AFC South preview

Colts' QB Peyton Manning. (Getty Images)
The Texans' Andre Johnson, right, led the NFL in receiving yards with 1,569 in 2009. (Harry How/Getty Images)
Jaguars' QB David Garrard. (Getty Images)

1. Indianapolis

After falling to the Saints last season in the Super Bowl, the Colts come back in 2010 as the favorite in the AFC, if only because of the man at the helm: quarterback Peyton Manning.

With one of the game’s greatest passers leading the way, the Colts offense will remain explosive. Manning will spread the ball among a number of capable receivers in Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, Anthony Gonzalez and Austin Collie, as well as reliable tight end Dallas Clark. Running backs Donald Brown and Joseph Addai form an effective duo in the backfield.

Defensively, the Colts are most effective rushing the passer behind defensive ends Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney. Though they have struggled against the run in recent years (they ranked 24th in the league last season), the Colts have a strong core up the middle, led by linebacker Gary Brackett and safeties Antoine Bethea (Howard) and Bob Sanders.

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2. Houston

With perhaps one of the top offenses in the league last season, the Texans must overcome the loss of coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who joined his father, Mike, in Washington, if they want to contend in one of the league’s most competitive divisions. Still, this could finally be Houston’s year to break through.

Quarterback Matt Schaub proved last year he is one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks and he is blessed with perhaps the game’s top receiver, Andre Johnson. Along with tight end Owen Daniels and WR Kevin Walter, they form the league’s strongest passing offense.

Defensively, Brian Cushing’s four-game suspension could hurt the Texans early; the tackling machine won’t be easily replaced. However, DeMeco Ryans is another of the top young linebackers in the league, and defensive end Mario Williams has 35 sacks in the past three seasons.

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3. Tennessee

The Titans are another team that could go either way in 2010, though it would be difficult to replicate the Jekyll and Hyde nature of last season. After appearing to be one of the league’s worst teams through the first six games last year, the Titans rebounded with an 8-2 finish behind the improved play of quarterback Vince Young and the outstanding running of Chris Johnson.

One of the league’s most elusive backs, Johnson rushed for more than 2,000 yards last season and demands extra attention from opposing defenses. His success should continue, and the question is whether Young can manage games and play smart under center.

The Titans struggled defensively last season, ranking 28th the league. They must improve, especially against the pass (31st in NFL in ’09). The rush up front will be aided by the introduction of rookie defensive end Derrick Morgan.

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4. Jacksonville

The Jaguars could be a sleeper pick in 2010 behind quarterback David Garrard, who has flashed game-changing potential but has yet to prove he is a consistent top-tier passer. Maurice Jones-Drew is one of the league’s top rushers. There are few other threats on the offensive side of the ball, and Garrard will need unproven receivers such as Mike Sims-Walker to produce.

Jacksonville has spent much of its resources over the past few seasons improving its defense, but has yet to see major dividends from the investment. The addition of defensive end Aaron Kampman up front could help, and first-round pick Tyson Alualu is expected to provide a push in the middle of the line.

The Jaguars appear to have plenty of potential, as they have in the past, but it is questionable whether that will translate into more wins this season.

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