It’s the third year since Peyton Manning left the AFC South that he dominated for more than a decade, and once again the Houston Texans are poised to reign. The last two years the Texans have gotten off to a strong start, hit their stride in the November, only to collapse, and face a wild-card opponent, then travel in the next round and lose. Home-field advantage and finishing the final month of the season have to be goals for head coach Gary Kubiak, whose job might be in jeopardy if the Texans under-achieve.
Within the division, the Texans have to really only worry about the Indianapolis Colts, who made huge improvements on their offensive line that could only help Andrew Luck and his fourth-quarter magic.
The Jacksonville Jaguars will have a very tough road, with their opponents boasting a .503 winning percentage last year. While the Tennessee Titans look for a big year from their young defensive line.
Houston Texans (2012 Record: 12-4)
Key Games: At Baltimore 9/22; Seattle 9/29; At San Francisco 10/6; Indianapolis 11/3; 12/1 New England; Denver 12/22
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Two straight playoff appearances and two straight ousters in the divisional weekend. It’s difficult not to pick the talented Texans to at least win this division again, but they will be tested early with three huge games in a row at Baltimore, Seattle at home, and at San Francisco that will be an excellent test for this team.
Arian Foster’s health is always a concern, and Andre Johnson is a year older. J.J. Watt will once again anchor the defense, but come playoff time its hard to say if Houston can make any noise.
Prediction: 11-5, division winner
Super Bowl Odds: 12-to-1
Indianapolis Colts (2012 Record: 11-5)
Key Games: At San Francisco 9/22; Seattle 10/6; Denver 10/20; At Houston 11/3; At Cincinnati 12/8
How long can Reggie Wayne remain dominant? Will the new offensive line keep Andrew Luck upright and healthy? Can they win without the motivation provided by Chuck Pagano's battle with cancer? Will they miss Bruce Arians? Does losing Dwight Freeney hurt or help the defensive line?
Lots of questions for the Colts, despite a remarkable rookie year for Luck. The defense can only go up after ranking 21st against the pass and 29th against the rush, with another year together for Jerrell Freeman, Pat Angerer, and Cory Redding. The key will be running back Vick Ballard, and if he can become a consistent rusher behind the new line.
Super Bowl Odds: 30-to-1
Tennessee Titans (2012 Record: 6-10)
Key Games: At Houston 9/15; At Seattle 10/13; San Francisco 10/20; At Indianapolis 12/1; At Denver 12/8; Houston 12/29
Like the Colts, the Titans' offensive line got a huge boost with the addition of center Andy Levitre and rookie guard Chance Warmack. That could help running back Chris Johnson bust out of his two-year funk. Receiver Kenny Britt also has to have a big year if he hopes to get a new contract.
Tennessee’s defense gave up a whopping 29.4 points per game last year, a league worst. Much of that could be contributed to the Titans front seven averaging four years of experience in the league, with eight-year veteran defensive end Kamerion Wimbley certainly eschewing the average.
We already touched on how linebacker Akeem Ayers is poised for a breakout year. How he and the rest of the Titans respond to two straight road games at Pittsburgh and at Houston to start the year could decide their fate very early. They’ll improve, but the playoffs are unlikely.
Super Bowl Odds: 100-to-1
Jacksonville Jaguars (2012 Record: 2-14)
Key Games: At Oakland 9/15; At Seattle 9/22; At Denver 10/13; San Francisco 10/27
Seven games against playoff teams, including four of the first six games of the season on the road, means the Jaguars are likely bound for another top-five pick next spring.
It’s a shame, as receivers Cecil Shorts and Justin Blackmon are a very talented duo, and running back Maurice Jones-Drew has been one of the top 10 backs overall in the last five years. First-round pick Luke Joeckel should help Jones-Drew and maybe give third-year passer Blaine Gabbert some extra time in the pocket.
After Joeckel, the Jaguars spent five of their next seven picks to improve the secondary, including Johnathan Cyprien and Dwayne Gratz. But overall, Jacksonville has another two years before they are competitive again.
Super Bowl Odds: 300-to-1