When Peyton Manning was healthy and under center for the Indianapolis Colts, the AFC South was generally Indy's to lose. From the creation of the division in 2002 until 2010, the Colts won seven of the nine division titles and made the playoffs in all nine seasons.
But the division dynamic changed last year when Manning missed the season after neck surgery. The Houston Texans charged into that void and earned the franchise's first playoff berth by finishing the regular season at 10-6 to win the South by a game over the Titans. And no team in the NFL has shorter odds to win a division title this year than Houston at -450 on Bovada to repeat.
With inexperienced quarterbacks likely to start in Tennessee, Indianapolis and Jacksonville this season, the Texans clearly have the edge at football's most important position in Matt Schaub. He is a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback when healthy, but staying on the field has been Schaub’s problem. He missed the final six games of last season with a serious foot injury and this could be a make-or-break season for Schaub as he is in the final year of his contract.
Schaub has some of the NFL's best skill position talent around him in running back Arian Foster and receiver Andre Johnson, although Johnson also has had injury problems of late. Two offensive line starters will need to be replaced as well.
After having one of the NFL's worst defenses in 2010, the Texans had the NFL's No. 2 overall unit last year thanks largely to new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and a switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme. That defense lost two of its best players this offseason in end/linebacker Mario Williams (Buffalo) and linebacker DeMeco Ryans (Eagles). In addition, last season's star rookie, defensive end J.J. Watt, recently dislocated his elbow in practice, but the team believes he will be ready for the Sept. 9 opener vs. Miami.
Houston has the third-easiest schedule in the NFL this upcoming season going by an opponents' 2011 winning percentage of .473. The Texans’ over/under win total is 10, with the over a -130 favorite. Houston is behind only New England on AFC Championship odds with the Texans at 11/2 and New England at 3/1. Those two play on Monday, Dec. 10, in Foxborough.
The Tennessee Titans are the second-favorites in the division at +450 off last year's 9-7 finish. The fact that Tennessee won nine games despite star running back Chris Johnson having a career-worst season was a minor miracle. This year, the Titans plan to open up the passing game with either Matt Hasselbeck or Jake Locker at the controls. Most believe that Locker, the 2011 first-round pick from Washington, will earn the starting nod over the veteran Hasselbeck.
There is also a big potential suspension hanging over the Titans. Top receiver Kenny Britt recently met with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Britt has been part of eight incidents involving police since the Titans drafted him in 2009. Last month, he was charged with driving under the influence. Britt met with Goodell last year following a number of incidents that occurred during the lockout. Goodell indicated then that any future issues would not be so easily overlooked.
Britt missed the final 13 games of last season because of a torn right ACL, and then required a second surgery on the same knee this summer. So he may not be ready for Week 1 regardless. Even with Britt, the receiver position is a big question mark on the team. The Titans' over/under win total this season is 7.
Jacksonville finished 5-11 last season as it attempted to break in rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who struggled in a big way. The Jaguars were the worst passing team in the league a year ago, averaging just 136.2 yards per game, and No. 28 in points per game at 15.2. Jacksonville added a weapon for Gabbert at No. 5 overall in this year's draft in Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon, a two-time Biletnikoff Award winner.
The Jags still have one of the NFL's top running backs in Maurice Jones-Drew. But almost everything else is new in Jacksonville with new ownership and an overhauled front office and coaching staff, with Mike Mularkey replacing Jack Del Rio as the head coach. Jacksonville hasn't had a winning season since 2007. Its over/under wins total this season is 5.5.
Without Manning last season, the Colts plummeted to 2-14 but at least earned the top pick in the 2012 draft. There they took Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, considered the best prospect at that position since Manning left the University of Tennessee. Luck will be thrown to the wolves right away as the Day 1 starter for Indianapolis.
The Colts are in a full rebuild mode, having replaced the entire coaching staff and front office as well as jettisoning dozens of veteran players — Indy was one of the oldest teams in the NFL last year but will be one of its youngest in 2012. The Colts were 3-13 in Manning's rookie season and Luck's career now will forever be compared to Manning's once the team released No. 18 to make way for Luck. The Colts' over/under win total for this season is five games.
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