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The 2010-2011 NFL season showed fans a slew of teams that found themselves on the cusp of taking the reigns of their respective divisions. The AFC South in particular has seen the Indianapolis Colts dominate Houston, Jacksonville and Tennessee over the past decade en route to perennial top seeded playoff positions. Though they are still considered a serious threat around the league, last year for the first time they showed that they too have flaws and seem to be a bit vulnerable. Father time seems to have caught up with a few of their dominant players, and young talent across the division may be too much to handle for Indianapolis moving forward. Let’s break down the AFC South down team-by-team and see who really has the best chance to dethrone the Super Bowl XLI Champions.
Tennessee Titans: The Titans have probably been the most inconsistent team in the division over the past few years. They were always able to fall back on having one of the most well-renowned coaches in the NFL in years past. Now that the Jeff Fisher era is behind us, we will see what this team really is made of. Also, owner Bud Adams seems to have finally given up on Vince Young and his off-field antics. The hope is that new coach, former Houston Oilers guard, Mike Munchak will be able to form a nice report with first-round draft pick Jake Locker (QB, Washington), and mold him into a leader on the field. They undoubtedly have some other nice pieces in place with electrifying running back Chris Johnson alongside receivers Kenny Britt and Justin Gage running the offense. Their defense has shown promise over the past few seasons, and though Tennessee is in somewhat of a rebuilding time, they might just have enough firepower to make noise in the division.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Though the Jaguars picked after the Titans in the first-round of the draft, they got the quarterback that everyone else seemed to want more than Locker in Blaine Gabbert (QB, Missouri). Jacksonville is taking the safer, and probably smarter route in developing Gabbert over time since they still have David Garrard to man the helm and mentor the rookie for a few years. They always seem to be a tough team to beat at home, and when you possess one of the best runners in the league, defenses are never going to be excited about playing you. Maurice Jones-Drew has racked up over 1,300 yards in each of his past two seasons and shows no signs of slowing down. Look for them to feature MJD even more this season amidst all of the quarterback confusion. The Jags can be expected to round out the bottom of the division this season, but if Jones-Drew has another career year, ninth year head coach Jack Del Rio just might be able to coax them into a successful season.
Houston Texans: This is where we come to the bread and butter of the AFC South. Last season the Texans showed real promise at the beginning of the season knocking off the Colts at home in week one and making everyone wonder whether 2010 was finally their year. It wasn’t. They finished a disappointing 6-10 and showed serious problems on the defensive side of the ball. I remember seeing their offense torch a prolific New York Jets defense last season, only to watch their corner backs fail to cover simple slant routes on consecutive plays to lead the Jets into the end-zone and blow yet another game for Houston. Everybody knows that the Matt Schaub to Andre Johnson connection is one of the best in the business. Unfortunately, they also know that they can routinely throw down field on one of the worst secondaries in the league. Everyone in Houston is hoping that newly hired defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will be able to turn their struggles around and finally snatch the division away from Indianapolis. The Texans are my sleeper this year, and if the Colts aren’t careful, they might find themselves having to compete for a wild-card spot in 2011.
Indianapolis Colts: So what do we know about the Colts? Well, offensive guru Tom Moore is gone, they caught the injury bug in the worst way last season, and Peyton Manning is coming off of two neck surgeries. Nobody is doubting what Manning has done, and probably still will do in the future at quarterback in Indianapolis. In fact, I would have to say that he’s the best I’ve ever seen play the game at that position. The problem is, he’s 35 years old going into this season, and not everyone can last as long as Brett Favre and John Elway. He finally, for the first time, showed signs of the slowing down last season when he was plagued by a string of interceptions midway through the year. Of course, even with all of the injuries, the Colts still went 10-6 to win the division, but failed to show off their prolific offense in the playoffs and were bounced quickly. I’m not doubting what this team can do with a future hall-of-fame quarterback leading them, but I will say that if they don’t make some changes and improvements from last season, their time in the spotlight of the AFC South may be coming to and end sooner than some people may think.
The AFC South is definitely no longer a one horse race as it has been for majority of the past decade. There are some real star-players all the way across the division, and seemingly more to come out of the first-round draft picks selected in this years draft. There will be battles throughout the year between all four of these teams, and don’t be surprised if we see two AFC South representatives in the playoffs next season…if there is a season of course.