In the 2007-2008 season, the AFC South established itself as the best conference from top-to-bottom. Not only did three of the four teams win 10 or more games, but the last place team, the Houston Texans, finished 8-8.
This year, though, many experts have picked the Jacksonville Jaguars to win the division over the perennial powerhouse, the Indianapolis Colts. I will run down each team and give my predictions at the end of the piece.
Order based on last year's standings.
The 2007 Super Bowl Champs are back to show that their amazing eight-year run under Head Coach Tony Dungy will be extended yet another year. Led by arguably the best quarterback in the NFL in Peyton Manning, the Colts' offense will pose problems for any defense, not only in the AFC South, but around the league in general.
Despite some offseason injuries, Manning has promised to perform to his full capacity from Week One, and what's not to believe? This guy can really play. Manning is joined by a receiving corps that boasts Pro Bowler Reggie Wayne as its No. 1 target, but also spotlights Marvin Harrison and Anthony Gonzalez.
Although the Colts are primarily known for their passing game, running back Joseph Addai is garnering more attention from defenses, as his rushing and receiving numbers continue to soar.
For as much credit as the offense gets, though, the defense is what won the Colts their 2007 Super Bowl. The NFL Defensive Player of the Year from two seasons ago, safety Bob Sanders, headlines a defense that can flat-out fly around the football field.
Joining Sanders are defensive end Dwight Freeney, linebacker Gary Brackett, and cornerback Marlin Jackson. While the pass defense is stellar, allowing just over 172 yards per contest through the air, opponents' pound out over 106 yards a game rushing against the Colts D.
Colts' X-Factor: TE Dallas Clark (2007 stats: 616 yards rec., 11 TD)
Quarterback David Garrard might just be one of the most underrated QBs in the NFL. After a 2007 season that saw him picked off just three times, Gerrard will be back at it again to prove that his team's 11-win "Cinderella" season was no fluke.
It wasn't just the regular season that made the nation pay attention to the Florida squad, it was namely the signature victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field in last year's playoffs.
While Gerrard receives most of the attention, the dynamic running-back duo of Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor is the real "X-Factors."
They make this Jaguars' team go. From kickoff returns, to I-formation running, to catching balls out of the backfield, there isn't much that Head Coach Jack Del Rio can't ask of his two backs.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Jaguars have gotten much stronger in the past couple of years. Most notably, Mike Peterson, Drayton Florence, and former Tennessee standout John Henderson anchor this D.
In fact, this crew gave up 19 points per game last year but needs to work on eliminating opponents' rushing yards, as they gave up more than 100-yards per game on the ground a year ago.
Jags' X-Factor: S Reggie Nelson (2007 stats: 62 tackles, 5 INT)
When the Titans selected Vince Young with the third overall pick in the 2006 draft, they were thinking that he would take them to the next level, to compete with the Colts in the division.
He has certainly done his part, but he needs help from his teammates if he wants to get past the first round of the playoffs.
The key addition of TE Alge Crumpler to the offensive mix could definitely help Young in the passing game. Also, bringing in veteran C Kevin Mawae will allow Young to have more time in the pocket, as his offensive line is sure to be upgraded.
Defensively, though, is where the Titans were strong last year. They allowed under 200 passing-yards per game and less than 93 yards per game on the ground. With impact players such as Albert Haynesworth, Jevon Kearse, and Kyle Vanden Bosch bolstering the D, there are little-to-no questions about how well they will perform this upcoming season.
Titans' X-Factor: TE Alge Crumpler (2007 stats: 444 yards, 5 TD)
After bringing in quarterback Matt Schaub to lead the offense, replacing the inept David Carr, the Texans knew things were on the up-and-up. Not to mention that Schaub had a dynamic wideout in Andre Johnson to throw to. That, however, was derailed by Johnson's injury, which forced him to miss seven games last season.
Despite his injury, though, Johnson still put up insane numbers of 851 yards and eight TDs in that nine-game span.
Joining Johnson, back and healthy for the 2008-2009, will be running back Ahman Green. Although Green totaled just 260 rushing yards last year, he has been known as a crafty back his entire career.
The defense for the Texans is where they need significant revamping. After giving up more than 230 yards via the passing game, coupled with 114 yards on the ground, this defense needs some help.
Mario Williams, Amobi Okoye, and DeMarco Ryans provide the youngest, but perhaps, best bunch of young talent in the league on defense. Williams, who had an outstanding year last season, will need to duplicate his 14-sack performance of a year ago to give his D a chance at helping win some ball games.
Texans' X-Factor: RB Ahman Green (2007 stats: 260 rushing yards, 2 TD)
Here are my predictions for this year in the AFC South.
1) Colts: 13-3. This team is far too talented to let the Jaguars take over the division reign. Manning will be back and as sharp as ever, and there's no stopping that offensive machine.
2) Jaguars: 10-6. I know I'm going away from most experts, but I actually don't think they will win as many games as they did last season. Outside of playing the Colts, the Jags have to face the Pittsburgh Steelers, Minnesota Vikings, and Denver Broncos. I just don't see them pulling off 12 wins this year to win the division crown.
3) Titans: 9-7. Vince is awfully good, and with some help from his offensive line, they'll be in a lot of games. I just think his inexperience will make them lose a couple close games, which will ultimately cost them a chance at the postseason.
4) Texans: 7-9. Can Green come back and be productive? If not, they're throwing an awful lot on the shoulders of rookie Steve Slaton. I know Johnson will be back in full force, but I don't think that will make a huge difference as far as the overall standings go. Not to mention, their defensive is porous, to say the least.