NFL 2009 - AFC South preview
Twelve years after his first appearance Kerry Collins was able to post Pro-Bowl numbers and lead his Tennessee Titans to a first AFC South title since 2002 - beating off MVP Peyton Manning's heavily fancied Indianapolis Colts on the way.
Few gave the Titans any chance in what looked a simple canter for the Colts, but Tennessee were in no mood to listen to the doubters, as they blew everyone away with a magnificent 10-0 start to their season.
Houston and Jacksonville were left in the wake of the powerful duo and were forced to make up the numbers in what proved to be a stronger and more competitive South division than first anticipated.
Houston Texans - 23/10
An 8-8 record was far from telling the whole story of the Texans topsy-turvy season in 2008 as a poor start meant they had little to play for after just four games. A 0-4 start was disastrous but once Matt Schaub got fit and repeatedly found Andre Johnson then life became interesting and hinted at potential for 2009.
The trio of Schaub, Johnson and Steve Slaton will be the key offensive figures this year and all three will need to step up and make even more big plays then they did last year. The aerial threat is apparent and will open up holes for Slaton but fewer turnovers and a higher red zone conversion rate is an absolute necessity. The offensive line should be better than last year as well with former first round draft pick Duane Brown, in particular, looked poised for a great season.
Defensive co-ordinator Frank Bush really needs to earn his keep this year and he seems to have the pieces needed to achieve just that. DE Antonio Smith and DT Shaun Cody are great pick-ups and should fit in snugly by the side of Mario Williams while the tandem linebacker threat of Brian Cushing and DeMeco Ryan could be exceptional.
Prediction: 2nd and a first winning season should be on the way
Indianapolis Colts - 6/4
Tony Dungy's last season in the NFL didn't quite have the happy ending many people wished for but it was typically solid nevertheless. A poor start to the year never deterred the Super Bowl XLI champions and although Peyton Manning took his time to get going after missing out on a preseason, he once again proved to be the elite quarterback of this generation.
It's unfair to suggest the Colts' offence is completely dependent on Manning but he does provide great play calling, leadership and talent to a solid but unspectacular unit. Joseph Addai needs to stay healthy in order to set-up an effective rush and Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark need to be every bit as good as they were in 08. Manning will find his men but, to have any chance of going deep into the play-offs, his team will need to help him.
The preseason programme hasn't exactly gone to plan for Jim Caldwell and he'll start getting nervous if Larry Coyer's defence doesn't start improving. Bob Sanders is one of the best safeties around but had too many injury worries last season to suggest he'll manage all 16 (or 19) games this time. Dwight Feeney and Robert Mathis will be solid and Fili Moala was a nice draft choice, it just doesn't have the look of a really serious Championship contender.
Prediction: 1st still the class of the AFC South
Jacksonville Jaguars - 5/1
A terrible year in Jacksonville has led to wholesale changes both on the offensive and defensive side of things this preseason and they should see vast improvements from last year's 5-11 season - even if nobody in Florida bothers turning up to watch.
The biggest move was bringing in star receiver Torry Holt, ending his successful ten year stint in St Louis. David Garrard will be happier than anyone with the acquisition of Holt after posting the worst interception to touchdown ratio since joining the Jags. Fred Taylor was under-rated and will be missed but that's not taking anything away from Maurice Jones-Drew who is a high quality HB threat.
The defence unit is certainly worth watching now the veteran presence of Mike Peterson has moved on as well as big DT Tony McDaniel. With no instant fixes, the Jaguars will have to rely on last year's line stepping up and making things happen, and it is possible with the likes of John Henderson and Reggie Hayward about. Whether it materialises though is the big question.
Prediction: 4th - little progress but a step in the right direction
Tennessee Titans - 11/4
The Titans found their rhythm faster than anybody else in 08 as they flew into the playoffs, receiving a first round bye in the process. They were decent offensively but beasts on the defence with the mighty, but now departed, Albert Haynesworth creating havoc every week.
Kerry Collins got the nod over Vince Young last year and will do again this year after signing a contract extension. He's got enough ability to make things happen with short to mid range passes but the real strength will come from the formidable rush threat of LenDale White and Chris Johnson. The Titans may not be free scoring but they will ensure every single team comes away knowing they've been in a tough match.
My big problem with Tennessee though is the impact Albert Haynesworth's departure will have. It seemed every single big play last season was a result of Haynesworth and, while Jevon Kearse, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Cortland Finnegan and Tony Brown all had stellar years, can they be just as good without big Albert? I think it seems highly unlikely.
Prediction: 3rd a massive fall from grace is on the way