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The South has risen (cont.)

Posted: Friday September 28, 2007 11:02AM; Updated: Friday September 28, 2007 12:29PM
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The Texans being winners ranks as one of the early-season surprises in the NFL, and the Titans' start merely continues a turnaround in Nashville that began in last year's second half, when Tennessee ran off six consecutive wins after a 2-7 start. As for Jacksonville, the Jaguars are also 2-1 and coming off an impressive upset at Denver in Week 3.

"I think people around the league realize you've got four good teams in this division,'' Texans general manager Rick Smith said Wednesday. "We're early in the season. It's heading into Week 4. But I certainly believe we're going to have a tough division to compete in, from top to bottom.''

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The Colts' division dominance is difficult to understate. In the 88 weeks that the AFC South has existed (17 per regular season), Indy has led or shared for the division lead in 81 of them, including the last 46 consecutively. That's an astounding record of success, but the Colts owning first place isn't the given that it once was.

Indy is 25-7 against its three division opponents since realignment begat the AFC South, but the tide really began changing last December, when it lost at Tennessee (20-17), at Jacksonville (44-17) and at Houston (27-24) in the span of four games. At 12-4 in the regular season, the Colts had enough of a lead to survive their 3-3 division mark last year, but a new, more competitive era was launched in the AFC South.

"In the case of our football team, winning that game last year, and the way we ended the season with a two-game winning streak, really carried us into this season,'' said Smith, whose Texans lost 30-24 at home to the Colts last Sunday, ending their four-game, two-season winning streak.

No team in the NFL knows the strength of this year's AFC South better than New Orleans, which lost at Indy 41-10 in the season-opener, and had its home-opener spoiled 31-14 by Tennessee on Monday night. I asked a veteran Saints source to evaluate the AFC South's strength, and the areas he pinpointed were the quality of the division's quarterbacks, as well as its young and aggressive defensive lines.

"It starts with the quarterbacks, because everybody in that division has a good one,'' the Saints source said. "Manning is Manning, but Vince Young played at a Pro Bowl level the other night (against the Saints). And I really like [Matt] Schaub and what he has done in Houston so far. By the end of the season I think he could be a real difference maker. The Jaguars have David Garrard, and he's an upgrade over [Byron] Leftwich for them because he can do more things for you.

"On defense, all four teams have active, young-legged lines that will really hit you, and they all can manufacture hits on the quarterback while rushing just four guys. There aren't many teams that can do that. It's a hard thing to do in this league, but when you can rush four and play coverage, it makes it difficult to play those teams. You don't see a lot of big plays getting made against those defenses.''

Lessons learned in the course of facing Manning twice a year have sunk in deeply, Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. You don't try to beat him by blitzing him, because he'll burn you with his quick release. Keep the Colts in front of you and you have a chance.

"We're all pretty familiar by now with what Indy does,'' said Schwartz, whose Titans lost to the Colts 22-20 at home in Week 2, but split last season's series 1-1. "All of us play the same way against the Colts. We play a lot of Cover Two and try to manage the game. And the reason is because we've had our butts kicked so many times. There's no secret formula. Guys in this division just know what doesn't work against them. Nobody has anything to shut down the Colts. I don't think you can even do that. But we've figured out what doesn't work, and we stay away from that stuff.''

Building a defense that can challenge the Colts' high-octane offense has been Job One in Houston. That's why the Texans, as they explained at the time, made the controversial No. 1 pick of defensive end Mario Williams over running back Reggie Bush in the 2006 draft. The Texans in their past four drafts have selected five defenders in the first round: defensive tackle Amobi Okoye this year, Williams, defensive tackle Travis Johnson in 2005, cornerback Dunta Robinson and linebacker Jason Babin in 2004.

"I was asked by some reporters during training camp who the most improved team was going to be, and I said 'the Houston Texans, without question will be the most improved team in the league,'" Colts president Bill Polian said Thursday. "They've had lots of high draft choices, and [Texans second-year head coach] Gary Kubiak has had time to get his system in place.

"They've got a great coaching staff, and (offensive coordinator) Mike Sherman has done a great job with that offensive line. He's getting results using the same players, but with a different approach. And Schaub just fits much better than the other quarterback (ex-Texan David Carr), because he's very used to playing that offense, having been in it his entire football career. On defense, you've got to rush the passer in this division, and I think people obviously are finding out why they took Mario Williams first overall.''

The gap between Indianapolis and the rest of the division has narrowed, and it could stay that way for a while, because in something of an aberration for the NFL, the AFC South doesn't seem to feature a team or teams on the obvious descent while others are on the rise.

The Colts' Super Bowl window may not stay open indefinitely, but Indy has done a superb job of stock-piling depth for the eventual replacement of starters lost to free agency (Joseph Addai for Edgerrin James for instance) and it's not headed for a stint in salary cap jail. The Texans and Titans are clearly on their way up, and Jacksonville has been a solid .500 or better club since coach Jack Del Rio's second season in 2004. Built around their strong defense and running game, the Jaguars are trying to take the next step offensively with the switch to Garrard.

"The first thing you've got to think about with the AFC South is that the world champions are in our division,'' Smith said. "So if you're going to compete in your division, you've got to step up and compete with them. The Colts set the bar, and everybody's chasing them, not only in our division but throughout the whole league. But everybody's improved. There are four tough teams to contend with in this division.''

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