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08-22-2005, 03:37 PM
AFC South: Can Colts be caught?
By Andy Friedlander
Special to NFL.com

(With the NFL regular season set to kick off on Thursday, Sept. 8, NFL.com has put together an eight-part series previewing each team division by division. Here is the AFC South.)

Despite predictions of impending doom, the Colts managed to keep their window of opportunity open, keeping offensive stars Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison off the free-agent market. A year after signing quarterback Peyton Manning to a seven-year, $98 million contract -- to which he responded with a record-breaking season -- Indianapolis got James' name on a one-year, $8.1 million franchise tender and signed Harrison to an extension worth $67 million over seven years.

By locking up the guts of the NFL's most explosive offense, the Colts all but locked up another season on top of the AFC South. While Indianapolis' defensive deficiencies are well documented, the Colts can rush the passer as well as any team in the league, and they are adept at creating turnovers. And with almost everyone back from an offense that led the league in scoring last season, the Colts have enough to again be a legitimate contender for the AFC title, especially since their nemesis, New England, has been weakened by the loss of both coordinators and defensive leaders Tedy Bruschi and Ted Johnson.

Jacksonville lost a crucial game to division rival Houston late in the season and missed the playoffs by a game, and this year appears poised to take that leap into the postseason. Assuming, that is, that running back Fred Taylor, who missed the Houston game with a knee injury, is ready to go after surgery on the knee.

The Texans have made steady progress since their expansion season of 2002, and after a 7-9 finish last season, they have designs on the playoffs themselves.

Tennessee, once a division power, fell sharply in an injury-plagued 2004 season, and the combination of quarterback Steve McNair, receiver Drew Bennett, running backs Chris Brown and Travis Henry and a veteran offensive line is strong. But the defense was gutted by cap-driven cuts, making Tennessee unlikely to be a factor.

Movers and Shakers
There were no head coaching changes in the division, but a pair of new offensive coordinators from the nation's most successful college football program could make a significant impact this season and beyond.

Norm Chow left his post as Southern California's coordinator to take over the Titans offense, and his freewheeling system has McNair positively giddy. Former USC quarterbacks coach Carl Smith takes the offensive reins for the Jaguars, saying he'll have quarterback Byron Leftwich throwing more down the field. To accomplish that, venerable wideout Jimmy Smith will need help from first-round draft choice Matt Jones and 2004 No. 1 pick Reggie Williams.

Rookie cornerback Marlin Jackson might make immediate contributions to the Colts secondary.
The Jags picked up defensive help through free agency, with Reggie Hayward coming from Denver to boost a weak pass rush.

The Colts' top draft choice, cornerback Marlin Jackson, likely will wind up as a starter this season, and he will try to help shore up a pass defense that allowed a league-high .654 completion percentage.

Tennessee also took a cornerback in the first round, but Adam "Pacman" Jones has taken more shots at his teammates than at opposing receivers during his acrimonious holdout. The Titans' trade for Travis Henry gives them a proven performer as insurance against another injury to gifted running back Chris Brown.

Houston, trying to get younger and faster, dropped 33-year-old Aaron Glenn and traded with Oakland for swift 25-year-old corner Phillip Buchanon. It also brought in athletic free-agent linebacker Morlon Greenwood from Miami.

Expect another incredible offensive season from Manning and the Colts, who are loaded with weapons. While the postseason is their focus, the regular season looms large because Indianapolis would love to make the Patriots come to the built-for-speed RCA Dome in the playoffs rather than having to trek to frigid and inhospitable Foxboro. To do that, the Colts need to win home-field advantage, which likely means having to beat New England in -- you guessed it -- Foxboro on Nov. 7.

The Jaguars will try to ride their defense to at least a wild card, which would be big for a team that hasn't made the playoffs since 1999. They boast the league's best pair of defensive tackles in John Henderson and Marcus Stroud, which makes the Jags tough to run against.

Houston's playoff quest is held back by its pass rush, or lack of same. Under coach Dom Capers, a longtime defensive guru with a penchant for creating relentless pressure with the blitz, the Texans finished last in the league in sacks last season. Capers is banking that one of his young outside linebackers -- Antwan Peek and Jason Babin -- can develop into a pass-rushing terror in the mold of Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd.

The Titans have put their trust in McNair, who is coming back from a broken sternum that cost him half of last season and had him considering retirement. But he'll have to score plenty if the Titans can't adequately replace cap casualties such as standout cornerbacks Samari Rolle and Andre Dyson.

08-22-2005, 04:07 PM
Indianapolis (13-3)
Jacksonville (9-7)
Houston (8-8)
Tennessee (8-8)