Who will take advantage of Manning absence?

Attention, AFC South also-rans!

Peyton Manning won't play in the season opener. (Hint: If the Colts say he's doubtful, then he's not playing at all). One report had Manning on the shelf for a month or more.

With all due respect to Kerry Collins, that means the door is wide open for the Texans, Titans and Jaguars to finally make a move and break Indy's stranglehold on the division.

Since the AFC South's inception in 2002, the Manning-led Colts have won the division every year but two, when the Titans finished ahead of them.

The Colts actually started to look mortal last season, stumbling through the first three-fourths of the season with a 6-6 record before reeling off four wins in a row at the end to claim yet another AFC South crown. The question is, which team, if any can take advantage of Manning's absence and potentially ascend to the AFC South throne.

Most would probably say the Texans, who get the first shot at the Manning-less Colts on Sept. 11. But they still have to prove themselves by having a winning season before anyone is going to take them seriously. Only once in nine years have the Texans finished above .500, and, there are questions that abound this year. Can Wade Phillips take a 4-3 team and turn it into a 3-4 overnight and have success? It probably hinges on how quickly the defense's best player Mario Williams can make the conversion from powerhouse defensive end to outside linebacker, something that has apparently been a struggle.

The Titans found themselves behind the eight-ball as training camp started, but now have a quarterback in Matt Hasselbeck, their holdout running back returning in Chris Johnson and their best receiver Kenny Britt avoiding suspension.

Still, there are a lot of working parts for new coach Mike Munchak, who is charged with cleaning up Jeff Fisher's mess, to fit together coming off a season in which the lockout ruined any early chance at team chemistry and the learning of the offense and defense.

As for Jacksonville, Coach Jack Del Rio is in must-win mode entering the last year of his contract. The Jaguars drafted a quarterback of the future in Blaine Gabbert, but theirs and perhaps Del Rio's fortunes may hinge on how well veteran David Garrard plays this year.

For the first time, the Colts might not be the prohibitive favorite to win the AFC South, but the question lingers, which, if any, of the other three teams are capable of knocking them off?

Follow me on Twitter @TitanInsider247 and @terrymc13

Terry McCormick covers the Titans for TitanInsider.com

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