|Peyton Manning remains the class of a solid group of quarterbacks in the AFC South.|
There is no division in football more highly competitive than the AFC South with the Colts, Jaguars and Titans all returning as playoff teams and the Texans on the edge of reaching the same plateau after last year's surprising 8-8 finish. Clearly, anything can happen here but for that to be the case someone first has to unseat the division's long-time leader, Indianapolis.
The Colts are a year older. Quarterback Peyton Manning missed all of the preseason following what was supposed to be minor knee surgery. Injury-prone tight end Dallas Clark has no proven backup any more and the defense saw its sack production drop off despite an overall sterling performance by the unit last year.
These things give hope to the Jaguars, who believe their passing game will be improved to go along with their hard-nosed running game. Those things give hope to the Titans, who think this will be the breakthrough year for quarterback Vince Young as well. And they give hope even to the Texans, whose defense is young, hungry and anxious to put Manning on his back.
But while the rest of the division appears to have caught up, the Colts have won four consecutive division titles and are convinced that the title is still their personal property. But the race may be even closer than a year ago so the Colts can't afford any early season slips while Manning gets his knee into shape or to fade late in the season after he does.
Team on the rise
Houston's defense has a young and hungry look and everyone in the division has to acknowledge it. Their offense remains a question mark but they believe their running game will be improved and quarterback Matt Schaub merely has to stay healthy for them to be more productive in the passing game.
Team in transition
Indianapolis. The Colts' Marvin Harrison seemed to finally slip at 36 last year and now has a troubling knee. Manning has been limping all summer and the line will have at least one new starter as well so the window may be closing on them. But it's not shut yet.
Coach in the spotlight
Tony Dungy nearly retired after last season but was convinced to stay because of an unusual proposal by the team that allows him to spend more time at home in Tampa during the season while head coach in waiting Jim Caldwell handles some of the chores. The players respect Dungy but how can you ask them for 100 percent commitment when you can't give it yourself any more?
Star on the rise
Amobi Okoye is only 21 and already had a rookie season with 5 ½ sacks. He's the inside half of the Texans' inside-outside rush team that includes former No. 1 pick Mario Williams at defensive end. Both seem ready to become dominate players.
The Titans' decision to draft running back Chris Johnson in the first round seemed odd to many observers but his 4.2 speed in the 40 is a perfect contrast to plow horse LenDale White and will give Tennessee an explosive as well as grinding running game to take pressure off Vince Young.
Count on it
By midseason everyone will be wondering why they ever worried about the condition of Peyton Manning's knee and his absence from training camp practices this summer.
Don't be surprised if
The Titans are looking for a new offensive coordinator again next season. If Mike Heimerdinger does for Vince Young what he did for Steve McNair a few years ago he'll be a hot head coaching commodity next offseason.
2008 AFC South forecast
|Vic Carucci||Thomas George||Pat Kirwan||Gil Brandt|
|Wild card(s)||Jaguars||Colts, Titans||Jaguars||Colts|
|Top offensive player||David Garrard||Peyton Manning||Peyton Manning||Peyton Manning|
|Top defensive player||Albert Haynesworth||Albert Haynesworth||Albert Haynesworth||Bob Sanders|
|Top rookie||Steve Slaton||Chris Johnson||Chris Johnson||Chris Johnson|
|Breakout player||Owen Daniels||Andre Johnson||Amobi Okoye||David Garrard|