The AFC South is quickly becoming one of the tougher divisions in the NFL. Each of the four teams has a legitimate shot at making a serious run towards a playoff berth, with the usual suspects leading the way. 2009 could see all four teams in the AFC South finish above .500 and still have two teams knocked out of the playoffs.
Here is my take on the 2009 AFC South:
AFC South Champion: Tennessee Titans
This season, the road to the AFC South again runs through Nashville. However, it is not without speed bumps, as four of their first six games are on the road, including the opener against the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers. The Titans were 6-2 on the road last season, and will need a similar result in 2009 if they are going to equal their league best 13-3 record from a year ago.
The Titans possess the best stable of running backs in the division to go along with veteran play from Kerry Collins. Their defense gets back 10 starters, but they must replace Albert Haynesworth.
AFC South Wild Card: Indianapolis Colts
Even with the retirement of Coach Tony Dungy, the Colts still possess enough talent to win 11-13 games. That will either win the division outright or ensure them a wild-card spot.
Coach Jim Caldwell is a Dungy disciple, and has been with the Colts for eight seasons. The Colts offensive machine will continue to crank out wins, ensuring them of their ninth playoff spot in this decade (2000, 2002-2008).
The Titans and Colts have combined to win all of the seven AFC South Division Championships since the realignment in 2002. Plus, If one of them doesn't win the division, they usually still make the playoffs.
Tennessee and Indianapolis have combined to capture four of the six AFC South wild card appearances since, with Jacksonville taking the other two. This season will prove to be no different.
Dark Horse Playoff Contender: Jacksonville Jaguars
Sure, the Jaguars were 5-11 in 2008, but then again so were the Oakland Raiders. Put the two teams side by side and which one would you take?
Even after dealing with a team tragedy before the season started, the Jaguars were a .500 team entering their bye week. They then promptly went 2-8 down the stretch to equal the worst season record under the leadership of head coach Jack Del Rio.
Keeping this team healthy will be a huge key to a playoff run in the 2009 season, as many of the Jaguars starters populated the injured reserve list last season. The Jaguars cut out the dead wood from the roster that plagued them in 2008, and Jacksonville will be back in the playoff hunt this year.
Team That Could Surprise: Houston Texans
When is the playoff appearance going to arrive?
The most recent wave of expansion brethren (Carolina, Jacksonville, and Cleveland) have all made at least one playoff appearance, with Jacksonville and Carolina making multiple, and Carolina making a trip to the Super Bowl. Even the relocated teams, (Baltimore, Tennessee, St. Louis) have done the same.
The Texans have gone 8-8 in each of the past two seasons, finishing 2008 strong with a 5-1 record down the stretch, somehow losing a game to the Raiders.
They lost four games by a touchdown or less, and that proved to be the difference between a 12-4 record and their 8-8 record. Winning those close games in 2009, and the easiest schedule of any of the AFC South teams could propel Houston towards the playoff appearance they’ve been missing.
Best Coach: Jeff Fisher, Tennessee
The more things change in the NFL, the more they stay the same in Tennessee. After a two-season hiccup, the Titans have reinvented themselves into a formidable force in the AFC.
The reason: Jeff Fisher.
Most owners would have left their coaches for dead in the unemployment line after two straight losing seasons, but Bud Adams gave Fisher the time to rebuild the team.
The Titans have improved in each of the last three seasons despite turnover in personnel. Jeff Fisher is one of a handful of NFL coaches who can get the absolute maximum out of each player. He stands out over his peers within the AFC South.
Coach on the Hot Seat: Jack Del Rio, Jacksonville
Former Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin had built a lot of coaching equity with the Jacksonville fans simply by winning right from the start. That all faded with three consecutive losing seasons, and he was dumped as head coach.
Fast forward six years, and Del Rio is running out of his coaching equity as well.
2008 saw the first losing season in Jacksonville since Del Rio’s first year, and last season was uglier than 2003. Malcontent players, numerous injuries, and a destroyed discipline plagued the Jaguars all season.
Jacksonville has been inconsistent under Jack Del Rio, having one great season with a playoff appearance, followed by a disappointing one, and the cycle tends to repeat itself. Last season was a disappointing one, and the temperature under Del Rio's seat got a little bit warmer once the 5-11 train wreck ended.
Best Player: Peyton Manning, Indianapolis
This offseason, the Colts got a new head coach. So who’s the new quarterback you ask? Don’t worry, nobody replaced Peyton Manning, and it really doesn’t matter who replaced Tony Dungy as head coach.
Manning runs every aspect of the offense and all Indy needs is a defensive coaching staff to be successful.
Best Free Agent Signing: Jeff Saturday, Indianapolis Colts
Yes, it was a re-signing and no one switched teams, but the retaining of Jeff Saturday as the Colts starting center ensures another playoff run and the protection of Peyton Manning.
The former All-Pro center, who went undrafted in 1998, has anchored an offensive line that has given up only 192 sacks in 160 games, which is the lowest of any team in the NFL.
Worst Free Agent Signing: Torry Holt, Jacksonville Jaguars
What were the Jaguars thinking? They had, (and still have a glaring hole at wide receiver), passed up Terrell Owens in free agency, and waited until the fourth round of the NFL draft to take a receiver.
In fact, they had every worthwhile receiver still left on the board during the NFL Draft when their pick came up at No. 8, and they still passed.
The Jaguars took offensive linemen with their first two picks in an effort to rebuild their power running game. So now, instead of Michael Crabtree or Jeremy Maclin to mentor, Torry Holt now gets Jarrett Dillard, Mike Thomas and Tiquan Underwood to take under his wing.
One problem in addition to the Jaguars’ late round draftees at receiver: Torry Holt isn’t getting any younger. Receivers at this stage of their careers either go one of two ways: the path of resurgence like Jerry Rice experienced in Oakland, or the path towards retirement like Tim Brown and Cris Carter experienced.
Every player feels that they have one good year left in them, but unfortunately that’s not always the case and some players tend to hang on longer than they should.
Just Keeping the Position Warm: Tra Thomas, Jacksonville Jaguars
Another one of the Jaguars’ head scratching offseason moves was the signing of veteran tackle Tra Thomas. He is nothing more than an insurance policy until rookie Eugene Monroe can adapt to the NFL.
Not that I blame the Jaguars for wanting a veteran to protect David Garrard’s blindside, but Thomas is on the downside of an outstanding career and the Jaguars success lies up front with their offensive line.