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Halfway home in the AFC South, the division is packed with surprises.
The title is all but sealed up by undefeated Tennessee, which has Vince Young on the bench and Kerry Collins in the huddle. Peyton Manning has not been himself as the Colts have stumbled. The Jaguars can't run the ball or establish a defensive identity. Despite a major offseason emphasis, the Texans continue to give the ball away.
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|Albert Haynesworth is setting himself up for a big payday.|
Thanks to readers for your input Tuesday.
Without further delay, here are the first annual AFC South Blog midseason awards:
MVP: Albert Haynesworth, defensive tackle, Tennessee.
The best player on the best team, Haynesworth demands constant attention by multiple blockers. His six sacks are the second most for an interior lineman and barring injury he's lining himself up for unrestricted free agency if it's what he wants. If and when he gets it, somebody is going to make him the highest-paid defensive player in football. Also considered: Houston receiver Andre Johnson.
Top Offensive Player: Andre Johnson.
A singular offensive force in this division, he's surpassed Reggie Wayne as the most dangerous pass catcher. He's on pace for 10 100-yard games, 120 catches and 1,664 yards. And he has room to play even better -- he struggled with a couple catchable balls in a loss at Tennessee and a lost fumble near the goal line against Miami that could have been a killer. Will he do with fill-in Sage Rosenfels in the coming weeks what he's been doing with the now-injured Matt Schaub? Also considered: Titans running back Chris Johnson.
Top Defensive Player: Cortland Finnegan, cornerback, Tennessee.
The fiery Finnegan is tied for the league-lead with four interceptions, has a team-high 12 passes defended and is fourth on the team with 46 tackles. He's as fierce against the run as he is against the pass and his spunk helps set the tone for the Titans defense, though he's got to be careful about taking it too far and drawing unnecessary penalties. Also considered: Texans defensive end Mario Williams. (MVP was ineligible.)
Top Rookie: Chris Johnson.
I was among those who mistakenly thought, "This guy better be an awfully good situational player to be worth the 24th pick in the draft." Yeah, he's situational alright, as in effective in any situation. The Titans haven't lined him up wide and thrown to him like a receiver as much like we expected, because they haven't had to. He's a complete running back, who sure doesn't seem to be at risk of wearing down. He's accounted for 60 percent of the team's rushing yards, 35 percent of the team's total offensive yards and 32 percent of the team's touchdowns. Also considered: Houston running back Steve Slaton.
Coach of the Year: Jeff Fisher, Tennessee.
Unless the Titans wind up undefeated, odds are he loses out to a Mike Smith or John Harbaugh in the league award at the end -- it seems to always go to the breakout guy. But come on, no one expected him to be guiding a team that's forgotten how to lose. He's pushed all the right buttons so far.
Biggest Surprise: Kerry Collins, quarterback, Tennessee Titans.
His numbers aren't going to get you real excited unless you are willing to focus on 7-0 as the starter and an interception percentage on par with Donovan McNabb, behind only Jason Campbell. The surprise is the steady and reliable play and leadership for a team that expected Vince Young to be its pilot. How many teams in the league could have had a seamless transition to the backup after a week, better yet done so and emerged as the best team in the league? Also considered: Tennessee running back LenDale White, Indianapolis safety Melvin Bullitt.
Biggest Disappointment: Marvin Harrison, wide receiver, Indianapolis.
While he has shown flashes, the evidence through eight games is that Harrison is not the same. A lot of people are wondering if at least some of his snaps in the offense when only two wide receivers are on the field should be going to Anthony Gonzalez. Harrison's 27 catches account for 14.8 percent of the team's receptions. The lowest in his previous 11 seasons was 18.1 percent, all the way back in 1998. He's certainly suffered from Peyton Manning's inconsistency after two summer knee surgeries and a missed training camp as well as the injuries on the offensive line that meant more protection problems. Also considered: Manning, Young, Indianapolis running back Joseph Addai.
Best addition: Chris Carr, returner, Tennessee.
Carr has been a consistent contributor to solid field position for the Titans. His 28-yard average kickoff return doesn't include anything longer than 52 yards. It's the reason the Titans are one of three teams who start an average drive after a kickoff across the 30-yard line. Too, Carr is symbolic of the Titans' roster-building approach. They targeted the versatile defensive back as veteran depth and special teams help, singing the restricted free agent to an offer sheet the Raiders didn't match. He's an inexpensive role player who fills many roles, supplementing a roster built primarily though the draft. Also considered: Tennessee
guard Jake Scott.
Worst addition: Jerry Porter, wide receiver, Jacksonville.
The Jaguars signed the free agent to a big-dollar contract, waited on his after summer hamstring surgery, then said he simply wasn't a big part of the plan. An offense lacking big plays could really use some deep balls -- supposed to be what he brought to Florida -- to back people off in order to find room to run more effectively. David Garrard tried to throw to him for a crucial two-point conversion late Sunday in Detroit to no avail. Three catches for 44 yards aren't what the team had in mind when it went out and got him. Also considered: Texans running back Chris Brown, Jaguars defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
Most missed: Marcus Stroud, defensive tackle, Jacksonville (trade to Buffalo).
The Jaguars shipped the massive defensive tackle to Buffalo, overestimating their ability to replace him. Without him, Jacksonville doesn't cave the pocket from the middle and is overly reliant on rush from the edge, something that has not shown up often enough. Also considered: Indianapolis guard Jake Scott (free agent to Tennessee).
Biggest killer decisions: Quinn Pitcock retiring, Ed Johnson getting arrested.
The Colts may well have had trouble stopping the run this season even with their two largest interior defensive linemen contributing. But Pitcock retired, never reporting to camp and Johnson got into trouble, getting himself cut. (The team deserved credit for sticking to its hard-line policy with him). The two developments meant Indianapolis went into Week 2 minus the top two run-stoppers it projected into the middle of their defense.