1. Indianapolis Colts
As it has for so many years, the Colts' success this season rests on Peyton Manning's shoulders — or in this case, neck. But with the date of Manning's return from surgery in doubt, the team recently lured Kerry Collins out of retirement to run the team until Manning returns.
Tied for the third toughest schedule in the NFL, the Colts will need Manning to return sooner rather than later. The Colts host Pittsburgh in Week 3 before visting New Orleans in Week 7 and Baltimore in Week 14. The Colts had the NFL's best air attack last season with Manning at quarterback, averaging 288 passing yards per game last season.
Running backs Joseph Addai and Donald Brown will need to carry the load early in the season. On defense, Indy released both Bob Sanders and Kelvin Hayden and is looking for Jerraud Powers and Melvin Bulitt to emerge in in the secondary.
In the end, the Colts should make the playoffs if Manning returns soon.
2. Houston Texans
The Texans enter the season still searching for their first playoff appearance since they joined the NFL as an expansion team in 2002. The Texans return the NFL's leading rusher from last season in Arian Foster (1,616 yards) to match one of the league's top air attacks, led by quarterback Matt Schaub and wide receiver Andre Johnson. Schaub passed for 4,370 yards, the fourth-best passing total in the league last season, and 24 touchdowns.
The questions for Houston this season come on the defensive side of the ball, where Wade Phillips, former head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, enters his first season as the Texans' defensive coordinator. Phillips is looking to install a 3-4 defense and may move former No. 1 overall pick Mario Williams to outside linebacker. If Houston can survive through Week 6 and show some consistency on defense, it could have a shot at a wild-card slot.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars haven't advanced to the playoffs in four years and it doesn't look like that streak will end this season, despite improvements through free agency. The Jaguars upgraded their defense by signing former Buffalo Bills middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, who had 140 tackles last year.
Running back Maurice Jones-Drew rushed for 1,324 yards last season and had 317 receiving yards. Hampered by a knee injury last season, Jones-Drew should return healthy to help improve the third-strongest rushing attack in the league last season.
As he enters his 10th season, David Garrard is the established starting quarterback. He missed a week of training camp and the preseason opener with a back injury, but is expected to start Week 1 when the Jaguars host Tennessee. The Jaguars face a tough road schedule, traveling to play the New York Jets and the Pittsburgh Steelers in addition to their divisional games.
4. Tennessee Titans
The Titans face a season of uncertainty with one of the league's top offensive weapons, running back Chris Johnson, holding out for a better contract and their best wide receiver, Kenny Britt, recently learning he will not be punished for two arrests during the offseason.
The Titans want to continue negations when Johnson reports to practice and say they are willing to make him the highest-paid running back in NFL history. Johnson reportedly wants $13 million a year, with $35 million guaranteed.
If the two sides can't reach an agreement, the Titans would be without a player who produced 1,364 rushing yards, 245 receiving yards and 12 combined touchdowns last season.
Also, the addition of quarterback Matt Hasselbeck instantly upgrades the offense.
By Shemar Woods - The Washington Post. Published Aug. 30, 2011.