AFC South: Furlongs ahead

AFC South: Furlongs ahead
by Cris Carter, Yahoo Sports
August 25, 2004

Cris Carter
Yahoo Sports
Cris' Prediction
   1. Indianapolis
   2. Tennessee
   3. Jacksonville
   4. Houston
Cris Carter's division previews:
AFC: East | North | South | West
NFC: East | North | South | West

Last year, this division boasted two of the top teams in the AFC. I don't think that is the case again. Indianapolis is my pick to win and remains a threat to win the conference.

But Tennessee has fallen off and may struggle to hold on to the second spot. Collectively the division has gotten better with Jacksonville improving and Houston ready to make strides in its third season.

Indianapolis Colts (Last season: 12-4, t-1st)

Players to watch: Secondary
Over the past couple of seasons, the Colts' defense hasn't created enough turnovers and has been victimized by big plays. The pressure now falls on a combination of cornerback Donald Strickland and safety Mike Doss. Can these guys slow other teams down? We know what the Colts have on the offensive side of the football. But can these two solidify a unit and keep their opponents in check?

Burning question: Can Peyton Manning win a Super Bowl?
That will always be the question as long as he is the quarterback of the Colts. The fans like to knock him for not being able to win the big game. But I know it is the people around him who ultimately will determine this. Can the cast of players around Manning play well and allow him to carry the Colts to a title?

Bottom line:
The Colts were in a tough position this offseason, but they did a lot with limited room under the cap. They lost a couple of key players – most notably Marcus Robinson – but put their confidence in Manning and kept the free-agency losses to a minimum.

The Colts may not be able to duplicate their run of last year, but Manning and the high-powered offense should be able to return to the top of the AFC South.

Tennessee Titans (Last season: 12-4, t-1st)

Player to watch: Chris Brown
With the late departure of Eddie George, can Brown give them the run productivity that the Titans need and are accustomed to? Tennessee needs opponents to respect its running threat in order for quarterback Steve McNair to continue excelling with a play-action passing attack.

Burning question: Are the Titans rebuilding?
McNair still is at the top of his game and is back to defend his MVP title. But the Titans lost a bunch of talent in the offseason, most notably Jevon Kearse, Eddie George and members of the defensive line. As he continues to lose key personnel each year, it is becoming more and more difficult for coach Jeff Fisher to reload and continue to win.

Bottom line:
The Titans have gotten older over the past couple of years and have some holes to fill, especially on defense. And this has been a team that is accustomed to winning with defense. That said, McNair remains one of the top three quarterbacks in the NFL, and he gives the Titans a chance to win nine or 10 games if he stays healthy. Much of this season will depend on his supporting cast.

Jacksonville Jaguars (Last season: 5-11, t-3rd)

Player to watch: Byron Leftwich
Leftwich is the key to the development of the Jaguars. He has great pocket presence and a good football IQ, but how good can he be? Last season Leftwich got the starting nod in the middle of the season and now is the undisputed No. 1 in his second year. If he develops quickly, the Jaguars may be ready to challenge for the AFC South title.

Burning question: Can they unseat Tennessee for second?
Are the Jaguars ready to jump past Tennessee and become perennial challengers to the Colts? Even with all the preseason talk comparing them to last year's Carolina Panthers and the possibility that it may emerge from the middle of the pack, Jacksonville still may be able to surprise some teams. I like Jack Del Rio and his overall attitude. But it is hard to predict that they will take a Carolina-type jump before the season even begins.

Bottom line:
The team is better than it was last year and it will improve. But it is hard to improve from a 5-11 team to a 10-6 team that makes it to the playoffs. People will be watching Leftwich and the talent around him. It wouldn't surprise me if Leftwich were in the Pro Bowl this season.

Coach Del Rio has his team believing in him in his second year. He is a fiery coach, and the young team feeds off his energy.

Houston Texans (Last season: 5-11, t-3rd)

Players to watch: Outside defenders
It's hard to pin it on one player, but collectively the Texans need production from their ends. This includes needing immediate help from their two first-round draft picks. Defensive end Jason Babin and cornerback Dunta Robinson are the keys to developing this young defense. Can Babin and the D-line create enough of a rush to help Robinson make big plays and take teams out of their passing game? That is what Texans coach Dom Capers likes to do.

Burning question: Is the third year the charm?
How much has this expansion team learned in its first two seasons in the NFL? The Texans must improve their protection of franchise quarterback David Carr. If the offensive line struggles for much longer, Carr won't have a bright future. He has taken a real beating over the past two seasons. Capers and the Texans have made an effort to put together a group that can protect Carr better than it has in the past, which shouldn't be hard to do.

Bottom line:
The Texans have gotten better, but they have the misfortune of playing in one of the most competitive divisions in football. Coach Capers and the organization are moving in the right direction, and the team has the full support of the city of Houston. But they are not ready to move into the second or third position.

Cris Carter is Yahoo! Sports' NFL analyst. Send Cris a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

Updated on Wednesday, Aug 25, 2004 6:25 am, EDT

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