The AFC South was home to three 10-game winners last year, and with the Houston Texans inching toward actual decenthood and contention, it once again looks like the best and deepest division in the league.
In order of predicted finish.
1. Jacksonville Jaguars (11-5, second place in 2007)
The Indianapolis Colts have won this division five years in a row. That streak has to end sometime. This doesn't particularly look like the year for that to happen, but it's no fun to keep penciling in the same team. So: Jaguars at last!
Not that the Jags are a crazy pick. A defense-first team for most of their run of relative success under Jack Del Rio, the Jaguars became a good offense last year behind new starting quarterback David Garrard. Del Rio installed him and cut Byron Leftwich last fall, a surprising move that worked out beautifully. Leftwich lacks elite receivers but his running duo of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew and his command of the short passing game make the Jags offense a load.
The Jaguars defense used to be anchored by their massive tackles, Marcus Stroud and John Henderson, but Stroud has been traded and Henderson is coming off an injury-marred season. Jax brought in blitz-happy defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and used its first two draft picks on defensive ends Derrick Harvey of Florida -- who held out for a month and just signed -- and Quentin Groves of Auburn.
The goal, clearly, is to put pressure on the quarterback. Think they have anybody specific in mind?
2. Indianapolis Colts (13-3, first place in 2007)
Peyton Manning. For some reason he just came to mind so let's start with him. He didn't play a down in practice games. That means the same thing as playing every down would have meant: Barring injury, he'll be one of the best if not the best quarterback in the league, and he'll be the key to the Colts' getting back to the Super Bowl.
This is last year's team. Ordinarily, that's not a good thing. Stand still in the NFL and you get run over. But the Colts are good enough to be an exception.
They lost at home in the divisional round of the playoffs to the San Diego Chargers last year, but -- not to insult the Chargers, who were heroic with their best offensive players injured -- that game was downright flukey. Manning had two passes intercepted after they clanked off receivers' hands, the superhumanly sure-handed Marvin Harrison fumbled a ball away and the key play of the Chargers game-winning touchdown drive was a screen pass from ...
From who to who? I dare you to remember it without looking it up.
Billy Volek to Legedu Naanee.
Harrison has played in practice games, which is significant because the Colts aren't shy about holding guys out of those. He played little last year with a knee injury and he just turned 36. For all we know, he's about done. That would be a bigger concern if the Colts didn't also have Reggie Wayne and Anthony Gonzalez.
If the Jaguars aren't great, the Colts will make it six in a row.
3. Houston Texans (8-8, fourth place in 2007)
The defense is improving. Mario Williams, the defensive end who was drafted ahead of Reggie Bush, started to make that pick look pretty good last year. On offense, quarterback Matt Schaub helped Texans fans put the David Carr era behind them before he got hurt in Week 13. He and elite receiver Andre Johnson staying healthy would likely mean an improvement over last year.
The Texans still have a big hill to climb in this division. They're probably a year away from pushing Indy and Jacksonville for first place, but if things go their way, they should spend the season in the wild-card mix, and they just might win a playoff spot.
4. Tennessee Titans (10-6, third place in 2007)
Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth is the star of this team, it turns out. Not Vince Young. Tennessee has brought back offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger to design a scheme that makes use of Young's mobility and big-play ability in hopes of improving on Young's disappointing sophomore season.
Tight end Algie Crumpler was a nice free-agent signing. He's coming off a down year, but everything was down in Atlanta. Lacking top-flight receivers, Young could find himself leaning heavily on Crumpler.
Haynesworth anchors a defensive front that's the Titans' main strength. But the backfield is nothing special, just as the offense doesn't appear to be unless Young makes a great leap forward. They won 10 games last year, largely because they went 4-2 in the six that were decided by four or fewer points. Without much happening differently, they could have been 8-8, which would have been pretty good in this division, and looks like a reasonable goal for this year.
All NFL previews