You know how fans get on rock bands for selling out? You know, the hardcore punk band that turns tail and puts out a whiny emo album because that's what the high school kids will buy? That's about where I'm at with Peyton Manning. I loved his game when he came out of Tennessee. But since then, all he seems interested in is promoting every single product that comes across the table, be it annoying Little Rascals parodies to sell Gatorade or an aside from faux-football action to plug DirecTV.
Yeah, I know it's capitalism at work. Yeah, I know we'd do the same thing if we were him. But there's something so friggin' irritating about watching an athlete turn into an athlete-pitchman. It's like he becomes known more for his commercial work than his work on the field. And in Manning's case, if he can't get the Colts to the Super Bowl really soon, it might be especially true.
1. Indianapolis Colts (13-3)
I'm going to go out on a limb. The Colts will earn the number one seed in the AFC playoffs, and still won't make the Super Bowl.
We know the weaponry Indy has on offense. Manning's arm, the mad skills of receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. If any team can absorb the loss of Edgerrin James, the Colts are it.
But it always seems to come down to a lack of defense. Tony Dungy is a supposed defensive guru, but the Colts' defense is always found lacking. Maybe it's just too easy to sit back and let Manning and the boys outscore the opposition.
But sports is littered with great offensive teams that were stopped cold in the playoffs by superior defense. The Cleveland Indians of the 1990s and the Dallas Mavericks of the 2000s come to mind.
The x-factor: the defense. Second-rate defense means a second-rate playoff showing, no matter how sexy your offensive numbers are.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars (9-7)
A classic example of good being the enemy of great. The Jags have some nice pieces. I still think Byron Leftwich will be a very good NFL quarterback. But ever since Tom Coughlin was shown the door, they have failed to put the pieces together.
The talent on this team is enough to make a playoff push. But the Jags are hopelessly a second-tier NFL team at their best.
The x-factor: the schedule. Say goodbye to playing teams like the Browns down the stretch this year. The '06 schedule brings Indianapolis, New England and Kansas City as late-season opponents.
3. Tennessee Titans (6-10)
How long do you think coach Jeff Fisher is going to be able to resist putting Vince Young in? About 45 seconds? Me, too. Kerry Collins, Billy Volek, whatever.
The only thing more knotted than the quarterback situation is the running back situation. Three candidates for the feature back, none of whom might be worthy. Chris Brown, Travis Henry and LenDale White form less of a three-headed monster and more of a mish-mash of part-timers.
The defense still has some talent leftover from the glory days, like LB Keith Bulluck, but it's a unit that has really lacked a centerpiece since Jevon Kearse left.
The x-factor: Young. The Titans have invested a lot in this guy. It would really help them if he developed into a stud sooner rather than later.
4. Houston Texans (3-13)
For the next 20 years, this is going to be the Team That Passed On Reggie Bush. Even if Mario Williams turns into Bruce Smith, this is still going to be the Team That Passed On Reggie Bush.
This is also the Team That Drafted David Carr, which explains why they are once again a favorite to have the first overall pick in the draft.
The x-factor: Williams. He damn well better turn into Bruce Smith, or everyone in the Texans front office is going to be searching for a job in the service sector.
Up next: the AFC West