AFC South: Which Is the Dominant Division Team of the Future?

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AFC South: Which Is the Dominant Division Team of the Future?
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The AFC South has, classically, been a one team division.  Besides two years that the Tennessee Titans managed to come out on top, the Indianapolis Colts have owned the division.  Peyton Manning has willed his team to better records than the other three South teams seven out of nine seasons of its existence. 

Things seem to be in a state of flux. though.  Peyton Manning recently had his second neck surgery, which added to his knee issues from a burst bursa sac from a few years ago, starts to cast doubt on Manning’s durable reputation. 

That’s not to say that the Colts won’t win the South this year.  Vegas hasn’t posted odds of individual divisions yet, but considering the Colts are 18:1 to win the 2012 Super Bowl while the Houston Texans are 35:1 and the Jacksonville Jaguars and Titans are both 60:1.  There would seem to be an obvious correlation between Super Bowl winning odds and winning the division, so the Colts are sure to be favorites to win the South in 2012. 

I agree that the Colts are most likely to win.  The Texans are installing a brand new 3-4 defensive scheme and the Jaguars and Titans likely have the same Super Bowl odds because they’re likely both starting rookie quarterbacks this season.  Not exactly a winning recipe.

Which team is most likely going to be the next dynasty in the division?  Will the Colts continue to waltz into the playoffs every year with or without Manning, or will the Jaguars, Titans or Texans usurp them?  Let’s analyze their chances.

Indianapolis Colts

As was pointed out before, life without Manning may be coming soon for the Colts.  Even if the nagging injuries of late don’t continue for Indy’s Hall of Fame quarterback, there’s only so many productive years left for a 35 year old football player.  One way or another, the Colts would be smart to start planning for the future.

Manning isn’t the only member of the Colts dynasty years that is getting long in the tooth.  Dwight Freeney, Joseph Addai and Dallas Clark have remained productive, but have started to show signs of aging through increased injuries.

There has been a fair amount of turnover on the Colts sidelines as well.  Tony Dungy retiring was the first notable change on the coaching staff, but offensive masterminds Howard Mudd and Tom Moore have left now as well.

Luckily for the fans in Indianapolis, Bill Polian is still around.  Polian very rarely misses when it comes to player acquisition, as shown by the players like Jacob Tamme and Blair White who stepped in for injured skill players last year.

Still, though, the power of the Colts has been the offense.  While coaches can come and go with No. 18 still on the field, whenever he decides to hang it up the last of the former offensive brain trust will be gone and a completely new regime will take over.

Houston Texans

Every year the Texans are the sexy pick to win the division—and every year they disappoint.  While Gary Kubiak’s high powered offense is a favorite among fantasy football players, the gaudy stats haven’t translated into a double digit win season or a playoff appearance.

The problem has been the defense.  Two inept coordinators, hand-picked by Kubiak, have led vanilla defenses that have left the team lopsided.  Now owner Bob McNair has decided to bring in historically bad head coach—yet incredible defensive coordinator—Wade Phillips to right the ship.

The problem is that Wade is installing a 3-4 defense after the Texans have featured a 4-3 the entirety of Kubiak’s time as head coach.  Unfortunately for Wade, Kubiak was given a one year stay of execution so Phillips has to turn the defense around to at least the average level this season.

Phillips certainly has a track record for turning bad defenses around quickly, but anything is far from certain especially considering he might not even have a full training camp this season due to the labor unrest. 

All the main pieces remain intact for the offense so everything is contingent upon a defensive turnaround.  If Wade can do it, the result is likely a wildcard playoff spot.  If he can’t, it likely means a complete dismantling of the coaching staff and the front office.  No pressure.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars shocked a lot of people, likely no one more than David Garrard, when they traded up to draft University of Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert.  It was an unexpected move for a team that has a lot pieces in place for right now.

The Jags, for years, have had an excellent running game dating back to the latter years of Fred Taylor’s career and then especially with Maurice Jones-Drew.  The Jaguars never seemed, however, to have the defense to match that grinding style of offense, until recently.

That Jaguars defense has quietly become very good of late.  The addition of Aaron Kampman was a genius one until he tore his ACL towards the end of the season and Tyson Alualu proved the naysayers who claimed he was a reach at No. 10 in the 2010 draft very wrong with his solid play.

The problem is that Gabbert likely signals a rebuilding effort.  You don’t often trade up to draft a rookie quarterback to sit him on the bench, no matter what Garrard thinks.  If Garrard struggles, he will likely get pulled so Gabbert can get some experience.

Such an event would likely end the tumultuous relationship with Jack Del Rio.  Every year it seems as if it will be Del Rio’s last, but inevitably he is brought back.  The power has clearly shifted to GM Gene Smith, who may choose to find a different staff to mentor his choice for quarterback of the future.

Tennessee Titans

The Titans are just three years removed from a 13-win season, but that seems like a lifetime ago.  A couple seasons of Vince Young drama and a messy breakup with the longest tenured coach in the NFL later, and the Titans seem a shell of the last team that won the division besides the Colts.

Mike Munchak was a great player and offensive line coach, but thrusting him into the head coaching position seems like putting him into a difficult position.  The Titans strength on that division winning team was the defense, which is likely to be greatly different.

Jim Schwartz left for greener pastures a year ago. Chuck Cecil replaced him as coordinator and then was subsequently fired shortly before Jeff Fisher after last season.  Also gone is defensive line guru Jim Washburn who is likely the best such coach in the entire league.

On top of losing the strength of the team, the Titans drafted University of Washington quarterback Jake Locker, who is far from a finished product as an NFL quarterback.  Locker’s best target, Kenny Britt, has been busy this off-season trying to set a record for arrests and will likely face discipline from the Titans, the league, or both.

The one bright spot for the Titans is that they have one of the most dynamic players in the NFL in Chris Johnson.  Unfortunately, Johnson is likely to see eight or even nine defenders in the box for a couple years as Locker develops.  He’ll still get yards, but there is only so much a one dimensional offense can do.

Conclusion

The division is obviously in a state of flux.  There is one brand new head coach this season and there could very well be two more next year if Kubiak and Del Rio both fail to reach the postseason yet again. 

As long as Peyton Manning is taking snaps in Indianapolis, it is the Colts division to lose.  If he starts to decline, though, which for Manning would not mean bad play but rather missing time, I don’t have the utmost faith in Curtis Painter.

Bill Polian will likely choose another successor well, but it will take some time for him to learn even a fraction of what Peyton has figured out over his career.  Those will be some huge shoes to fill, especially with a team that has a substandard running game and a defense predicated on always having a lead.

The Jaguars had the second best record and contended for the division until the last week of the season, but drafting Gabbert seems like an admission that Garrard can’t take the team to the next step.  I like their defense a lot, but they will spend a lot of time on the field with a rookie quarterback.

Gabbert does have the luxury of inheriting a great ground game and an under-appreciated tight end to go along with that defense, however.  If he can develop quickly, the Jaguars could be a very good team in the near future.

Tennessee seems like a much more difficult environment to groom a rookie quarterback.  Owner Bud Adams seems to be increasingly overbearing in his older age and Mike Munchak is behind the eight ball considering all the defensive turnover.

Locker is a good athlete and his athleticism will be dangerous in the same backfield as Johnson.  Relying on that mobility too much will keep him from developing into a true NFL quarterback though.  I have a much harder time seeing success in Tennessee than in Jacksonville.

The Texans are always the wildcard.  They have a young offense with a dominant running back, the best wide receiver in the game and an okay quarterback who is great in the current system.  As it has been for year now, the question is the defense.

If anyone has the potential to dethrone the Colts, it’s the Texans.  Potential doesn’t win division titles though, because if it did Houston would have done so by now.  They’ll have to prove to fans, the rest of their division and their owner that they can do it before anyone puts that kind of faith in them after multiple seasons of disappointing.

What’s your opinion?  Which of the four teams do you see as having the brightest future and winning more divisional titles than the others?  Let me know in the comments or on twitter (@JakeBRB).

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