For the first time in well over a decade, the Indianapolis Colts might not be considered the team to beat in the AFC South.
With quarterback Peyton Manning at the helm, the team has missed the playoffs only twice—the first, in Manning's 1998 rookie season, and again in 2001. That's a decade of dominance from a team that has consistently fielded a top-tier offense, and, until recent years, one of the most intimidating defenses in the league.
In contrast, the Houston Texans have been working hard to right their ship. In their 10-year history, they've not once made the playoffs, though in recent years their potential has grown considerably.
They've made improvements on both sides of the ball, from bringing in quarterback Matt Schaub in 2007, to reinvigorating their rushing attack under running back whisperer and head coach Gary Kubiak, to bringing in defensive genius Wade Phillips this season, all in an attempt to finally make the playoffs and surpass the Colts for the first time in team history.
Now both teams' futures are decidedly less clear than they were just a few months ago, and with that comes a wide-open chance for any team to take control of the division.
The Colts' Manning, the lynchpin of their offense and overall team leader, is still recovering from off-season neck surgery. While he was activated from the preseason PUP list a few days ago, and will be participating in practices in a limited capacity, it is still quite possible he will not be ready to take the field for the season opener.
Of course, the AFC South will be sorted out by more than just Manning or Foster, or even the Colts or Texans. Much depends on the play of their division-mates, the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans.
The Jaguars are an unpredictable team that often follows a season of relative success with one rife with disappointment. It is unclear if they will be able to field a reliable team in 2011, but many signs don't seem to point that way.
They would require a shining defensive performance throughout the season, consistent play from their quarterback David Garrard, and a healthy Maurice Jones-Drew if they are to have a shot at winning the division.
The Titans are going through a rebuilding phase, after dismissing head coach Jeff Fisher and replacing him with the former offensive line coach, Mike Muchak. The team also parted ways with long-time starting quarterback Vince Young and now have Matt Hasselbeck at the helm of their offense.
Add to that the prolonged contract holdout of their starting running back Chris Johnson and the health (and legal) issues that have been plaguing big-play wide receiver Kenny Britt, and it appears that the Titans might not have the kind of season they were hoping for.
However, the Titans are a major wild-card in this division. If Johnson's contract dispute ends before the regular season starts, their chances to contend in the AFC South increase exponentially. And if Britt and Hasselbeck quickly get on the same page, they could become one of the most effective QB-WR tandems in the league.
It stands to reason that the Titans have the most to benefit from an extended period without Manning and Foster on the field.
That is, if they are off the field for that long.
It appears that while Manning may not participate in the Colts' regular season opener against the Texans, that he will likely not be on the bench for Week 2 The longer his absence, of course, the more difficult it is for the Colts to win games.
Their running game is stable, for now, but their defense has been in a steady decline in the last four years and does not seem back to its 2007 form this year.
Without Manning, the Colts will have a difficult time reaching 8-8; the main issue for the team, once he returns, is keeping him healthy throughout the entire season. If he is re-injured, the AFC South is certainly anybody's division.
And while Foster is certainly the most dominant player on the Texans' roster, they also have a full compliment of other talented running backs more than qualified to take his spot during the time he is recovering. They also have a good passing game and are attempting to field one of the more hard-hitting defenses in the league.
It seems to me that the Texans would have less of a struggle than the Colts, with their respective offensive leaders unavailable for an extended period of time.
Either way, this is an excellent opportunity for the Titans and Jaguars, and even the Texans, to step up and prove that they aren't just following behind in a historically one-team AFC South.