- Paul Kuharsky, ESPN Staff Writer
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The NFC East can certainly make a reasonable claim, but heading into the 2008 season there are still many reasons to expect the AFC South to be the NFL's toughest division.
Last year's collective 42-22 record produced a .656 winning percentage, the best for a division in NFL history. Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Tennessee all went to the playoffs, and last-place Houston finished 8-8.
Can they match that this year? Probably not.
But look for them to outperform the NFC East in the regular season again.
While it shouldn't necessarily be part of the equation, the AFC South includes two expansion teams and two teams that relocated. They hardly have the roots of the storied Cowboys, Giants, Redskins and Eagles.
"I think those teams are better known around the country -- more publicized teams -- with Dallas and New York," Houston tight end Owen Daniels said. "The AFC South is more of a newer division, newer teams, and we're just trying to make a name for ourselves. I think we've started to do that very well."
The Colts have won the division five years running, which means the other three teams haven't been chasing a moving target -- they've known exactly what to aim for. The Jaguars, Titans and Texans have all worked hard to find pass rushers who might disrupt Peyton Manning's timing; they've all tried to build physical rushing attacks that can be successful against Indianapolis' quick defense.
That blueprint may not have produced many wins over Indianapolis, but it has proven effective against plenty of other teams.
"I think with the Colts' having won the division for five straight years, as a GM or a head coach, you have to build your team for that, like, 'We have to knock these guys off because they're on the top,'" Houston middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. "You're going to build around your defense first, get some pass rushers in to get after Peyton Manning. And then you add your pieces here and there; a couple running backs, you have to run the ball against Indy. We've added those pieces to go out and compete with them and beat them."
"Outside the division, it still works. If you're running the ball and your front seven is playing well stopping the run and you've got those guys pass rushing coming off on third down, that recipe will beat anybody."
Here are the three other major reasons I give the AFC South the edge:
1) Steady rushing attacks
The Titans and Jaguars are dead-set on running the ball and have the patience and personnel to do it well and consistently. They ranked first and second in the league in rush attempts last season. Everyone thinks of Indianapolis' offense and thinks of Manning and the Colts' passing game, but Joseph Addai tied for the second-most rushing touchdowns in the league with 12 last season. Houston is positioned to make a big jump in the run game. Every time Alex Gibbs has installed his zone-blocking scheme with an emphasis on cutting down defenders, his team's rushing offense has taken off quickly.
2) Coaching stability
The only possibility of a change in the division after this season is in Indianapolis, where the Colts will push for Tony Dungy to stick around. Even if he decides to leave, his replacement, Jim Caldwell, is in place. Jeff Fisher, Jack Del Rio and Gary Kubiak have plans in place and solid backing from ownership. They are going nowhere. In the NFC East, many are considering Wade Phillips a lame duck, and the successor who's lined up, Jason Garrett, has zero experience as a head coach. If the Redskins are bad, Jim Zorn could fall under immediate pressure. And while Andy Reid should be able to coach the Eagles as long as he likes, it's not inconceivable he could walk away if he feels he has not been able to devote enough time to family matters.
3) Fred Taylor says so
Anyone who has had a chance to sit with the Jaguars running back likes him and comes to value his big-picture thinking. The super-productive Taylor is a straight shooter who has good friends spread all around the league. He scoffed when I suggested the NFC East might be better than the AFC South, and his position on the debate deserves some weight, even if his evidence is a little dated.
"[The] NFC East is overrated," he said. "We drubbed those guys a year ago. Not last season, but when we played those guys. I just really feel like they're overrated. The NFC can't really hang with that. The Giants saved the NFC, actually, by winning the Super Bowl. With the exception of the Redskins two years ago, we kind of just ran through that division.
"Our division is the best. We come, we play smash-mouth. We've got offenses that can light it up. The Texans, they're a team that shows they can play with the best of the best in this league. The record speaks for itself. Every team went .500 or better last year. With that being said, I really believe we have the best division."
Paul Kuharsky covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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