1. Indianapolis Colts (12-4)
Ever since the Indianapolis Colts drafted quarterback Peyton Manning in 1998, fans in Indianapolis have been blessed with one of the most paramount quarterbacks of our time. Manning has dazzled fans with his staggering presence in the pocket and his exceptionally strong arm, which has helped formulate the Colts into one of the most preeminent offenses in the NFL. It’s impossible to disregard the Indianapolis Colts offensive numbers over the past six or seven seasons.
Despite all of the success and exhilaration the Indianapolis Colts have produced this century, they have annually thwarted their fans with post-season collapses. The Colts have made the NFL playoffs each season since 2002, but have yet to appear in a single Super Bowl. Even after their 14-2 season last year, the Colts fell prey to the Wild Card Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC divisional playoff game.
In 2006, the Colts will begin their post-Edgerrin James era, as the Pro Bowl running back will turn over a new leaf with the Arizona Cardinals. Dominic Rhodes will supersede James in the Colts backfield. Rhodes has proven to be an effective back-up, but he will have some big shoes to fill.
If Rhodes can give the Colts, ¾ the production that James gave them, the Colts running game should be sufficient enough.
Manning will have his familiar targets Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, and Brandon Stokley to throw to, and the Colts offensive line remains intact for the most part.
On the defensive side, the Colts have never been considered dominant, but they will be solid. Once again, defensive end Dwight Freeney will lead the Colts defense, and linebacker Gary Brackett will continue stalk opposing offenses.
Though the Jacksonville Jaguars continue to improve each year, the Colts are expected to recommence their ascendancy in the AFC South.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6)
In 2005, the Jacksonville Jaguars enjoyed their best season since the Tom Coughlin days. Despite recording a 12-4 season, the Jaguars were often overlooked by NFL analysts. However, the Jaguars have now set the bar rather high for themselves.
Matching their 12 win season will be a daunting task for the Jaguars. Quarterback Byron Leftwich displayed flashes of potential, but he was sidelined due to an injury midway through the season. David Garrard emerged as a proficient back-up. In fact, a case could be made for Garrard challenging to become the starting quarterback.
Running back Fred Taylor, when healthy, has the potential to carry his team. But if the 30-year old veteran becomes susceptible to an injury, the Jaguars running game will be vulnerable.
Another question mark for the Jaguars is the very young receiving core. No longer do they have Jimmy Smith to fall back on.
Defensively speaking, the Jaguars are stout, especially on the defensive line. Their linebackers and defensive backfield is respectable.
3. Tennessee Titans (6-10)
The Tennessee Titans off-season was marred due to the acrid feud with former MVP quarterback Steve McNair. McNair was banned from the Titans workout facility, raising many questions about his future as a Titan. Eventually, the decade long relationship between McNair and the Titans franchise came to a bitter end.
The Titans will bank their future on their third overall draft pick Vince Young. Young will spend his rookie season backing up Billy Volek. Young’s size and athleticism gives him potential to be deadly in and out of the pocket.
The Titans acquisition of former New England Patriots wide receiver David Givens is potentially the most crucial. Givens automatically upgrades the passing attack.
Chris Brown is still number one on the Titans running back depth chart, and his backfield counterpart Travis Henry underachieved in 2005. The duo of half backs must improve upon their lackluster stats if the Titans expect to have an effective running game.
The Titans defensive isn’t expected to turn any heads.
4. Houston Texans
When the Houston Texans passed up on an opportunity to draft running back phenomenon Reggie Bush, many skeptics scoffed. Instead of drafting a potentially franchise player with extraordinary intangibles, the Texans opted to bolster their defense by drafting defensive end Mario Williams.
By drafting Williams over Bush, the Texans demonstrated that they are committed to fabricating a solid defense. Even though drafting Bush would have been the trendy decision, the Texans refused to be swayed.
David Carr will return as the Texans quarterback. Carr has yet to have that breakout season that so many fans expected. And the substandard offensive line could be the reason behind Carr’s inability to rise to the occasion.
Carr will have a new favorable target in three-time Pro Bowler Eric Moulds.
The Texans running game will not improve unless the offensive line improves. Domanick Davis is expected to get the majority of the carries for the Texans.