Until last year, this division might as well have been known as Peyton and the Three Dwarves. With Peyton Manning leading the way, Indianapolis was the most dominant team in the NFL from 2002, the year the league realigned to eight four-team divisions, through 2010.
In those nine seasons, the Colts won 109 regular season games (they finished with 12 or more victories seven times), claimed seven division crowns, went to the playoffs every year and advanced to two Super Bowls, winning Super Bowl XLI after the 2006 season. The other three division teams? Tennessee won two division titles and went to the playoffs three times. Jacksonville made two postseason appearances. Houston made none.
But it all came tumbling down in Naptown last year. Without Manning, who missed the entire season because of a neck injury, the Colts went 2-14 -- the worst record in the league. And to complete the turn of events in the AFC South, the Texans finished atop the division and went to the playoffs for the first time in their 10-year history.
Reading the tea leaves, it looks like it will be a two-horse race to first this season between the Texans and Titans, who should finish several lengths ahead of the Jaguars and Colts.
Houston coach Gary Kubiak brought in 3-4 advocate Wade Phillips to run his defense last year. The turnaround was startling. Wade's Brigade finished second in the league in total defense -- and that was without injured premier pass rusher Mario Williams for most of the season -- after ranking 30th in 2010
Running the ball against Houston was like trying to plow through a brick wall; the Texans allowed only 96 rushing yards per game (fourth best in the league). When opponents threw the ball, they met with similar resistance; Houston yielded an average of 189.7 passing yards (third). Although Williams went to Buffalo as a free agent and linebacker DeMeco Ryans was traded to Philadelphia, the Texans' D remains stout, especially the front seven. Brian Cushing, Connor Barwin, Brooks Reed and Darryl Sharpton might comprise the best linebacker unit in the league, and second-year player J.J. Watt leads a line that's pretty good, too.
When he's 100 percent, Andre Johnson is one of the best wide receivers in the NFL. Problem is, he has missed 12 regular season games over the last two years, including nine last season with a hamstring problem. A groin injury forced him to miss some time this preseason. Another key player who needs to stay on the field is quarterback Matt Schaub, who was sidelined for the final six regular season games and two playoff games last year with a foot injury. The offense isn't nearly as efficient without Johnson and Schaub.
Houston drafted Newton in the seventh round last year thinking he could be a developmental player. Well, he has developed into its starting right tackle. The 6-foot-6, 307-pound Newton rotated with seventh-year man Rashad Butler for most of the preseason, but Newton emerged as the winner at the position, perhaps because of his performance in the third preseason game against New Orleans. Newton played the first two series in that game and the Texans scored a touchdown on each one. Eric Winston capably manned the right tackle spot for six seasons, but he became a salary cap casualty in the offseason. Now it is up to Newton to anchor in there to help protect Schaub and open up holes for running back Arian Foster.
Now that they have earned their postseason credentials, the Texans have become a popular team among the TV networks. They'll appear on national TV five times this season, but they will be home for only one of those games. Although Houston faces a challenging non-divisional slate of games, including the Broncos (in Denver), Jets (in New York), Packers, Ravens and Patriots (in Foxborough), it should be potent enough to successfully defend its division title.
It should come as no surprise for a team whose head coach (Mike Munchak) and offensive line coach (Bruce Matthews) were premier linemen whose bronze busts rest in the Pro Football Hall of Fame that the offensive line would be an area of strength. That unit is led by bookend tackles Michael Roos and David Stewart, both of whom are heading into their eighth seasons in Tennessee. The line should be even better with the offseason addition of 11-year veteran guard Steve Hutchinson, one of the best technicians in the game.
Last season, the Titans yielded only 24 sacks -- only Buffalo (23) allowed fewer -- which were 13 below the league average. Pass protection will be paramount now that second-year quarterback Jake Locker has replaced Matt Hasselbeck as the starter.
Running back Chris Johnson set the bar high for himself in 2009 when he became the sixth player in NFL history to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season. Though he's boasted about doing even better since, it took him much of last season to get into playing shape after he missed most of the offseason because of a contract dispute; he ran for a career-low of 1,047 yards.
Through the first three games of this preseason, he carried 28 times for a modest 81 yards, but he looked explosive on a pair of 14-yard scoring runs against Tampa Bay. With the strong-armed but inexperienced Locker lining up under center, the Titans will need to give him plenty of support in the running game.
A 2006 first-round pick (13th overall) of the Browns, Wimbley has been largely disappointing since his 11-sack season as a rookie. In 2010, Cleveland traded him to Oakland, where he was an outside linebacker. The Titans acquired him during the offseason as a free agent, moved him back to end and are hoping he can team up with left end Derrick Morgan to put more bite in the pass rush. The Titans had 28 sacks last season (only Tampa Bay, with 23, had fewer), not nearly enough to satisfy defensive coordinator Jerry Gray. As an additional attempt to light a fire under the pass rush, the Titans brought in former sack master Keith Millard as defensive assistant/pass rush specialist.
That the Titans went into the final game of the regular season in contention for a wild-card playoff spot was a testament to the work of first-year coach Munchak, who, like all coaches, didn't have the benefit of an offseason because of the lockout. Although Tennessee lost out in a tiebreaker to Cincinnati, its 9-7 season looked like a harbinger of better days ahead. But the Titans face a brutal first six weeks this season: vs. New England, at San Diego, vs. Detroit, at Houston, at Minnesota and vs. Pittsburgh. If they can beat the Vikings and steal a win from one of the other five teams, they could contend again because the back half of their schedule is considerably easier.
In 1998, the Colts selected Manning with the No. 1 pick in the draft. That worked out pretty well for them, what with Manning's unprecedented four league MVP titles and two trips to the Super Bowl, including a victory over the Bears after the 2006 season. But the glory run ended last year, and Manning and the Colts parted ways in the offseason. Now comes Andrew Luck, the first overall pick this year, who takes the baton from Manning. Luck has superstar written all over him. He played in a pro-style offense at Stanford, where he gained experience in the no-huddle and changing plays at the line, and appears to have the prototypical arm, size and technique of an NFL QB. This will be a season of growing pains for Luck and the Colts, but the future bodes well.
Few teams can match the 1-2 pass-rush duo of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, who have been moved to standup, outside linebackers in first-year coach Chuck Pagano's 3-4 defense, but the secondary has been inconsistent. The Colts picked off only eight passes last season, last in the league, and linebackers accounted for two of them. At one time this preseason, Indianapolis had 10 cornerbacks in camp competing for the starting job opposite of Jerraud Powers. Finally, they acquired veteran Vontae Davis in a trade with Miami.
"He's one of those guys that can be a shutdown corner," Pagano told reporters after getting Davis. "So when you go and play different teams, you need to take a guy like Vontae and put him on their number one guy. If you choose to do that, he's got the ability to be able to go in and take a guy out of a game."
Brown set career highs in carries (134), rushing yards (645) and touchdowns (five) last season, but the former first-round pick still hasn't lived up to expectations. He split carries with Joseph Addai and Delone Carter last season as the Colts relied on running backs by committee. The Colts haven't had a consistently dominant rusher since Edgerrin James left after the 2005 season, opting to rely more on Manning and the passing game. This would be a good time for Brown to have a breakout season -- and help take some of the pressure off Luck in his rookie season.
Other than the banners hanging in Lucas Oil Stadium, there's not much evidence left in Indianapolis of the power that dominated the AFC South for so long. After last season, Colts owner Jim Irsay gutted the team, parting ways with president Bill Polian, general manager Chris Polian, coach Jim Caldwell and, finally, Manning. Pagano and new GM Ryan Grigson take over a roster that has been overturned in several key spots. They do have Luck on their side, but Colts fans will need to be patient. It will take a few years for the team to become a contender again.
No player accounted for more of his team's offense last season than running back Maurice Jones-Drew. He rushed for a league-high 1,606 yards and gained another 374 yards on receptions. That total of 1,980 was nearly half of what the Jaguars had for the season. And Jones-Drew scored 11 of the team's 21 offensive touchdowns (eight rushing, three receiving).
Unfortunately, MJD has been MIA this preseason in a protracted holdout. The longer Jones-Drew is gone, the less time he has to adjust to new coach Mike Mularkey's offense. Although Mularkey has been readying fourth-year back Rashad Jennings, who spent the entire 2011 season on the injured-reserve list, most expect Jones-Drew to report and be ready to play in the Sept. 9 opener at Minnesota.
The NFL has become a passer's league, but Blaine Gabbert experienced a rough initiation in his rookie season. After playing in a spread offense at Missouri, Gabbert struggled in most of his 14 starts. He completed only 50.8 percent of his passes, threw for 12 touchdowns compared to 11 interceptions, and his 65.4 passer rating was the worst of any starting quarterback. One of the things new quarterbacks coach Greg Olson needs to teach Gabbert is better instincts and awareness in the pocket. Last year, Gabbert sometimes felt pressure when there wasn't any.
While it may seem unfair to put that kind of pressure on a rookie, Blackmon will be expected to help upgrade a passing game that ranked last in the league last year. That's why Jacksonville traded a fourth-round draft pick to Tampa Bay to move up two spots and take the former Oklahoma star wideout with the fifth overall selection. Blackmon is 6-1, 215 -- not necessarily huge, but he is regarded as a physical receiver, something the Jaguars have lacked for several years. Not only does Blackmon need to dominate on the field, but also he needs to keep a low profile off of it. He faces a possible suspension for a DUI incident in June -- his second such incident.
Once a perennial playoff contender under coach Tom Coughlin, the Jaguars have slipped off the postseason radar lately. In the last six seasons, they have had a winning record only once. Mularkey is going to need some time to make Jacksonville a contender again. We know new owner Shahid Khan has deep pockets. He's going to need a lot of patience as well.