We see teams go first-to-worst or worst-to-first all the time in the NFL -- except in the AFC South, where the Colts have won the division crown in six of eight chances since realignment and have won 12 games or more seven years running.
Indianapolis’ successes, and its four-time MVP quarterback, make it hard to predict a dramatic, upside-down season in the division.
The question is more about who can close the gap on Manning and the Colts; how the Texans, Titans and Jaguars stack up; and if one of them can find a door into the playoffs as a wild card.
The Texans and Jaguars begin their push with camp practices Friday. The Titans open Saturday, and the Colts are on the field Monday.
FOUR BIG QUESTIONS
Houston Texans: How does the defense better defend the pass?
Veteran corner Dunta Robinson is gone, first-round pick Kareem Jackson is in as the team’s top corner. Is a secondary of Jackson and Glover Quin at corner, Eugene Wilson at free safety and Bernard Pollard at strong safety enough to slow down opposing offenses? Not without two other major developments.
The defensive front must apply more consistent and effective pass pressure. A monster season from Mario Williams, a big second year from Connor Barwin and more toughness from Amobi Okoye could do the trick. Okoye in particular needs a big camp or he could lose reps to rookie Earl Mitchell. Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson and a better run game could help a great deal, too -- if Houston is able to put up big points, some opponents won’t be able to take advantage of that secondary enough to keep up.
Indianapolis Colts: How do the receivers shake out?
If Anthony Gonzalez is healthy and back to form, the Colts could be stacked at receiver. Provided Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie can build on what they did with Gonzalez out for all but the first game last season, the Colts should be four-deep at receiver with those three behind Reggie Wayne. With Wayne leading the way and tight end Dallas Clark also coming off a 100-reception season, Peyton Manning could have his best group of pass-catchers ever.
I think if everyone is healthy, everyone will get chances. Perhaps certain games and certain matchups will call for certain guys to be used more. But I can’t see Gonzalez, Garcon or Collie with a significantly minimized role unless one of them plays his way to the bench or is injured.
Jacksonville Jaguars: How will the defensive line rotation develop?
New line coach Joe Cullen will want his best guys on the field the most, but he’s also going to have to get them some rest so they can play fresh. Presuming Aaron Kampman and Derrick Harvey start at end and Terrance Knighton and Tyson Alualu start at tackle, who will be the guys behind them that ensure minimal drop-off?
Rookie ends Larry Hart and Austen Lane and rookie tackle D'Anthony Smith will all have opportunities as the Jaguars try to get to the quarterback a lot more often a year after collecting just 14 sacks. If the rush is better, watch the linebackers and secondary become better, too.
Tennessee Titans: Have the Titans cured their return game woes?
Things were so bad a year ago that when the Titans found guys who could fair catch punts while backing inside the 10-yard line it was considered a moral victory. Coach Jeff Fisher considers himself a return expert because of his own experience as a player. To his credit, he confessed he botched it last year by being overly reliant on unproven rookies. The solution? The Titans hope it’s unproven rookie Damian Williams, a third-round receiver out of USC.
If he’s muffing punts and kicks in camp, we should also see rookie Marc Mariani fielding punts, and we could see Kenny Britt back to fetching kickoffs. Merely being able to avoid mistakes shouldn’t be good enough. The Titans should expect to make plays in the return games.
Colts: Offensive line coach Pete Metzelaars: He’s got the confidence and full backing of president Bill Polian and coach Jim Caldwell. But replacing legendary coach Howard Mudd is a large charge. And it’s widely held that the group he’s working with isn’t composed of great run-blockers and benefits a great deal in the passing game from Manning’s propensity for getting the ball out quickly. During summer workouts, players said that Metzelaars had already tinkered with some technique and re-energized the group.
Jaguars: David Garrard. Jacksonville’s quarterback is 32 years old, and while his term as a starter began relatively late, he’s at a point where a lot of people give him the underwhelming description of “he is what he is.” If things unfold according to how a play is drawn up, he can be good. But things rarely unfold like that. He can be too inaccurate and doesn’t execute in the clutch often enough. Good season or not, the Jaguars are expected to look to draft a first-round quarterback in 2011.
Texans: Kareem Jackson. You hate to be overly reliant on a rookie, but the Texans have put themselves in that spot. First-rounder Jackson has to be able to cover tightly and find the ball if Houston stands a chance to so much as split with the Colts while Manning is dropping back and looking into the Texans’ secondary. They could have eased the pressure on their new No. 1 corner with an option beyond Eugene Wilson at free safety, but failed to address the position at all.
Titans: Michael Griffin. Tennessee is counting on a lot of young guys who are taking on bigger roles to be productive. But even if they are all good, it may not matter if Griffin, a Pro Bowl safety in his second season, plays as poorly as he did in his third. Distracted by off-the-field personal issues, he bit on play-action, took terrible angles and missed tackles he has to make while the Titans' pass defense fell apart. That won’t work with two games against Manning, two against Matt Schaub and matchups against Eli Manning, Tony Romo, Philip Rivers and Donovan McNabb.
Colts TE Brody Eldridge. The Colts did not make a major addition to their offensive line mix after Bill Polian called the group out for its Super Bowl performance. The stretch play, once a staple of their run game, has largely disappeared without edge blockers who can lead it effectively. But fifth-round pick Eldridge can be a big influence in this department. Expect him to displace Gijon Robinson. And watch him work effectively as a pass-catcher as well.
All four AFC South teams could look different on the interior offensive line on opening day. The Colts are looking at busted left tackle Tony Ugoh as a guard. The Jaguars brought in Justin Smiley, could be finished with aging Brad Meester and haven’t been wild about Vince Manuwai’s play since he returned from a 2008 knee injury. The Texans added veteran Wade Smith and would like second-year man Antoine Caldwell to seize a spot. Those three lines need sorting out.
The Titans, who had a 2,000-yard rusher and gave up only 15 sacks, have also made changes, shifting left guard Eugene Amano to center to replace Kevin Mawae, an unsigned free agent, while inserting Leroy Harris in Amano’s old spot.
It’s possible all four teams run better up the middle and shield their signal-callers from the inside rush better than they did a year ago.