Peyton Manning has used the AFC South as his personal playground throughout his career. Since 1999, he has helped the Indianapolis Colts reach the playoffs every year except the 2001 season. The Colts have reached two Super Bowls, winning once, under their future Hall of Fame quarterback.
Manning is the poster boy of the vision former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue had for the league. This has been continued by his disciple Roger Goodell, the current commissioner. As the rules get bent yearly to help the quarterbacks, Manning has more than his exceptional intelligence and accuracy to set him apart from others today.
Typically found on the gridiron one way or another, Manning is usually practicing with teammates or himself whenever the Colts aren't actually playing. He is the definition of an old school player whose desire to improve never dissolves.
He may have several trophy cases full of accolades, but winning is his only desire. Indianapolis has won 10 or more games every year since 1999, with the exception of the the 2001 season. There has been no team in recent years more reliant on the success of their quarterback.
With a neck injury that could have him out eight to 12 games or longer, the Colts locker room know the playoffs are a far-fetched dream in 2011. Indianapolis can only hold out hope for a quicker return, assuming the nerves in Manning's neck regenerate faster.
The only playoff experience the Houston Texans have ever been involved in required turning on a television and watching others play. With Manning out for so much of 2011, the Texans postseason dreams appear more likely than ever before.
Even the Jacksonville Jaguars chances have greatly increased, despite recently waiving their starting quarterback of the past five seasons. Like the Colts, Jacksonville will rely on a reserve at quarterback now. Unlike Indianapolis, Luke McCown has been with the Jaguars since 2010 while the Colts starter, Kerry Collins, hasn't even been with his team for a month.
The Tennessee Titans spent preseason trying to get their best player into training camp. With a new head coach, quarterback and several other players, it may take Chris Johnson time to gel with his new teammates.
Yet Tennessee, Jacksonville and Houston all have been given a confidence boost with the news Manning will be out so long. The Colts have mostly dominated this division under Manning, but it now appears the AFC South will belong to someone else this year.
The Texans were picked by many pundits to make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history in 2010. The offense didn't let them down, fishing third in the NFL in yards gained and ninth in points scored.
But the defense was beyond terrible. Houston was ranked 30th in yards allowed and 29th in points scored. The pass defense was the worst in the league as well, helping Houston finish a disappointing 6-10.
This might be the last chance for head coach Gary Kubiak to get his team over the hump. Kubiak enters his sixth year with the most talented team that he's had during his reign. Another letdown year could spell doom.
The offense brings back reigning NFL rushing champ Arian Foster, as well as promising backup Ben Tate. Tate missed his 2010 rookie year to injury. Both halfbacks have run wild during the 2011 preseason.
Andre Johnson, the Texans' top receiver, is coming off a 2010 season where he caught 86 balls and eight touchdowns. Tight end Owen Daniels, whose past two years have been hampered by injuries, tries to regain his 2008 Pro Bowl form.
While seven starters return from last year's defense, they will move to a 3-4 base defense under new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. One starter, Glover Quin, moves from cornerback to strong safety.
The hiring of defensive guru Phillips, who has a long history of improving defenses, is the biggest move Houston has made this offseason. The Texans also signed two free agents in cornerback Johnathan Joseph and free safety Danieal Manning, while using the 11th overall pick in the 2011 draft on mammoth defensive end J.J. Watt.
Mario Williams, a two-time Pro Bowler has 48 career sacks in his five seasons since being the first pick of the 2006 draft. He moves from defensive end to outside linebacker, where Phillips hopes to take advantage of his 6'6" frame and pass-rushing skills.
With the expected improvement at defense to go with an explosive offense, Houston hopes to see their first professional football team make the playoffs since the Oilers did so back in 1993. They might also win their division too.
Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio has been on a mission to improve the defense. He has picked up two solid staring defensive tackles and a cornerback the past two drafts, then hit the free-agent market for more pieces.
While defensive end Aaron Kampman was an injury disappointment in 2010, it did not stop Del Rio from gambling on other players with injury-filled pasts. Paul Poslusny and Clint Session will start at linebacker after just being signed by Jacksonville this year.
Dawan Landry was a solid strong safety for the Baltimore Ravens since 2006, but he will now play free safety because Courtney Greene finished third in tackles last year for the Jags despite missing two games. Dwight Lowery was just acquired in a trade, and he should be valuable in the nickel package.
Matt Roth was brought in as a free agent to start at defensive end, hopefully bookending a healthy Kampman. Roth hasn't played defensive end since 2007, having been moved to outside linebacker.
Jacksonville expects the defense to be better in 2011, especially against the run. They were 29th in rushing scores allowed last year, and 22nd in rushing yards allowed. The four veterans they just signed are expected to make a positive impact, but the fear of them staying healthy is heightened due to their track records.
Offense revolves around halfback Maurice Jones-Drew. Drew deserves some sort of medal for 2010, having a Pro Bowl year despite playing the entire season with a torn meniscus in his knee. Though he did miss two games, he still piled up 1,324 yards on the ground and was named Running Back of the Year by the NFL Alumni Association.
David Garrard has been the primary quarterback since 2006. He made the Pro Bowl in 2009, but threw a career high 15 interceptions last year. Jacksonville released him a few days before their first game, bringing back memories of the 2007 season when Garrard got the job after Brian Leftwich was cut a week before the season started.
The new quarterback will be journeyman Luke McCown. He has a couple of nice targets to throw to in Mike Thomas and Mercedes Lewis, but losing Mike Sims-Walker to free agency will hurt. Jason Hill, who has 51 career receptions in five years, will battle rookie Cecil Shorts and Jarett Dillard for snaps.
Dillard was hurt after seven games in his 2009 rookie season and hasn't played since. Undrafted rookie Jamar Newsome may be in the mix after averaging nearly 20 yards per catch in the 2011 preseason.
Jacksonville struggled to score or pass on offense last season, and it appears they could repeat this problem again in 2011 because they really didn't add any new parts. Blaine Gabbert, Jacksonville's top pick this year, needs time to sit and learn how to be an NFL quarterback. The rumor is he is expected to be the starter in a few weeks.
There are discrepancies over the sudden Garrard release. While some think it was a cost cutting move because he made close to $8 million a year, Del Rio claims it was based on a sub-par 2011 preseason.
Del Rio, already on the hot seat, may have sealed his fate with this move. Depite a few holes in the Jaguars 2010 roster, they still finished second in their division.
With the upgrades made on defense, Del Rio is hoping his team will win their first division title since 1999. If not, the Jags could soon be looking to hire the third head coach in franchise history.
The start of the 2011 season could be tough for the Titans. Owner Bud Adams dragged his heels on giving holdout star running back Chris Johnson a raise, waiting until about a week left in training camp to do so.
While most starters from 2010 return, Johnson will have to quickly get acclimated with new quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. He will also need to work with rookie Jake Locker in case Hasselbeck gets hurt. All the reps Johnson lost with those two in training camp could come back to haunt Tennessee.
The defense will have two new linebackers in free-agent signee Barrett Ruud and rookie Akeem Ayers. Fifth-round pick Karl Klug has won a starting job at defensive tackle, beating out fellow rookie Jurrell Casey despite being drafted two rounds later.
Veteran journeyman Shaun Smith will start as the other defensive tackle, moving Jason Jones back to his more natural position at defensive end. William Hayes is bookending Jones, replacing the departed Jacob Ford.
The secondary is the same as last year, except Jason McCourty replaces Alterraun Verner at cornerback. McCourty, the twin brother of New England Patriots star cornerback Devin McCourty, lost his starting job to Verner last year after getting hurt.
The defense was 26th in the NFL in yards allowed last season, while giving up over 21 points per game. There is concern that there won't be a vast improvement this year because of the new defensive line full of of uncertainties.
Tennessee was a streaky team the last two years. They started out 0-6 in 2009, then finished 8-8. The 2010 season saw them burst out with a 5-2 record, then win just one game the rest of the way.
Mike Munchak, a Hall of Famer who has been with the organization since 1982, is the new head coach and will try to find more consistency for his team. It may take some time for him to rebuild the team he wants, but the Titans have the talent to win a division that could be decided in the final week.
Ever since the NFL blatantly slanted their rules to help the quarterback, no team has relied more on this position than the Colts. As future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning goes, so goes the franchise.
Manning, who holds the record for four NFL MVP awards, has never missed a game since being drafted in 1998. He comes into 2011 with a nagging neck injury that will end his consecutive games streak, and his return is uncertain after recent surgery.
Most assumed he would be there opening day. His former coach Tony Dungy recently said Manning cares more about his being able to play than any awards he has ever received. The true leader of this team, Manning recently signed a $90 million contract for five years.
While the Colts offense should be excellent as usual whenever Manning is back at the helm, there is still some concern over who will be blocking. Indianapolis has had an inconsistent ground game recently, thanks to halfback Joseph Addai's inability to stay healthy and Donald Brown being a disappointment after being a first round draft pick in 2009.
Manning has dealt with poor offenses lines before easily. He gets rid of the ball fast and calls the right plays to avoid taking too many hits. Wide receiver Reggie Wayne and tight end Dallas Clark are his favorite targets, but the ball gets spread around to whoever the Colts put out there.
Defense is the issue in Indianapolis for 2011. The run defense has been bad the last three years, never finishing higher than 24th in yards allowed. It has looked just as porous during the 2011 preseason.
Gary Brackett is their best linebacker, yet he has had just one healthy season since 2006. Pat Angerer, who was second on the team in tackles in his rookie season last year, will join newly acquired Ernie Sims as the other starters at linebacker. Sims, the ninth overall selection in the 2006 draft, has not played as well as once hoped.
The Colts have high hopes for a talented defensive secondary that was beat up and hurt most of 2010. Justin Tyron was picked up off waivers and started six games because injuries hit this unit so hard.
Kerry Collins was coaxed out of retirement after it became clear Curtis Painter was not ready to start at quarterback while Manning is out. Collins enters his 17th NFL season and will soon be 39 years old. Expect the Colts to run the ball more than usual with him starting, because he has been in the Colts' system less than a month.
Indianapolis can pass and stop the pass, but the ground game is nothing special on both sides of the ball. They have made the playoffs in 11 of Manning's 13 seasons at the helm, so they are capable of winning the division a third straight year.