Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
Here's what I think they are thinking in the headquarters of the four AFC South teams heading into the season openers. (Before the opener, this amounts to the “highly optimistic edition.”)
There is no way our run defense against the Jets will look like it did in the preseason against the Saints and Vikings. Brian Cushing is going to step right in and be a playmaker. Dunta Robinson will give the secondary a boost. And we will create a variety of ways to rattle Mark Sanchez. Even if the Jets score some points, we’re going to stay composed against Rex Ryan’s new defense, we’re going to protect the ball, we’re going to be more productive in the red zone and our offense will click on day one. A lot of the people say they’ve been burned before by picking us to break out and are wary of us now. But we’re going to do so well Sunday, they will be left wondering if they made a mistake.
There is a share of people out there who think we've slipped. New coach, couple of new assistants, no more Marvin Harrison, shaky left tackle. That’s fine, but not particularly smart. Our MVP quarterback Peyton Manning is sharp and ready to go. We can look at every unit on our roster and make a legitimate case for why we are a better team at each spot than we were last year. We’re bigger defensively without sacrificing athleticism, and we’re going to be a lot less predictable under defensive coordinator Larry Coyer. Even special teams, under our fiery new coach, Ray Rychleski, has a chance to be better. We're going to surprise people with a big special-teams play. Can we stop the run better? Maurice Jones-Drew will give us a big chance for an early answer.
Nobody knows what we can really do, how much we’ve bought in and how well we are capable of playing coming out of the gate. Sure, the Colts will say they are wary and should be fired up for opening day, but if we can hit them in the mouth and show them it won’t be easy, we can beat them. Jones-Drew’s seven touchdowns against the Colts are four more than any other player has against them over the last three seasons. He’s topped 91 yards against Indy in four of his last six games against them. With our rookie tandem of tackles blocking for him, things won’t be easy. But we’re also going to throw to him a bunch. And if they overplay him at the line, David Garrard can connect over the top to Troy Williamson or Torry Holt -- we just need to get Garrard the extra second he’ll need to do it.
Pittsburgh is physical, and is always recognized as such. But people in the know understand we are one of the league’s most physical teams, too. Don’t think we’re going to spend any time missing Albert Haynesworth, either. He was out hurt last year when we beat the Steelers in Nashville in a game with giant home-field playoff implications, sacking Ben Roethlisberger five times and doing a good job keeping him or funneling him to where we wanted him. They know we’ll look to do more of the same, and that’s fine because we can. We’re not going to have all our new weapons because of injury, but we’ve got enough that we can stand toe-to-toe with the defending champs and ruin their homecoming party.