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.
Under the radar
NFL.com's Gil Brandt has identified four underrated players in the AFC South, one from each team, who will bear watching this season:
Moved from LT to RT last season and played well. Very athletic, with strength and speed. Can also play guard if needed.
Caught 37 passes last season and will only get better. Will catch crossing routes and block for the run; has very good understanding of coverages.
A big play-maker, as evidenced by his 5 INTs as a rookie in '07. Has speed to cover slot receivers and also plays well against the run.
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
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.