Never has so much hinged on one player’s neck. This just in: Peyton Manning is a big deal. Assuming Manning is healthy, can Indianapolis fend off the rest of the AFC South for one more year, or will the Texans finally dethrone the Colts?
1. Indianapolis Colts
If two weeks from now, Peyton Manning is placed on injured reserve for a neck injury, please change that number “1” to the left of Indianapolis to a “4.” Thanks. While I certainly don’t expect him to miss any time, the prospect of the AFC South without Manning is down right frightening. Though, I imagine Reggie Wayne would be the most frightened. Anyway, until Manning shows he’s losing it or decides to retire, I’ll continually pick the Colts to win the division as they have every year, except one, since 2002. It’s easy to look at their uninspiring defense and disqualify the Colts for title contention. However, look at their offense. In 2010, Manning made stars out of backups and waiver wire humps. With Austin Collie, Joseph Addai, and Dallas Clark all back and healthy, Manning will have his whole repertoire available. The Texans are obviously closing in, but as they say in west Baltimore, “the king stay the king.”
DWC’s Take: Colts – If the Colts want to hold onto this division for another year, Peyton Manning should sit out the first two weeks. The team is more than talented enough to beat the Texans and Browns. [Editor’s Note: No way.] Playing Manning before he’s ready will destroy Indy’s chances at a title run. He means too much to worry about streaks, especially when he just got paid handsomely to retire a Colt. Plus, he doesn’t need time to gel. Once he steps in, it will be as if he was never gone. Kerry Collins is seasoned enough to make the smart plays for two weeks. They won’t lose because of anything he does or doesn’t do. There are enough weapons around him to put points on the board. As long as Manning comes back fully healthy, this team will win the South again. The division is still a mess beneath them, and I don’t see another team ready to stage a coup. However, I do think the Colts should pull a page out of the Packers’ playbook and start looking for Peyton’s heir sooner rather than later. While he’s still very good, his best days are no longer ahead of him.
2. Houston Texans
Every year is supposedly the year this team FINALLY reaches the playoffs. Yet, someway, somehow, the Texans screw it up. I blame the atmosphere. Starting the season slow and falling behind early in games reflects the culture of the team. Someone (because Gary Kubiak clearly doesn’t appear interested) needs to give this squad a kick in the rear. There’s no reason a team as talented as Houston shouldn’t win the division. Ok, maybe Peyton Manning is a pretty freaking good reason, but still. At least make it a little more competitive. If ever there was a year for Houston to overthrow Manning and the Colts, this is it. Manning’s neck injury could obviously cause Indianapolis issues. Plus, the Colts are aging, albeit gracefully, but aging, nonetheless. For Houston, the addition of Jonathan Joseph to their secondary was a huge, huge, huge improvement, and the return of Pro-Bowl linebacker DeMeco Ryans will undoubtedly help a defense that struggled in 2010. The offense has been, and will continue to be, fine. Health is really the only major concern there. All in all, this is likely the year Houston finally topples the Colts. Feel free to be the guy who picks against Peyton Manning.
DWC’s Take: Texans – I would feel more confident about the Texans if Arian Foster didn’t remind me of Steve Slaton. Texan fans remember him. He had a break out season two years ago only to be riddled with injury and fumbling issues the next. His production was never the same. Currently, Foster is busy Tweeting pictures of his hamstring. If he’s absent, the Texans become a team that chucks the ball in the air and waits for Andre Johnson to pull it down. While this makes for entertaining football, it doesn’t accumulate wins. I think Gary Kubiak is on his last leg with this team. How many times does your team need to fall short of expectations before heads start rolling? Good coaches don’t linger around mediocrity for most of their tenure, and then miraculously turn it on. Andy Reid and Bill Belichick struggled for a season or two, and then put a strangle hold on their respective divisions. Yes, Peyton Manning has made that extremely difficult, but so has a defense that can’t stop anybody.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
Don’t forget, Jacksonville actually controlled its playoff destiny in mid-December last season. While often ignored in the division, the Jaguars aren’t as bad as the public believes. They simply lack marquee players. In a small market, marquee players are key to national exposure. Maurice Jones-Drew is a popular player, but doesn’t drive web views or ticket sales like Sam Bradford or Cam Newton. As a result, the Jaguars are an afterthought unless they do something unexpected or extraordinary (like lead the division with three games left).
Expect another ho-hum season from Jacksonville in 2011. It’s the David Garrard special, which reminds me; why not give the rookie, Blaine Gabbert, a shot sooner rather than later? A franchise quarterback is Jacksonville’s only hope of ever removing those tarps from the upper ring of EverBank Field.
DWC’s Take: Titans – I don’t care how good he is, Chris Johnson does not understand football. Can someone please go to his house and give him a detailed presentation of the most important positions in football according to impact and pay. It’s not hard. Franchise QB, pass rushing DE, stout LT, shutdown CB, then a toss-up between RB & WR. Johnson’s demand to be the highest paid player in the NFL not only makes him look like an idiot, it is ruining the chances of his team doing something this season. I really like the Matt Hasselbeck pick up. He’s not flashy, but he knows how to manage games. While he doesn’t need a ton of talent around him (thank goodness), having Johnson would definitely be beneficial. The way Johnson and the Titans entered the season will prove too big a distraction to overcome. Losing a great defensive coach in Jim Washburn will only make matters worse.
4. Tennessee Titans
Whoa. What happened in Nashville? Just a few years ago the Titans stood toe-to-toe with the eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers in one of the most physical conference championships I’ve ever seen. Now, Tennessee is action-packed with issues. Let’s review. 1. They struggled to get their star player to join the team. 2. For the first time in over a decade, there’s a new coach. 3. The team lacks an identity. Even when they struggled, the Titans were always regarded as a tough team. In 2010, they folded like a lawn chair. Vince Young threw temper tantrums, Chris Johnson grew frustrated, and the defense got molly-whopped to the tune of 5,883 yards. 4. The team’s biggest offseason acquisition was NFL veteran Matt Hasselbeck. Granted, I like Hasselbeck, and I like bringing him in to mentor Jake Locker. However, similar to Jacksonville’s situation, Tennessee shouldn’t delay the future any longer than necessary. Stir up some local interest and give Locker a shot as soon as the season is unsalvageable. Which, in Tennessee’s case, could be before Halloween.
DWC’s Take: Jaguars – Nobody watches the Jacksonville Jaguars, and I think that includes their coaching staff. Can’t really blame ‘em. They have Maurice Jones-Drew on offense, and that’s it. David Garrard has no one to throw to, but even if he did, it would be difficult considering the offensive line issues. Blaine Gabbert is a nice addition for the future, but the future appears bleak in Jacksonville. Like Gary Kubiak, it’s time for Jack Del Rio to go. Given his background as a defensive guy, it’s disturbing how far Jacksonville’s defense has fallen. I think their 8-8 finish last year was more of a fluke than reality. It’s only a matter of time before Del Rio is back as a coordinator, and Jacksonville has relocated to the beautifully green city of Los Angeles.
For those keeping score, here are last season’s AFC South predictions:
Me: IND, HOU, TENN, JAC
DWC: IND, JAC, TENN, HOU
Actual Results: IND, JAC, HOU, TENN
Score: DWC: 2, Me: 1, Fail: 2