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2010 NFL Preview – AFC South

By the time he retires, the NFL may rename this division after Peyton Manning. He’s been the president, governor, mayor, and sheriff of the AFC South since its inception. In 2010, the Jaguars, Texans, and Titans will make another run at the Colts, and just like six of the past seven years, they’ll fail.

The AFC South has evolved into one of the most competitive divisions in football. The Colts, Titans and Texans have been perennial playoff contenders for the past few years and the Jaguars are the best “worst” team in a division outside of the NFC East’s basement dweller. (Seriously, where else can you get this analysis?) I nailed my picks for this division last year, so I’ll stick with them again in 2010.

1. Indianapolis Colts
Though I may sound like a broken record, I refuse to pick against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts… at least in the regular season. The last time Manning and the Colts won less than 12 games was in 2002. It’s not like they’ve been plowing through the NFC West either. Here’s what I like about the 2010 Colts: Reggie Wayne, Anthony Gonzalez, Dallas Clark, Austin Collie, and Pierre Garcon make up what has to be the most talented and deepest receiving corps in the league. What’s more, another year in a system with a QB like Manning makes younger receivers that much more dangerous. Manning has his playoff demons, but you can’t find a quarterback more in sync with his receivers. It’s an amazing thing to watch. I’ll wait to declare the return of Bob Sanders an improvement to the defense until he proves he can stay on the field. Regardless of Sanders’ health, the success of the unit depends entirely on the pass rush of ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. If all the key pieces stay healthy, the Colts should find themselves back in the Superbowl.

DWC’s Take: Colts – Peyton Manning is still upset over last’s year Superbowl. He looked frazzled and lost. I never thought the day would come where I would use those words to describe Manning’s play. Look for him to come out of the gates strong. He’s been listening to the “Drew Brees is the best QB in the league” talk for 6 months. This does not bode well for any team squaring up against his offense this season. The young guys (Garcon, Brown, and Gonzalez) have another year in the offense under their belt to go along with Addai, Wayne and Clark. The offense will be firing on all cylinders. The defense continues to live up to its reputation as one of the fastest. If Bob Sanders can finally stay on the field for an entire season (that’s a gi-normous IF), then watch out. Have I read that somewhere? Oh yeah, on every preseason scouting report since 2003. I guess it’s worth repeating.

2. Houston Texans
Who knows if 2010 will be the year the Texans make the leap into the playoffs. I’m picking them to finish second because hitching my wagon to a football team quarterbacked by Vince Young is comparable to investing in Lindsay Lohan’s career rehabilitation. Sure, the Texans have an explosive offense, but the running game still has questions. Steve Slaton has butterfingers, rookie Ben Tate went down for the year in training camp, and Arian Foster is an unknown commodity. Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans, and Brian Cushing lead a capable defense, but Cushing will be M.I.A. for a quarter of the season due to a banned substance suspension. Obviously, I’m not in love with the Texans. Even though they’re not great, they’re still a nice team. Unfortunately, the playoff lives of “nice” teams are often determined by what other teams in the conference do. Essentially, if the AFC produces a handful of really good teams; Houston will miss out on the playoffs, again. If the AFC is bogged down by parity (I call it mediocrity); the Texans could finally get that elusive first playoff berth. Despite their young talent, I don’t think they’re good enough to win a berth outright.

DWC’s Take: Texans – This spot is a toss-up between the Texans and Titans. I’m going with the boys from Texas simply because I’ve been waiting for their arrival and I can’t give up on them now. I like them more than the Titans for two reasons. 1) Their offense is better than the Titans. While the Titans have the better back, the Texans boast the better QB and WR corps. In fact, they have the best receiver in the league in Andre Johnson. If Steve Slaton finds his way, Houston will have a plethora of weapons at their disposal. 2) I actually like their defense. Mario Williams and Amobi Okoye make a formidable tandem on the line, and Ryan and Cushing solidify the linebackers. They have some holes in the secondary which Manning will expose, but if the pass rush lives up to expectations, only Manning will be able to get rid of the ball in time. I’ve been waiting for this team to finally grab that elusive playoff spot and this may be the year it happens. Plus, I wouldn’t mind seeing Texas finally produce a team I can root for without feeling like I compromised my principles in the process.

3. Tennessee Titans
The defense and RB Chris Johnson will keep the Titans competitive for the entire year. In fact, I expect them to beat at least two of the NFC East teams they’ll play this season. Here’s why: First, the Titans have a strong enough defense to contend with the aerial attacks of the Cowboys, Eagles, Giants, and Redskins. Second, the Titans should be able to control the clock by relying on Chris Johnson and the ground game. Of the NFC East teams, only the Redskins may make a concerted effort to establish an effective run game. The Giants and Eagles lack talent at the position, and the Cowboys, who have a plethora of talent there, often ignore the ground game. Therefore, the Titans should have a fighting chance at defeating any one of the teams from the league’s strongest division. Whether that strategy will translate to wins within in their own division is in my opinion, unlikely. One dimensional teams always struggle against division foes. But then again, maybe Vince Young is just a late bloomer. What do I know?

DWC’s Take: Titans – I question the Titans defense. It sounds weird considering they were one of the best just two years ago. Back then Albert Haynesworth was playing for money (we’ve seen what that did to him), and Keith Bullock was still a force. Now questions abound. The line and linebacking corps lack big names, which can be good, but it makes me nervous. Without a significant pass-rush, things may be tough for their defensive backs. What I am a believer in is the Tennessee offense. I really like (gulp) Vince Young. The man came back from the precipice and is developing into a solid NFL quarterback. He’s still not the brightest (see his strip club adventure), but he is efficient and knows the offense. Combine Young’s growth with the best all-around back in the league, and I think the Titans will be known as an offensive football team. At the very least, Nashville will enjoy watching their boys every Sunday.

4. Jacksonville Jaguars
Maurice Jones-Drew is really, really good. The rest of the team is really, really average. The fans in Jacksonville really, really don’t care. It’s sad a situation because the Jaguars aren’t a horrible team. When Jacksonville was 7-5 and competing for a playoff spot last year, I jumped on the bandwagon. A few weeks later that wagon ran off a cliff as they finished 0-4. I was disappointed. The team finally got some local recognition and sold out for the first time in week 15. They were destined for the postseason, or so I thought. In reality, the Jaguars were, and still are plagued by the same thing that plagues more than half the league; inconsistent quarterback play, and a lack of playmakers at wide receiver. However, if Mike Sims-Walker can prove 2009 wasn’t a fluke and perform at that level again, the Jaguars will at least have a threat at receiver. Unfortunately, that doesn’t solve the disappointing play of quarterback David Garrard. The depth chart behind Garrard reads Luke McCown and Trevor Harris. Translation: The future doesn’t look bright in J-Town.

DWC’s Take: Jaguars – Poor Jaguars. They sell as many tickets as a Jennifer Aniston comedy. Only, they can actually be blacked out while her movies still make it to the big screen. In any other division (AFC/NFC West), they might make a run at the title. Here they are left in the dust. Jones-Drew is a versatile back, but Garrard is nothing more than an average quarterback. He’s prone to fumbles, interceptions, and overall poor play (I have a fantasy year with him at the helm to prove it). He is not consistent enough to get this team to where they once were. However, I can’t put all the blame on him. The random castaways from season 1 of LOST are more recognizable than the targets Garrard’s worked with in recent years. One thing we can be sure of is that a Jack Del Rio defense will not be a push over. Teams will need to work hard to break them down. Too bad the gaffes of Garrard will make that task easier.

If you’re wondering, last season’s AFC South predictions were:
Me: IND, HOU, TENN, JAC
DWC: IND, JAC, TENN, HOU
Actual Results: IND, HOU, TENN, JAC

Thus, DWC 3, Me 1, No Winner 1

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