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Old 08-20-2004   #1
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Default's AFC South Preview

By Don Seeholzer
Special to

(With the NFL regular season set to kick off on Thursday, Sept. 9, has put together an eight-part series previewing each team division by division. Here is the AFC South.)

For the first two years of its existence, the class differences between the haves and have-nots in the AFC South were nearly as obvious as the ones on The Simple Life 2.

While alternating as division champions the past two seasons, the Titans and Colts went a combined 15-1 against the bottom-feeding Jaguars and Texans, who often seemed as overmatched as Paris and Nicole in the sausage factory.

But the gap could be narrowing.

Jacksonville went 3-2 down the stretch in its first season under Jack Del Rio, including a 28-23 Week 10 victory against division-winning Indianapolis.

Houston played the Big Two down to the wire in its final two games before dropping a pair of three-point decisions and enters Year 3 in franchise history looking to make the jump from competitive to contender.

However the 2004 division race plays out, this much is clear: The Colts and Titans might still be the teams to beat, but the days of the two-team races could be nearing an end.

As Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher predicted a couple of months ago: "This division is going to be a good fight, and it won’t just be two people involved in the end like it's been with the Colts and Titans. It's going to be three or maybe four teams."

If the Jaguars and Texans are going to make that jump this season, a couple of young quarterbacks are going to have to step up.

Jacksonville has been touted as a team to watch and even a dark horse Super Bowl pick largely because of Byron Leftwich, who went 5-8 during his rookie season after the team got off to an 0-3 start under veteran Mark Brunell.

Houston is counting on continued improvement from David Carr, who enters his third season as part of a terrific trio that includes second-year running back Domanick Davis and wide receiver Andre Johnson.

With improved supporting casts surrounding talented young passers, the Jaguars and Texans have high hopes for this season, but the Colts and Titans are two of the NFL's heavyweights, led by the league's co-MVPs in Peyton Manning and Steve McNair.

Moving up in this division is possible, but it won't be easy.

Movers and shakers
No roster underwent more change than that of the Titans, who have a new No. 1 running back (Chris Brown, replacing the released Eddie George), No. 1 tight end ( Erron Kinney for the retired Frank Wycheck) and No. 3 wide receiver ( Tyrone Calico for the traded Justin McCareins). And that doesn't include Carlos Hall, who will replace Jevon Kearse at defensive end, or Kevin Carter, who will move inside to Robaire Smith's former defensive tackle spot.

The Texans are counting on first-round picks Dunta Robinson and Jason Babin to step right into the starting lineup at cornerback and outside linebacker, respectively, while the Jaguars need rookie receiver Reggie Williams to help offset the free-agent loss of Kevin Johnson.

The Colts' hopes for defensive improvement will rest mainly on some young veterans, but their top two draft choices -- Bob Sanders and Gilbert Gardner -- are possible starters at free safety and linebacker.

Indianapolis and Tennessee have been the dominant teams in the AFC South and still look to be the class of the division, but the balance of power could shift, depending on the answers to some critical questions.

Can the Colts, with so much cap money tied up in Peyton Manning, get enough improvement from the rest of their roster -- particularly on defense -- to take the final step to the Super Bowl?

Can the Titans survive the departures of George, Kearse, McCareins and Smith to make the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons, or are time and free-agent losses about to catch up with one of the NFL's most consistent winners?

Will Leftwich and the Jaguars, in their second season under Del Rio, be able to build on the momentum of last year’s strong finish?

Finally, can Carr -- in his third season as an NFL starter -- make the transition from promising young quarterback to winning quarterback and turn some of those close Texans losses into victories?

Tony Dungy, on the Colts' need for some former backups to step up this season: "For the most part, guys usually play well when they get the chance. If you're drafting well, the guys do come through."

Jeff Fisher, on the competitive balance in the AFC South: "You look at the division overall and we needed a two-minute drive to beat the Texans last season and (the Colts) needed a two-minute drive to beat them. And that was in back-to-back weeks. And Jacksonville? They might be the most improved team in the division."

Jack Del Rio, on his first season with the Jaguars: "I think the one thing that we were able to accomplish this year was to establish our mindset. I think the players, coaches, all of us understand now what the Jaguars are going to be known for. We’re going to bring it on Sundays and be physical and tough, and look forward to competing against everyone."

Dom Capers, on the Texans' challenge for this season: "We went from 4-12 to 5-11 and proved we can compete with some of the top teams, but we still haven’t proved we can go out and compete and win against those teams."
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