The Indianapolis Colts look to field another Super Bowl-contending team in 2009, but, before they can battle through the playoffs, they'll have to wrangle their way through perhaps the toughest division in the NFL.
The Colts' string of AFC South titles came to an end last season when the rival Titans captured the best record in the NFL. The Houston Texans took great strides last season to shake their label as division whipping-boy, finishing 8-8 thanks to a young, explosive offense. The Jacksonville Jaguars are perennial contenders, and their poor showing in 2008 was largely a result of injuries.
With five playoff appearances in the last two seasons, the AFC South has certainly proven their mettle in recent years. Last season, only the NFC South had more combined wins. Here's a preview of the competition that the Colts must face in 2009 as they attempt to qualify for the playoffs for an eighth consecutive time:
2008-09 record: 5-11
Key additions: Tra Thomas, Torry Holt, Eugene Monroe, Eben Britton
Key departures: Fred Taylor, Mike Peterson, Jerry Porter, Khalif Barnes
If the Jacksonville Jaguars are considered to be "rebuilding", it appears to be a quick makeover. The team was riddled with injuries last year—particularly along the offensive line—and this lead to a disappointing finish. However, the team has completely reloaded in the off-season.
Jacksonville addressed needs on the offensive line by drafting offensive tackles Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton with their first two picks and acquiring veteran tackle Tra Thomas in free-agency. The team has indicated that second-round pick Eben Britton will move to guard. Since the Jaguars utilize a predominantly running offense, this new blood should provide a significant boost to an offense which ranked 20th in the league last season.
The team also tweaked their passing game by releasing most of their troubled receiving corps and signing Torry Holt to a three-year, 20 million dollar deal. Gone are Matt Jones, Jerry Porter, and Reggie Williams; now Jacksonville will depend on Holt, Dennis Northcutt, and Troy Williamson to stretch the field. Although they still have holes at WR on paper, the Jaguars regularly use Maurice Jones-Drew in the passing game with screens and check-down passes to keep the chains moving.
If the team's defense steps up like it has in years past, Jacksonville could have a quick turn-around and sneak into the playoffs as a wild-card.
2008-09 record: 8-8
Key additions: Antonio Smith, Cato June, Brian Cushing, Connor Barwin
Key departures: Will Demps, DeMarcus Faggins, Sage Rosenfels
Houston has only beaten Indianapolis once in the teams short history, but such dominance is swiftly becoming more difficult for the Colts to maintain. Led by a young, adroit offense, the Texans split their games with the other division rivals last season and finished with a record good enough to make the playoffs in other divisions.
The Houston offense should only get better in the coming seasons. Last season they averaged 382.1 yards per game, ranking third in the NFL. With depth added through the draft and the continued development of crackerjack running back Steve Slaton and all-star wide-out Andre Johnson, the team has all the pieces in place to remain a potent scoring-unit. If Matt Schaub can avoid injuries, Houston could field the best offense in the league next year.
The Texans' most significant deficiency last season was their defense, which struggled to stop the run and generated little quarterback pressure from anyone other than defensive end Mario Williams. The team upgraded its pass rush by adding Antonio Smith in free agency, who will start at the opposite DE position from Williams. Houston used its first round pick on USC Linebacker Brian Cushing, who has started at strong-side linebacker right from the get-go in OTAs.
Head coach Gary Kubiak has publicly stated that he expects improvement at defensive tackle from 2007 first-round draft pick Amobi Okoye. If Okoye and Smith help to improve the defensive front, the Texan's defense could be dramatically better next season.
2008-09 record: 13-3
Key additions: Kenny Brit, Sen'Derrick Marks, Nate Washington
Key departures: Albert Haynesworth, Chis Carr
The Titans had the best record in the NFL in 2008 and beat the Colts in their only meaningful matchup. The blazing speed of running back Chris Johnson completely revitalized their offense last year, and made journeyman game-manager Kerry Collins look like Joe Montana.
In 2009, the Titan's offense may be even more dangerous. Chris Johnson will get more carries, and first-round draft pick Kenny Brit should help stretch opposing defenses. If opposing defenses are forced to cover the passing game and keep only seven players in the box, Chris Johnson could potentially have a record-breaking season.
Tennessee's defense suffered the loss of their best player, who signed a ridiculous contract with the Washington Redskins. Albert Haynesworth definitely gets his vitamins, but Titans defensive line coach Jim Washburn hands them out. Washburn is an expert at plugging pieces into the Titans' 4-3 scheme, and the team addressed this need in the draft with second-round pick Sen'Derrick Marks from Auburn. Despite losing arguably the most dominant defensive player in the NFL, I do not expect the Titans' defense to deteriorate.
The AFC South is arguably the best division in football and will almost certainly prove challenging for the Colts, who are facing significant changes of their own. It seems likely that the winner of the regular-season series between the Titans and Colts will take the division crown, and the other will likely be relegated to a wild-card slot.
Tony Dungy regularly stressed the importance of winning division games, and new head coach and Dungy-disciple Jim Caldwell will also make this his priority. The Colts, for once, don't have one of the five toughest schedules, but president Bill Polian has often stated "there are no easy victories in the National Football League."
My prediction for the Colts? 12-4. If they win the AFC South for the sixth time in seven years, it will be a close one.