I've always paid less attention to the AFC South than I should. I'm not sure why -- maybe it's because I've visited the division's teams fewer times than other divisions; maybe it's that I've never had much faith in its coaching, save Tony Dungy; maybe it's because I've never understood "that Southern thing" that other writers at this Web site always allude to. It's always been the Colts, and that's it.
Well, the AFC South is still the Colts, only it's a lot more, too. In fact, it's the best division in football. The Colts are 5-0, of course. But the Jaguars are 4-1, the Titans 4-2 and the Texans 3-4. Every team in this division is aggressive, improving and entertaining. But to understand why this division is not only the best but also the smartest, you have to go back to the NFL's only universal rule: The Colts and Patriots are by far the best teams in the NFL.
Nobody knows this better than the other teams in the AFC South and AFC East. The Colts and Pats have each won four straight division titles. So their division rivals have no choice but to try to get better. If not, they'll be craning their necks to stare up at Peyton Manning and Tom Brady until those two retire to full-time careers in product-pushing and magazine-cover posing.
The AFC South has simply done it smarter than the East, and the proof goes deeper than the fact that the Bills are 2-4, the Jets 1-6 and the Dolphins 0-7.
AFC South teams aren't afraid to make ballsy lineup changes.
The biggest shocker in a typically boring preseason came when the Jaguars released one-time franchise quarterback Byron Leftwich. In a league in which head coaches do almost anything to cover their own rear, Jack Del Rio easily could have continued on with Leftwich, allowed the quarterback to play lousy all year and used him as an excuse at season's end. But, with his job on the line, Del Rio took a chance and went with David Garrard.
The move reinforces the most underappreciated quality of a head coach: guts.
Coaches are often frightened to make drastic moves because the media and fan backlash can be so brutal. Del Rio didn't care. He knew he wasn't going to win a Super Bowl with Leftwich, so he had to do something. Well, nobody's on his case now that Jacksonville looks playoff-bound and Leftwich couldn't even keep the ball in the field of play during his brief series in Atlanta.
In the East, you have the Jets, a playoff team a year ago, stubbornly sticking with Chad Pennington despite his obvious struggles. Look, Pennington has a chance to be a very good quarterback in the right system, but the way the Jets are headed, if they're ever going to reach the Super Bowl, it'll be with Kellen Clemens. Why not start that process now?
AFC South teams take smarter risks in the draft.
No draft pick in recent history has been as criticized. Although the jury is still out on Williams, he is improving this year (three sacks so far, compared to 4½ last year). The Texans took another chance this year, albeit a less risky one, by drafting then 19-year-old DT Amobi Okoye. The point is, they've got a plan.
And then you have the Dolphins. In April, with Brady Quinn available, they drafted Ted Ginn Jr., a receiver-returner with durability issues. First, having a big-play receiver is not essential to winning a Super Bowl. You need good ones, but not necessarily great ones. But if a receiver-returner was Miami's priority, why go with an unknown quantity (Ginn) when you have all the leverage on a known one (Wes Welker)?
Last year, Welker was coming off a 67-catch season that propelled him to being the under-the-radar score in free agency. The Dolphins had the
leverage: Welker was a restricted free agent, and Miami would have received first- and third-round choices if the team had offered a high tender of $2.35 million. For $1.85 million, Miami would have at least received a first-rounder.
The Dolphins mind-numbingly offered $1.35 million. New England, of course, fleeced Miami by trading second- and seventh-rounders for Welker before giving him a five-year deal that included $9 million in bonuses. The Dolphins signed Ginn Jr. to a five-year, $13 million deal.
Welker has 47 catches for 524 yards and five touchdowns. Ginn Jr. has three catches for 83 yards and two rushes for 4 yards.
Look, there's some luck involved, no doubt. The Bills, for instance, should receive an honorary AFC South stamp because of their aggressiveness in free agency, sharp 2007 draft and willingness to sit J.P. Losman for Trent Edwards. But injuries have decimated them.
Meanwhile, the Titans have been able to weather Vince Young's so-so start (three TDs, six INTs). Tennessee is expecting to make the playoffs; the Bills will be drafting high next April.
That's actually the South's curse. Every team has the playoffs in its sights. At least a couple of them will be sitting and watching.
It's the price of being so good.
Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com. For Wick¹s Picks, click here.