Last season, Peyton Manning and the Colts watched as Jeff Fisher's Tennessee Titans cruised to a 13-3 season, winning the AFC South. This year, Manning and Co. looks poised to regain their thrown atop the AFC South.
1. Indianapolis Colts, 11-5
Forget the fact that for the first time in seven years the Colts will be without Tony Dungy, because if there's any more prepared quarterback in the league it's Peyton Manning. However, this may be Manning's most difficult year behind center in a long time because he'll be without Marvin Harrison. But don't be fooled. Look for Dallas Clark's six touchdowns last year to expand even further as Clark will see more balls now that Harrison has departed. Also, expect to see more production out of Reggie Wayne and Joseph Addai.
The defense looks re-charged as Bob Sanders returns for his 6th season, and he expects to play much more than the six games he played last year. Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, and Antonio Johnson return for more pressure on the pass rush, while Gary Brackett and Antoine Bethea anchor the linebackers and secondary.
The schedule also seems favorable with six games against the AFC South, a division they've had much success beating throughout their history, trips to Arizona, Miami, St. Louis, and Buffalo all should equal victories. But it's games like Baltimore, Tennessee twice, and of course the Super Bowl before the Super Bowl Patriots at Colts on November 15.
2. Tennessee Titans, 10-6
In 2008, Head Coach Jeff Fisher battled back from Vince Young's bizarre Week One disappearance to starting veteran Kerry Collins who guided the Titans to an improbable 13-3 season, only to lose to Baltimore in the divisional round. This season, however, they won't cruise to the division title nearly as easily as last season.
First things first: They no longer have Albert Haynesworth who accounted for 8.5 sacks last season, tied for 15th in the NFL. Haynesworth not only was a sack machine, he also forced three fumbles the 22nd most in the NFL. It wasn't so much his ability to rush the quarterback and force fumbles, it was his ability to stuff up the running holes making Tennessee the 6th best team against the run last year and the 7th best defense overall. Now, Haynesworth would've really come in handy as the Titans play the likes of run-first teams such as Jacksonville twice, San Diego, St. Louis, San Francisco and Seattle.
Their schedule will be tougher last year (that's what happens when you're the No. 1 in the AFC after the regular season), which I see losses scattered all throughout the schedule this year.
3. Houston Texans, 9-7
Everyone always asks "is this the year the Texans have that break-out year?" Well, will they get a winning season? Yes. Is it good enough for the playoffs? Still no.
They are, however, making huge strides to quickly become a contender. Mario Williams is more and more making a believer out of me that they made the right choice passing up the likes of Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, and Vince Young in the draft. Williams finished 7th in the league in sacks last season with 12, putting his career sack number at 30.5.
Andre Johnson continues to be a beast, leading the lead in receiving yards last year with 1,575, 9th in touchdowns with eight, and 2nd in yards per game with 98.4. Owen Daniels is also becoming a top notch tight end hauling in 70 catches last year and two touchdowns.
Matt Schaub continues to take strides at becoming a better quarterback. Last year he ranked 7th in overall rating with a 92.7, 18th in passing yards, 17th in passing touchdowns, and 4th in completion percentage.
But what's keeping the Texans from a playoff birth? Once again, in factoring in the schedule, that's what makes the difference. Four games against Tennessee and Indianapolis makes them easily an 0-4, 1-3, or at best 2-2 team. The rest of their schedule is quiet easy, however in the AFC South it comes down to tiebreakers, and that's something Houston won't get as they continue to lose to Indianapolis and struggle against Tennessee.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars, 5-11
It's obvious that the Jaguars took a huge step backwards last season, right when it seemed like they would get over the hump and become a Super Bowl contender.
Last year was a combination of a lot of things going wrong. Firstly, David Gerrard's touchdown:interception ratio skyrocketed from just 18:3 in 2007 to 15:13. Then Maurice Jones-Drew showed improvement, but still wasn't enough. The defense completely collapsed from a year prior slipping to 17th in yards per game, 12th in most points allowed and points per game allowed.
What concerns me is I don't think they've done enough to improve from last year. They went out and got Torry Holt, an 11-year veteran who never returned to form after Kurt Warner left St. Louis in 2002.
Furthermore, the schedule is brutal. They could very easily start out 2-6 with games against the Colts, Cardinals, Texans, Titans, Seahawks, Rams, Titans and Chiefs. Even if they get out with a 4-4 record (which I think would be miraculous), the second half entails match-ups against the Jets, Bills, 49ers, Texans, Dolphins, Colts, Patriots, and Browns. Again, I think it'd be a miracle if they went 5-3 down the stretch. The best possible record the Jaguars can have is 9-7, but I smell something more around the ballpark of 7 wins or less.