A look at the AFC South

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The Colts' loss to the Chargers and the expected retirement of coach Tony Dungy give cause to examine the future of the AFC South Division and the power struggle that's going to play out next season. I'll begin with these two questions:

  1. Will the Colts maintain their hold on the division or are they ripe to be overtaken?
  1. Which of the remaining three division teams are capable of making a run for the division's top spot?

The answers, in my opinion, are: Yes, the Colts are ripe for a fall, and all three of the remaining teams will be capable of overtaking the Colts, but only if they fix glaring needs in the offseason.

Let's start with the Colts. They were fantastic again in the 2007 regular season. They ran away with the division title for the fifth consecutive year, losing two games in the middle of the season by a combined six points and tanking one in the season finale. In the Colts' opinion, they should've been the team playing for perfection in this postseason.

The real problem is that for the second time in three years the Colts lost at home in their first postseason game. At crunch time, Peyton Manning came up small in a big way, completing just one of his final eight passes for two yards. Disappointing? No, make that depressing.

Marvin Harrison finished the season where he spent most of it, on the bench, and a defense that carried the Colts through the 2006 postseason disintegrated against the Chargers.

The Colts are staring down the barrel of some major questions. Can they replace Dungy and maintain continuity? Will Dwight Freeney make a full recovery from his foot injury? Will the salary cap begin taking its toll on the Colts in 2008? Will Lucas Oil Stadium be as much a homefield advantage as the RCA Dome was?

Don't get the idea the Colts are the only team in the division that has questions to answer. After a regular season that saw all four of its teams finish .500 or above, causing AFC South fans to thump their chest with pride, the division posted a not-so-proud 1-3 postseason record.

What does it mean? It means the AFC South is like every other division in football, which is to say full of teams whose fortunes can shift quickly and dramatically.

Let's take a look at the Houston Texans, who achieved the first non-losing season in their six-year history. The Texans clearly made gains. They have a cast of centerpiece players around whom coach Gary Kubiak can build his defense. They have arguably the most talented receiver in the game in Andre Johnson, and they would appear to now have a quarterback, Matt Schaub, capable of getting Johnson the ball.

What don't the Texans have? That's easy: a blue-chip running back.

That's priority number one for the Texans in the offseason. If they can find a running back capable of balancing their offense, and if they can add more contributing pieces to their overall cast, the Texans could be a division title contender in 2008.

Tennessee is an interesting study. Coach Jeff Fisher is still capable of doing more with less, which is what he did this past season for the second year in a row. Fisher guided the Titans into the playoffs on the strength of a number five defense and a number five running game.

What, however, are the Titans going to do about their situation at quarterback? Despite all of Vince Young's heroics from his rookie season in '06, the fact remains that he can't make all the throws and the Titans' passing game was an anchor-dragging 27th in the league.

Can the Titans contend for the division title with Young at quarterback? When you consider that Young threw only nine touchdown passes and a whopping 17 interceptions in 2007, it's a legitimate question.

Depending on developments in Indianapolis over the offseason, Jacksonville could become next summer's preseason favorite to win the division. The Jaguars are coming off a solid season that saw them win their first postseason game in eight years and develop an offense that stood toe to toe with Tom Brady and the Patriots through three quarters of last Saturday's divisional-round playoff loss.

The Jaguars found their quarterback of the future in '07 and the team is loaded with salary cap room and a full complement of draft picks as it heads into the offseason. Coach Jack Del Rio won't be re-structuring his coaching staff this winter and that means the Jaguars already have a head start on next season. The situation looks good in Jacksonville.

Don't think, however, that the Jaguars are without issues, too. Their defense slipped to number 12 in the league and it struggled mightily in pass-defense against Pittsburgh and New England in the postseason.

The combination of age and injuries on defense are going to force Del Rio and company to focus sharply on a mini-reconstruction job. Therein lies the Jaguars' hope of wresting control of the division from the Colts.

Count the Colts out? No way. That's a proud team that knows what to do and how to do it, but age, change and drafting near the bottom for a long time may all conspire to bring the Colts back to the pack in 2008. From where I sit a mere three days after the AFC South's season ended in Indianapolis on Sunday, and eight months before another season begins, the AFC South looks like it might be a four-team race.

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