For the first time since the AFC South's inception in 2002, the consensus among Pro Football Weekly's editors is that a team other than the Colts will win the division. As you probably already guessed, we're not predicting the Titans and rookie head coach Mike Munchak overcoming a truncated and turbulent offseason and taking the division by storm. We also don't foresee Jack Del Rio suddenly learning how to win in December and David Garrard becoming a model of consistency en route to Jacksonville's first AFC South crown. No, the majority of our editors predict the Texans will go from titillating to title-bearing for the first time in franchise history, seizing control of the division from the defending champion Colts.
Notice I said majority.
While I do believe the division will be a two-horse race this season, I'm hedging on the literal horses galloping their way to an eighth division title in 10 seasons, clinching a record-setting 10th consecutive postseason berth.
Many folks will point to the Colts giving QB Kerry Collins $4 million this season as a sign that QB Peyton Manning won't be ready to start the season. But $4 million, while undoubtedly an expensive insurance policy, is not an unprecedented salary to secure a dependable backup. The Ravens gave QB Marc Bulger $3.8 million last June and Bulger didn't take a snap the entire '10 campaign.
Others will cite a report by Chris Mortensen of ESPN stating that the Colts inquired about Titans QB Matt Hasselbeck prior to his joining Tennessee. I look at that inquiry — as well as the Collins signing — as more of an indictment on Curtis Painter than anything. For as good as Painter can look in practice, he is "just good enough to get the Colts beat," according to one source close to the team.
Do I think Collins could somehow save the season if Manning misses significant time? Probably not, but at least he gives them a fighting chance.
I don't think the Colts will need Collins, anyway.
I truly believe that Peyton Manning is going to make consecutive start No. 209 (No. 228 including postseason contests) in Houston on Sept. 11. I also believe the Colts will do a better job of easing him back than they did at the start of the '08 campaign, when Manning was asked to do too much after not practicing or playing in the preseason as he recovered from knee surgery. If the Colts were nervous enough about Manning's neck to go out and get Collins, surely they will be smart enough to lessen his load out of the gate this time around.
The return of a healthy Joseph Addai, Austin Collie and Dallas Clark — to name a few — can only help. Manning believed he had to be perfect most of last season when working shorthanded and with terrible protection. I think starting rookie OLT Anthony Castonzo right away and sliding Ryan Diem inside where he is less vulnerable will make the Colts much better up front. I also expect second-round rookie Ben Ijalana will be starting by the halfway point of the season.
I have a funny feeling at least one of the Colts' four — that's right, four — former first-rounders brought in to bolster the defense will hit a home run. If a seemingly motivated Tommie Harris can be half the player he was in '07, can you imagine how difficult it will be to block him, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis?
Colts fans won't believe it until they see it, but this team is going to be better up front on both sides of the ball this season. And it could make a world of difference.
Quickly turning to the Texans, I think new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and the club's numerous offseason additions upgrade the defense significantly, securing Houston a wild-card berth and saving head coach Gary Kubiak's job. But I don't see the "D" reaching its full potential right away, and I have a bad feeling about the impact ILBs Brian Cushing and DeMeco Ryans can have coming off serious injuries. I also need to see more from DTs Shaun Cody and Earl Mitchell before I'm a believer.
Houston's offense appears to be loaded once again, with a terrific O-line in front of '10 rushing champion Arian Foster and still improving QB Matt Schaub joining All-Pro WR Andre Johnson. But Foster, now without Vonta Leach clearing holes in front of him, has dealt with a recurring hamstring injury in the preseason and Schaub's fourth-quarter acumen still isn't great. Further, the depth at WR is poor and TE Owen Daniels is a huge question mark from a health standpoint.
Of course, none of this matters if Manning isn't Manning. And while no one (except Peyton) really knows if he will be ready in a little less than two weeks, I can think of 208 reasons (227 counting the postseason) to believe.