Nothing has changed in the AFC South, where the Texans, Jaguars and Titans all are chasing Indianapolis, and the Colts have their sights set so much higher than the division they dominate.
Yes, the Colts once again are thinking Super Bowl. With Andrew Luck taking the Colts one step further in each of his first three seasons and now having some more help, Indianapolis is looking for its third Super Bowl trip in a decade.
“They can place as many expectations as they want,” Colts tight end Coby Fleener said. “Our expectation from Day 1 has always been to try and bring a Super Bowl back to Indianapolis, and so that’s still it.”
The Colts reached the AFC championship last season after winning their second straight division title; they were thumped 45-7 by the Patriots. So Indy brought in wide receiver Andre Johnson and running back Frank Gore to ease the pressure on Luck.
Indianapolis is leaving some work for after this season. Coach Chuck Pagano is only under contract for 2015, while the Colts have only picked up Luck’s option, keeping the quarterback under his rookie contract through 2016. Colts owner Jim Irsay sounds like he wants to keep both his coach and pay Luck lots of money — once they handle business on the field.
None of the other three teams appears to have the talent to stop the Colts. Houston keeps banking on J.J. Watt and that dominant defense, while the Titans and Jaguars hope they finally have franchise quarterbacks with rookie Marcus Mariota in Tennessee and Blake Bortles in Jacksonville.
Here are some things to know about the AFC South:
COLTS’ SOUTH: Indianapolis simply has dominated this division since the NFL restructured in 2002. With the Colts going 13-6 last season, they won the AFC South for the ninth time in the last 12 seasons. Tennessee (2002 and 2008) and Houston (2011 and 2012) are the only other winners. Luck also is 16-2 all-time in the AFC South, with those losses coming in his rookie season.
PROTECTING LUCK: Johnson looks invigorated finally playing with an elite quarterback as he replaces Reggie Wayne after 12 seasons in Houston. Irsay gave Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton a five-year extension worth $65 million, and the Colts drafted Phillip Dorsett as well. Gore ran for 1,106 yards last season in San Francisco, but the 32-year-old running back going into his 11th season has to prove he still has the legs to give Luck the running game he’s lacked.
The key once again could be the revamped offensive line. The Colts brought in 32-year-old Todd Herremans to play right guard, and Pagano finally picked Khaled Holmes as his starting center. Jack Mewhort has been moved from left guard to right tackle while Hugh Thornton is out indefinitely with a knee injury.
HOUSTON’S WATTAGE: Watt, the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, has veteran Vince Wilfork nearby to help the Texans’ stingy defense. Jadeveon Clowney, last year’s top draft pick and limited to four games as a rookie, finally started practicing Aug. 17 as he works his way back from microfracture surgery. Coach Bill O’Brien squeezed out a 9-7 record in his debut season despite starting three quarterbacks and playing four. Now O’Brien is on his fifth different quarterback with Brian Hoyer tabbed to start after being benched by Cleveland last season. Hoyer’s biggest help will be Arian Foster, second in NFL rushing with 95.8 yards per game last season — when the running back returns from an injured groin.
RENOVATED JAGUARS: After three years, going 7-25 the past two seasons and committing $180 million in contracts this offseason, the Jaguars believe it’s time to see results for all their hard work. Yes, they lost the No. 3 pick overall in rookie minicamp when defensive end Dante Fowler hurt his knee. They likely open the season without defensive linemen Sen’Derrick Marks and Andre Branch. But they invested heavily in an offensive line after giving up an NFL-high 71 sacks last season, and Bortles, the No. 3 pick a year ago, has been much more efficient this preseason after tweaking his mechanics and footwork.
MARIOTA TIME: Ken Whisenhunt started three quarterbacks himself his first year in Tennessee, which resulted in the franchise’s worst season since 1994 at 2-14. The Titans used the No. 2 pick overall on Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, and Whisenhunt wasted no time choosing Mariota as the starter to lead a rebuilding project. The Titans brought in defensive whiz Dick LeBeau and a handful of veteran free agents such as linebacker Brian Orakpo, wide receivers Hakeem Nicks and Harry Douglas, and tight end Anthony Fasano to help.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: Colts, Texans, Jaguars, Titans.
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