest and most talented corps of receivers at his disposal. One target hoping to be prominent on his radar is Anthony Gonzalez. The fourth-year wideout seemed poised to fill Marvin Harrison's cleats on the right side of the formation before a knee injury in the 2009 season opener ended his year. Now fully recovered, he'll compete for passes alongside younger teammates Pierre Garçon and Austin Collie, who combined for 1,441 yards and 11 touchdowns in '09.
What the Colts need to improve: Run game.
If Indy had a weakness, it was running the football. The Colts finished dead last in that category in '09, averaging 80.9 per game. But that's to be expected given that Indy also logged the second-fewest attempts (366). Despite the troubled ground game, Indy still maintained a dangerous play-action passing attack, and the Colts proved they could run the ball in the clutch. Feature back Joseph Addai logged his highest yards-per-carry averages in postseason games against the Jets (5.0) and Saints (5.9). The Colts have set a goal of averaging at least one yard more per carry than they did last year, when they averaged 3.5. If they make good on that, look out.
Which Colt needs to step up: Left tackle Tony Ugoh.
The Colts are entering Year Four of the Tony Ugoh experiment; they continue to hold out hope he'll become a player for them. Indy drafted the 6-foot-5, 301-pound Ugoh as the left tackle to replace the virtually indomitable Tarik Glenn, but so far Ugoh has struggled. After an especially abysmal '08 that saw him give up three sacks and get whistled for six penalties -- four of them false starts, one of them for holding -- Ugoh was benched in favor of fifth-year pro Charlie Johnson, who has done a measurably better job of protecting Manning's blind side. This year the Colts are giving Ugoh another shot to prove himself at guard. If he can't find a way to stand out more positively -- like by busting a few holes open for Addai -- Ugoh's days in Indy could be numbered.
Predicted record: 13-3.
The Colts draw another tough slate in '10, but there's no reason to think that they won't overcome it. How they fare in a late four-game stretch at the Patriots (Nov. 21), against the Chargers (Nov. 28), against the Cowboys (Dec. 5) and at the Titans (Dec. 9) could determine whether they'll have a first-round bye.
What the Titans do best: Unleash Chris Johnson.
The Titans are a run-first football team. They'd be foolish not to be considering the once-in-a-generation talent they have in their backfield. Simply put: Chris Johnson was the Titans offense in '09. No other Titan caught as many passes (50) or amassed as many yards (2,509).
This year Johnson has set a goal of hitting the 2,500-yard rushing mark. Though the odds against him are steep -- no back in NFL history has reached the 2,000-yard mark in consecutive years -- the Titans will certainly give him the opportunity. Tennessee rode Eddie George for eight years until his wheels fell off. Johnson will be in for just as much work, if not more.
What the Titans need to improve: Developing a passing game.
Where Tennessee's ground game was stellar, its passing game was simply so-so. The standard didn't have to be high, what with Johnson making all the plays. But with opposing coordinators calibrating their game plans toward slowing him down, Tennessee will have to develop a stronger passing game to beat all of those eight-man fronts on the horizon. They'll look to second-year man Kenny Britt, who had a team-leading 701 receiving yards in '09. They can also turn to Nate Washington and Lavelle Hawkins. What's in question is their focus. The Titans struggled mightily with dropped passes last year. A repeat in '10 might be too much for Johnson to mitigate alone.
Which Titan needs to step up: Defensive tackle Jovan Haye.
Last spring, when retaining the services of All-Pro space eater Albert Haynesworth proved too pricey for the Titans, the team let him walk to the Redskins and instead signed free agent Haye, late of Tampa Bay. At four years and $16.2 million, Haye seemed like a steal -- especially when compared to the seven-year, $100 million deal Haynesworth signed in Washington, and when you consider that in 2007 Haye equaled Haynesworth in sacks (six) and bettered him in tackles (68 to 40). But Haye wasn't nearly as explosive in '09, registering his lowest tackle (32) and sack (1/2) totals since he became a fulltime starter in '07. To hear Haye tell it, his production problems weren't as much a function of will as they were weight. He put on 20-25 pounds, believing it would help fill Haynesworth's massive void. Now down to 277 pounds, Haye won't have anything holding him back from making plays. But if he falters again, he could be taking a load off on the bench.
Predicted record: 10-6.
The Titans play one of the league's most difficult schedules -- 2010 opponents had a combined .547 win percentage in 2009 -- but only have five playoff teams to reckon with. As long as they take care of business in games against the AFC West and continue to hold their own in the South, the Titans should be in the mix for a playoff spot.
What the Texans do best: Pass first, ask questions later.
The Texans' pass-heavy approach is partly why they had the league's best offense in '09, rolling up an average of 290.9 yards. The rest of the plaudits should go to the personnel. The offensive line, long an area of vulnerability, has emerged as one of the league's more impregnable over the past couple years. Quarterback Matt Schaub, who suffered his aches and pains for the first time in his career, lasted a career-high 15 starts as a result -- long enough to lead his team to its first winning record.
Pro Bowlers Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels not only make the big plays, but also all the little ones that create opportunities for guys farther down the depth chart, such as Jacoby Jones and David Anderson. Though the unit loses its playcaller and chief strategist in coordinator Kyle Shanahan -- who left Space City to reunite with his father, Mike, in D.C. -- it won't see much of a drop-off under Rick Dennison, who worked with coach Gary Kubiak in Denver under Mike Shanahan from 2001 to '05.
What the Texans need to improve: Securing the football.
The Texans flashed a lot of self-destructive tendencies in '09, but none was worse than their penchant for fumbling -- and no ballcarrier was a more frequent offender than Steve Slaton. After Slaton coughed up the ball a team-high seven times last year, the Texans put the pill in the more secure arms of Arian Foster. Though Foster performed well in two season-ending starts last year -- busting out for 216 yards and two touchdowns -- he has flashed his own issues holding onto the football in the preseason. The Texans hope he has the problem licked by their season opener against Indy on Sept. 12. A 17th loss to their division nemesis would only make their road to their first playoff berth that much harder.
Which Texan needs to step up: Linebacker Xavier Adibi.
The loss of linebacker Brian Cushing to a four-week suspension for violating the league's substance policy is a staggering blow. Kubiak has been coy about who might replace the Defensive Rookie of the Year, but one of the more promising candidates is third-year man Xavier Adibi. The 6-2, 242-pound Virginia Tech product made only three tackles in mostly special teams appearances last year, but was markedly more productive on defense the year before, racking up 34 tackles and recovering a fumble in seven games. If he can stay healthy -- something he's labored to do in camp -- and approach his '07 levels of production through the first quarter of the season, then the Texans should at least tread water while Cushing is away.
Predicted record: 8-8.
Houston also plays a tough schedule, which includes seven against playoff teams. An improvement on last year's 1-5 division finish could pave a path to the postseason, but that's if they don't stumble in playoff-like games against the NFC East -- which, frankly, I just don't see happening.
What the Jags do well: Follow MJD's lead.
You know how football people talk about offenses having an identity? Well, the Jaguars' couldn't be more clear-cut: he is 5-7, 208 pounds and can handle just about anything you throw at him. Just as the Titans can only go as far as Chris Johnson can carry them, the same is true for the Jaguars and Maurice Jones-Drew. To no one's surprise, he dazzled in his first year as the team's feature back. His 312 carries, 1,391 yards and 15 touchdowns in '09 were all career highs. The Jaguars do a lot of things poorly, but feeding Jones-Drew is not one of them. Coach Jack Del Rio says the back's workload will increase this year. Smart move.
What the Jags need to improve: Rushing the passer.
The Jags pass rush was abysmal. The 14 sacks they posted in '09 was not only the low for the league, but also for the franchise. In a bid to get better, the Jaguars went tackle heavy in the draft -- selecting Cal's Tyson Alualu in the first round and Louisiana Tech's D'Anthony Smith in the second -- traded for heat-seeking linebacker Kirk Morrison and ponied up big money for Packers free agent defensive end Aaron Kampman, who is coming off reconstructive knee surgery. If Kampman can bounce back and Alualu proves as good as advertised (Smith suffered a season-ending injury in the offseason), the Jaguars' pass rush should grow some teeth. Still, it's doubtful they'll be sharp enough to scare their pass-happy rivals in Indianapolis and Houston.
Which Jag needs to step up: Quarterback David Garrard.
Would you believe Garrard makes more money than Tom Brady? The Jags quarterback scored a boffo extension after an '07 season that saw him complete 64 percent of his passes, throw for 2,509 yards and 18 touchdowns en route to finishing with the NFL's third-highest passer rating (102.2). Garrard has surpassed 3,000 yards passing in the two years since, but an increased interception count (from three in '07 to 13 in '08 to 10 in '09) has kept his passer rating barely hovering above 80. Simply put: he needs to cut down on the turnovers. Rangy targets like 6-6 tight end Marcedes Lewis and 6-2 receiver Mike Sims-Walker will provide Garrard plenty of room for error, but they can only go so far. It's on Garrard to deliver the ball on the money -- or risk seeing a lot less of it in the future.
Predicted record: 7-9.
With so many new pieces on defense and still so many questions about the offense, it's tough to see the Jaguars being much better than they were last year. What's more, the schedule makers didn't do them any favors, sticking them with the fifth-toughest slate. Better luck next year.