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Answering hard questions (cont.)

Posted: Friday September 1, 2006 1:31PM; Updated: Saturday September 2, 2006 12:24AM
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AFC South

Peyton Manning still has to prove he can win the big game.
Peyton Manning still has to prove he can win the big game.

Key question: Will Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy finally get the last laugh?

Answer: Yes, they will. As I wrote during the spring, Manning and Dungy will use the disappointment of their abruptly ended 2005 playoff run to attain the goal they've both been chasing their entire careers: a Super Bowl championship. Indianapolis has had the talent for a while now. Last year should provide whatever was missing in terms of determination.

1. Indianapolis (11-5): The Colts in 2005 learned it's not about how you start (13 wins in a row), it's how you finish. Indy will finally figure out how to play its best ball when it matters most.

2. Jacksonville (8-8): Sorry, but Jacksonville's 12 wins last season did have something to do with its softer-than-usual schedule. The Jags' defense is legit, but the offense still must prove it can take a step up in weight class.

3. Tennessee (5-11): The Titans made a move to acquire a starting quarterback two weeks before their regular-season opener. That tells you the state of disarray that prevails in Nashville.

4. Houston (5-11): If you thought Bush vs. Gore was a big deal, try living in Houston, where the debate over Bush vs. Williams is going to last a whole lot longer than 37 days.

AFC West

Key question: Which AFC West playoff team will have a midseason quarterback change?

Answer: Like it or not, Jake Plummer, we're going with the Denver Broncos, who haven't seen anything not to like about rookie Jay Cutler this preseason. At some point this year, Plummer is going to struggle and start turning the ball over like he did in last January's AFC title game. And when he does, the Broncos are going to have Cutler, the 11th overall pick in this year's draft, ready to go.

1. Denver (11-5): The AFC West has had a different champion each of the past four years, but the Broncos will end that streak by repeating. Denver's acquisition of receiver Javon Walker is laden with impact potential.

2. San Diego (9-7): We're not saying Philip Rivers is going to make everyone in San Diego forget Drew Brees this year. But the feeling here is that Rivers isn't going to represent a huge drop-off at the position.

3. Kansas City (8-8): Larry Johnson may be a fantasy football player's delight, but that doesn't mean he can make the Chiefs' Super Bowl dreams come true all by himself. Stop us if you've heard this one before, but K.C.'s defensive improvement will again be key.

4. Oakland (5-11): The Raiders are counting on Aaron Brooks to get rid of his inconsistent streak and showcase his obvious talents as a mobile, playmaking quarterback. But that's a lot to expect at this stage of his career.


NFC division winners: Dallas, Chicago, Carolina, Seattle

NFC wild cards: Minnesota, Washington

NFC champion: Carolina

AFC division winners: New England, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Denver

AFC wild cards: Miami, Cincinnati

AFC champion: Indianapolis

Super Bowl champion: Indianapolis