NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Chasing the Indianapolis Colts never has been easy in the AFC South.
First, the Titans, Jaguars and Texans all tried, and failed, to slow down Peyton Manning. Now, Andrew Luck has taken his turn atop the division.
“You know when you have a great player like Andrew at quarterback that everyone’s going to set the bar high for achievement,” Colts owner Jim Irsay said.
“So we won the division, we won a playoff game, and now it’s just a question of trying to get deeper. But the first goal, of course, is to try to win the division and that’s going to be tough. It’s a tough division, all three teams have improved. But I really think the mindset and the atmosphere and the desire to win a championship is there.”
The Colts have won eight of the last 11 division titles. The Titans feel they are oh so close after losing twice to Indianapolis last season by a combined 10 points while using a backup quarterback. New Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt also has shaken up the Tennessee franchise from top to bottom.
Whisenhunt wants to host a playoff game, so the Titans are targeting the defending AFC South champs.
“That’s what’s important for us right now,” Whisenhunt said.
Here are some things to know about the AFC South:
DOMINATING COLTS: Luck now has his first division title since replacing Manning, and the Colts have had a whole offseason to work Trent Richardson into the offense. Luck goes into his third season after that incredible rally from 28 points down to beat Kansas City in the playoffs. He has Hakeem Nicks as a new target.
But Reggie Wayne has to prove he can return from a torn right ACL at age 35. Injuries already are starting to accumulate, with four players lost for the season, including starting left guard Donald Thomas. Coach Chuck Pagano, who patched together the offensive line last season, has a rookie at right guard, a center and left guard going into their second seasons. The Colts will be without last year’s sacks leader Robert Mathis on Sept. 28 when the Titans visit — the end of his four-game suspension.
TITANIC CHANGES: Tennessee beat out Detroit to hire the man who took Arizona to the Super Bowl. Whisenhunt has made changes throughout the building and hired Ray Horton as his defensive coordinator to improve a team that went 7-9 last season, losing twice in overtime, with two other losses by a combined five points.
One of Whisenhunt’s biggest challenge is Jake Locker. The quarterback has missed 14 games as a starter in two seasons, and the Titans didn’t pick up his option for 2015. They bolstered the offensive line by signing right tackle Michael Oher and drafting tackle Taylor Lewan; the Titans have given Locker as many options as they’ve had in years. Dexter McCluster and rookie running back Bishop Sankey replaced Chris Johnson and join receivers Kendall Wright, Nate Washington and Justin Hunter.
HELLO HOUSTON: The Texans’ Super Bowl dreams disappeared in a stunning 2-14 collapse that tied for the worst record in franchise history. That’s why Bill O’Brien is the other new coach in this division, and he starts off working with a quarterback Tennessee cut in March. Ryan Fitzpatrick completed 62 percent of his passes in Tennessee, but had only two more touchdowns (14) than interceptions (12). Fitzpatrick also had trouble holding onto the ball, losing two of nine fumbles.
How much help Fitzpatrick gets remains to be seen. Back surgery ended Arian Foster’s season after eight games, and both he and receiver Andre Johnson were sidelined most of training camp by injured hamstrings. The Texans used the top draft pick overall not on a quarterback but on defense with Jadeveon Clowney.
REBUILDING JAGUARS: The biggest offseason additions were the drafting of Blake Bortles third overall, and the world’s largest video boards in the stadium renovation also featuring pools and cabanas. Coach Gus Bradley and general manager Dave Caldwell keep insisting Bortles will learn behind Chad Henne so the rookie learns the playbook and can make a smooth transition from the spread offense at UCF to a pro system. Bortles may force their hand.
The Jaguars still need healthy receivers and must settle down an offensive line where three young players could start. Luke Joeckel, the second overall pick last year, now is at left tackle, with rookie Brandon Linder likely at right guard. Third-year pro Mike Brewster is battling journeyman Jacques McClendon at center.
BIG FINISH: The Colts visit Tennessee on Dec. 28 in the regular-season finale, while Jacksonville is at Houston to wrap up the season. Will Indy be trying to stave off the Titans in that matchup?
Predicted order of finish: Colts; Titans; Jaguars; Texans.