Whatever optimism fans of the Texans, Titans and Jaguars went into the season with dimmed on Monday, when Peyton Manning removed himself from the physically unable to perform list. On the one hand, you can't blame those fans for daring to dream the impossible dream: That the four-time MVP would actually take a six-week sick leave to give the surgically repaired nerve in his neck further time to heal.
On the other hand, we've seen this movie before. Three years ago, to be exact. That's when Manning rallied Indianapolis to a 12-win season after sitting out most of the preseason to rehab an injured left knee. If past is prologue, he'll lead the Colts to another wild card finish. He'll be unfazed by a Titans team that has overhauled schemes on both sides of the ball, and by a Jaguars team that has significantly upgraded its secondary. However, the team that will lap him and his Colts is the Texans. A makeover on defense has them looking like more than mere playoff contender.
And that's a credit to Houston's abundance of talent. Like Indy, it boasts Pro Bowl players at quarterback (Matt Schaub), wideout (Andre Johnson) and tight end (Owen Daniels), a trio that forms one of the league's most explosive aerial attacks. But unlike Indy, Houston actually has a ground game to match. Last year, Arian Foster came out of nowhere (read: the practice squad) to lead the league in rushing. He owes his breakout season in part to a zone-blocking scheme with a reputation for creating rags-to-riches stories in Denver at the turn of the century. (Think Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson and Olandis Gary.)
But even if Foster's hamstring injury proves to be worse than advertised, the Texans' running game shouldn't skip a beat. Not only are there plenty of standouts in stock -- including former starter Steve Slaton, Super Bowl winner Derrick Ward, training camp valedictorian Chris Ogbonnaya and veteran Ben Tate -- but they're all dual threat backs. You'd be hard pressed to name another team with a backfield as deep.
And by all appearances, they have. New coordinator Wade Phillips is already paying massive dividends. He has the Texans defense leading the league in yards allowed (248.7) and tied with Buffalo and Philadelphia for most sacks (14) through three preseason games. That he has the team playing this well this early into a transition from a 4-3 alignment to a 3-4 is no surprise given Phillips' knack for turning around defenses. At his last seven coaching stops, Phillips raised his defenses' overall ranking by an average of six spots in his first year.
The free agent acquisitions of safety Danieal Manning and cornerback Johnathan Joseph -- both underrated playmakers -- gives the Texans a chance to rise even higher. It also gives second-year cornerback Kareem Jackson the chance to redeem himself after getting abused last year.
Transforming the 6'6" Williams from a down defensive lineman to a standup rusher seems like a risky experiment given his height. But there's little reason to believe that it shouldn't work considering Phillips' track record for squeezing production out of the outside linebacker position. He has made a point of keeping things simple for Williams, limiting his drops into coverage so that he can focus more closely on collapsing the pocket. The Texans collected 30 sacks in 2010, which tied for ninth-fewest in the league.
Two years ago the Saints won it all with an explosive offense and a defense that went from pathetic to pestering under the guidance of a first-year coordinator. It's hard not to see a little bit of history repeating in Houston.
For years, one of the main arguments against Manning in the Brady v. Manning debate has been that the Colts quarterback has always had better receivers to work with. But who could make that argument last year? While Brady was threading passes to the likes of Pro Bowler Wes Welker and former Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch, Manning was making do with no-names like fourth-year tight end Jacob Tamme and rookie receiver Blair White. And yet Manning threw for career highs in completions (450) and yards (4,700). One shudders to think how much better this unit can be once it and Manning are back to full strength.
Last year marked the fifth straight season the Colts averaged under four yards per carry. Joseph Addai and Donald Brown are both fine backs, but they haven't been served by a Colts line that's been built around Manning's viper-quick release. What's more, it's a line that -- save for perennial All-Pro Jeff Saturday -- is short on experience. This year's edition could feature as many as three new starters when Indy opens the season at Houston. The upshot? One of them is first-round rookie tackle Anthony Castonzo, a 6-foot-7, 305-pounder who can clear a mean swath.
When this 6-foot-3, 295-pound space eater is on his game -- as he was from 2005 to '07, when he totaled 82 tackles and 16 sacks -- he's virtually unstoppable. But a rash of injuries every year since has kept Harris, who signed a four-year, $40 million extension in 2008, from tapping his Pro Bowl form. After benching Harris a handful of games for poor performance in '10, the Bears parted ways with the former first-rounder in February. But their loss is the Colts' gain. Not only do they add an explosive interior rusher to a unit that includes one of the game's premier quarterback tormentors in end Dwight Freeney, but also one who grew up playing in the same Tampa Two defensive system.
I know what you're thinking, Colts fans: Here's yet another member of the national media picking against us for contrarian's sake. But how do you not? Last week they signed 38-year-old Kerry Collins out of retirement, a move that hardly inspires confidence in Manning's health. The Colts play the fifth-toughest schedule and end on a brutal stretch that includes games against the Patriots, the Ravens and each of their South division foes. That said, how do you not see them surviving this en route to a wild card berth if Manning is fit enough to play all 16 games?
There's no question that the Titans are at their best when Chris Johnson is toting the rock. That's why the team lavished him with a
Matt Hasselbeck is everything that Vince Young is not: Fluid in his mechanics, precise in his throws and convincing in a leadership role. Hasselbeck is also not terribly mobile, but that's hardly a liability in Tennessee. Since 1997, the Titans have allowed the second-fewest sacks, with 28.3 per season. When Hasselbeck has time to find his targets, he can pick defenses apart.
The 6-foot-2, 254-pound UCLA product is not the speediest linebacker. (He clocks in the 4.8 40 range, which partly explains why he fell to the 39th overall pick.) But his size gives the Titans a defensive end-type body who can tie up blockers in their tweaked 4-3 scheme. With the Titans renewed emphasis on stopping the run -- they ranked 20th in yards allowed, with 115.7 per game -- Ayers, who amassed 183 tackles (29½ of them for losses) and 14 sacks in three seasons at UCLA, will have to be on his game for the Titans D to rebound. One thing first-year coordinator Jerry Gray isn't worried about is whether Ayers will be able to hold his own physically. "We know guys aren't going to try to run over him, because most guys aren't as strong as he is," Gray says. "What he's got to do is get mentally prepared because offenses are going to try to trick him."
Eight wins is a lot to ask of a team that's overhauling both its offensive and defensive schemes, but the roster continuity alone is reason enough to believe. The most significant change happened at the area of most need -- quarterback -- and now that position is solidified with Hasselbeck and rookie Jake Locker.
The Jaguars tied for just 21st in scoring drives into the red zone, but when they got inside the 20 they scored 63 percent of the time, the league's third-highest mark. Expect that number to go up as tight end Marcedes Lewis (who went to his first Pro Bowl last year) continues to emerge as a lethal target and offensive complement to do-it-all back Maurice Jones-Drew.
The Jaguars were terrible in coverage last year, allowing a whopping 250.2 yards per game. (Good for fifth-worst.) Much of that is byproduct of the defense's struggles to generate a strong pass rush and a secondary that mostly relied on Pro Bowl cornerback Rashean Mathis to make every play. The free agent acquisitions of nickel cornerback Drew Coleman and safety Dawan Landry should take a lot of the pressure off of Mathis.
Once the heir apparent of Jason Taylor in Miami, Roth struggled to live up to expectations as a Dolphin and Brown. He's been a victim of injuries and 3-4 systems that often placed him at linebacker instead of on the line, his preferred position. Still, he's shown flashes of dominance and that little bit could go a long way toward enhancing fellow end Aaron Kampman, who is coming off of his second reconstructive knee surgery in as many seasons. To save on Kampman's wear and tear, the Jaguars will deploy him more situationally in hopes that he becomes more effective with fewer snaps.
It's easy to forget that this team was playing for the division title deep into last season. Though the Jaguars play the sixth-toughest schedule in '11, there are some victories to be had in an out-of-division slate that includes games at Carolina, against Cincinnati and at Cleveland. Inside the division, though, the Jaguars will have their work cut out for them -- especially if David Garrard's preseason back problems persist and the team has to turn to rookie Blaine Gabbert.