What else can be said about Peyton Manning that hasn’t already been said? The only comparable player to him is Carson Palmer (or Daunte in his Minnesota heyday) and it looks like Manning will have another great year. In fact, it looks like this may be the year, and it would be, if it weren’t for the Baltimore Ravens, who will derail once again the hopes of Manning’s Colts in the AFC Championship game, much like what happened last year in Pittsburgh. The Colts may well be the Buffalo Bills of old, but even the Bills made it to the big game. The Colts are more reminiscent of the Browns of old, though they seem to have more offense. Even so, the Colts are almost there but not quite. The makings of a dynasty are in place but they may be one year away. And by then, teams in the NFC will catch up and perhaps pass teams like Indy. The only other team worth mentioning in this division is Houston, who will be stuck in a dogfight for the final Wildcard spot with Kansas City and lose. The Jaguars are beginning to drop further down the standings and it’s rebuilding time in Tennessee, as Vince Young learns some hard lessons before taking the reins of the Titans, a la Alex Smith in San Francisco. The key word for this division is patience, as all four teams will have their time in the sun (or under the dome, in the case of the Colts). It just won’t be in 2006.
INDIANAPOLIS (14-2, AFC South Champions)
Unlike most NFL teams, the quarterback position will be the same as it has for years. Peyton Manning is back for his ninth season under center and there is no reason for anyone to believe it will go different. The Pro Bowl QB hopes to take Indy farther than it’s ever been and it looks like he has the guys to do it. If there is any time to do it, that time is now. It will be interesting to see how little the defection of Edgerrin James to Arizona has affected the team, considering feature back Dominic Rhodes only played in 4 games last year. It will probably have some effect, however Rhodes was a 1,000-yard back in 2001 and so anything is possible. Fullback Tony Hollings came over from Houston and it’s hoped he can avoid injury and take some of the heat off of Manning. The greatest duo in terms of wide receivers in the league today is Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, both of whom had more than 1,000 yards last year. They will be expected to carry even more of the load this season, since James was also good catching passes out of the backfield and is gone. Brandon Stokley is the third receiver and is capable of putting together good things. He could be the surprise of the season, since he and Manning are both native Louisianans and have some chemistry. After having almost 40 catches and four touchdowns last year, Dallas Clark is back, reiterating a theme that is going through Colts’ HQ. The passing game is better than ever and so the running game just has to catch up. That shouldn’t be a problem with the offensive line, who boast two Pro Bowlers in Jeff Saturday and Tarik Glenn. The other three starters all have plenty of experience and four players played in all 16 games and the postseason. The only thing that could derail the Colts’ express is injury; the Colts are surprisingly thin at most positions and this could be a factor if injuries pop up.
Most teams don’t boast three Pro Bowlers on a team, let alone a defense. But the Colts have one Pro Bowl star at each: defensive end (Dwight Freeney), linebacker (Cato June) and defensive back (Bob Sanders). If that isn’t enough, the Indy front four is back and fearsome as ever. Robert Mathis has the makings of a great one and the pedigree to back it up (Ohio State). At linebacker the makeup is less assured, but steady. Gary Brackett led all linebackers with 3 interceptions in the Colts’ 4-3. The position goes about three-deep, with rookies filling in the latter. Again the Colts are not flashy, just steady in the defensive backfield and go about three-deep as well.
Adam Vinatieri joins the Colts after playing 10 years in New England. The dome should benefit him, however his age is catching up and a severely sprained ankle makes his debut a few weeks off. He takes over for Mike Vanderjagt, who left for Dallas. The punting duties go to Pro Bowler Hunter Smith and are admirably filled. But the big buzz around Indy goes to Stanford rookie T.J. Rushing, who will handle both punt and kickoff returns and at 5’9″ is lightning in a uniform. If he doesn’t work out, there is Terrence Wilkins, picked up from Miami in the offseason.
The Colts are well stocked and ready to try to win their first Super Bowl in Indianapolis. The problem is that on offense, if any number of players goes down to injury, this team is one-dimensional (the defense is in good shape) and it could be a long season. Losing James will hurt the Colts more than they care to admit and it will take a great year from Rhodes to offset the loss. Thing is, Rhodes has been waiting for his chance for several years and it’s finally here. If the offense stays healthy, Indy should have an easy run into the playoffs and possibly homefield advantage. The schedule is more or less a walkover until the bye week; after that they go to New England and Dallas, two teams that should be in the thick of the playoff hunt. The final three weeks of the season are barnburners, Cincinnati in the dome, at Houston and home to Miami. They should be previews of the playoffs in which the Colts could likely face all three.
PREDICTION: 14-2, AFC South Champions, AFC Conference runner-up
HOUSTON (2-14, 4th AFC South)
A new sheriff’s in town and his name is Gary Kubiak. Get used to hearin’ that name, pardner, cuz it’ll be synonymous with winning. Just who is Gary Kubiak? He is the person/ex-quarterback who mentored players like Steve Young and John Elway and countless other Pro Bowlers. He is, ipso facto, a winner, having won two Super Bowl rings and a Houston native to boot. And with a quarterback like David Carr, it will be like shootin’ fish in a barrel. Okay, enough with the slang. Kubiak is the new head coach of the Texans and Carr is about to benefit from his knowledge. So much so that he could be in the same class as Manning and Palmer. Running back, however, is a huge problem for the Texans as Domanick Davis is out for the season with a bone bruise. Ron Dayne has just been signed and right now rookie Wali Lundy is the starter, as of press time. Wide receiver is looking more promising, as Andre Johnson returns and Eric Moulds comes over to Houston from Buffalo. At tight end Jeb Putzier comes from Denver. The offensive line looks better, considering Mike Flanagan arrived from Green Bay and the other four starters are back. If Houston can find a way to gain yards on the ground and take some pressure off the quarterback, Carr could have the best season of his career.
No. 1 draft pick Mario Williams is ready to make his debut but he had mixed reviews in the preseason. But Antwan Peek is ready if Williams falters at all. Travis Johnson is a bonafide runstopper and Anthony Weaver came from Baltimore to shore up the front three. The lineup runs three-deep except for Johnson, who is the only nose tackle at press time. That could be a concern if there is an injury. At linebacker Peek is listed as the backup at right outside so you may see him there as well and rightfully so (6.5 sacks) Shantee Orr is a fast-rising star in the league, as his 7.5 sacks attest. The defensive backfield is led by Pro Bowler Dunta Robinson who is noisily putting his stamp on the freewheeling tackling style new players are using. And the backfield is deeper than most believe.
Kris Brown is looking to improve on his 76 percent field goal accuracy and Chad Stanley his 38 yard per punt average. But the real noise in special teams is made by Pro Bowler Jerome Mathis, the only player in the league to run back two kicks for touchdowns last year.
It will be interesting to watch the transformation of Carr under Kubiak, though the process has barely started and the learning will take some time. This year you will see the Texans improve their win total by at least six and possibly eight, thanks to a buttery schedule filled with a doughy middle (Buffalo, NY Jets, Oakland, Tennessee) though the ends are rough (Indianapolis twice, New England). The loss of Davis is one that is hard to bear, but the addition of Dayne may actually give the former Wisconsin star the chance he has always wanted. The receiving crew is one of the best in football and Flanagan behind center gives the Texans and Carr added protection. But the reason Houston will win 10 games is its unheralded defense with Williams providing the pass rush, Orr at linebacker and a ferocious Robinson. This team will be fun to watch, but they won’t make the playoffs.
PREDICTION: 9-7, 2nd AFC South
JACKSONVILLE (12-4, 2nd AFC South)
Usually the talk about any offense starts with the quarterback, however, the fortunes of the Jacksonville Jaguars are about to change, thanks to some recent serious injuries to starting running back Fred Taylor (hamstring) and Greg Jones, the fullback who is out for the season with torn knee ligaments. Together, they rushed for more than 1,500 yards and 7 touchdowns. Taylor may return later in the season, but these injuries are the main reasons the Jaguars will not be back in the playoffs. With two capable quarterbacks the Jags will keep things lively and Byron Leftwich (2,123 yards, 15 TD) is good at doing that. His backup is David Garrard, also capable of holding things down while Taylor is away. They will need to be at the top of their game for good things to happen. So will wide receivers Ernest Wilford and tall, speedy Matt Jones. Kyle Brady is hoping to have the same kind of impact he once had in Jacksonville, and frankly Jacksonville needs him to have a career year for any chance at the postseason. The good news for Jaguar running backs is that the offensive line looks stable, and the running back at the moment should be LaBrandon Toefield, who did score 4 touchdowns in limited duty last year. But the loss of Jones may hurt more than any other player on the team.
Defensive ends Paul Spicer and Reggie Hayward are probably the most underrated in the league, a duo that put up good, but not great numbers (8 sacks each) and in that mold are much like the rest of the Jaguars. Come to think of it, coach Jack Del Rio was himself an overachiever, garnering only one Pro Bowl bid in an 11-year career but becoming somebody to remember in a Dallas Cowboys uniform. As a child I remember Del Rio for his leadership on the field and his tenacity. These are traits he and his staff have obviously passed on to the current and former Jaguars (Del Rio enters his third season) and the same holds true for the linebackers and defensive backfield. They are a team you’ll never remember by name, but a team you’ll never forget, either. And that’s what always makes them dangerous, though cornerbacks Rashean Mathis and Brian Williams are fast becoming stars on a team that almost refuses to have any.
Josh Scobee struggled somewhat last year (76 percent field goal accuracy) so Seth Marler is on call in case something happens at the kicker position. Punter Chris Hansen holds down the position with 43 yards per punt. And the return teams feature Derrick Winbush and Chad Owens, the latter of which may hold the record for most tattoos on any NFL player.
You can’t count the Jaguars in, but you can never count them out, either. They don’t have a ton of flashy names to get the blood boiling and your mother will let you watch SportsCenter when these guys are giving interviews. In fact, Jacksonville may be the most vanilla team this side of San Francisco (Whatever happened to the days of Deion Sanders in a 49ers uniform?) but they get the job done. And that’s why, even in a year where two of its best rushers are hurt, you can’t say they won’t make the playoffs. Because, frankly, you never know, though this year the injuries will take their toll and so will a brutal schedule filled with trips to Indianapolis, Miami and Kansas City.
PREDICTION: 8-8, 3rd AFC South
TENNESSEE (4-12, 3rd AFC South)
OK, Elvis may not have left the building but it’s safe to say, now that Steve McNair has left Tennessee for greener pastures this word everyone loves to hate: rebuilding. Is Jeff Fisher heading for Pittsburgh after the season has completed? Perhaps, but the drafting of Vince Young leads one to believe, maybe not. While the Texas QB is not quite ready for prime time, he is waiting in the shadows as Billy Volek finally gets the A-OK nod from Fisher. While Volek is no McNair, he will serve as a capable stand-in until Kerry Collins is ready. That day could come as soon as week three. By the bye week Fisher will have had enough of his act and give Mr. Young that A-OK nod. At that point the Titans will be well done and running back Chris Brown will have already been ruled out for the season, as is his custom. But LenDale White is the man here, make no mistake about it; it just may take a season-ending injury to propel White into the starting lineup. After that there will be no turning back, since White is finally the top man on campus and will prove he is a better NFL back than Reggie Bush, once and for all. Receivers Drew Bennett and David Givens give the passer some quality targets, but this will be a rebuilding year and so you’ll see some unfamiliar names. The Titans always have good tight ends, too, and Ben Troupe is the featured player at the position (4 touchdowns last year). Center Kevin Mawae came from New York to help solidify the position and the offensive line is mostly intact from last year.
Kyle VandenBosch leads an unheralded defensive line with 12.5 sacks last year. The group goes about two-deep at their positions. Keith Bulluck is in charge of the linebacking corps and Chris Hope fronts the defensive backfield. But the name of the league belongs to cornerback Pacman Jones, who hopes to gobble up as many opponents in the shortest time possible. In all seriousness the Titans defense is much like the Jaguars and is unsung. The linebackers go three-deep and the defensive backfield about two-deep.
Rob Bironas returns as the Titans kicker, having hit on 79 percent of his field goals last year. Veteran Craig Hentrich is back as the team’s punter and both players are listed as backups to the other on the team depth chart. And for those of you who like intrigue, allow me to introduce punt return man Pacman Jones. We only hope he scores a touchdown.
The Tennessee Titans’ best days are long over. Now begins a painful road back to prominence, in which coach Jeff Fisher likely heads to Pittsburgh at season’s end (the Steelers are still negotiating with Bill Cowher, though it does not look good) and Vince Young learns the craft of becoming an NFL quarterback. White is the real deal at running back and it will only take a few games for the Titans to realize this. There is also no rest for the weary in the Titans schedule, though they will somehow find a way to win at least seven games, most of which will come at home. Then the Jeff Fisher era will come to a close and the Titans will be in purgatory. But you could see this coming last year.
PREDICTION: 7-9, 4th AFC South