So, how will the AFC South shape up this season? Let me take my best shot to predict it:
1. Indianapolis Colts (projected division winners) - The Indianapolis Colts had a breakthrough postseason of sorts last year. Well, almost. They won a wild card game, then went on the road and beat the defending AFC Champion Broncos convincingly. But then, deflated balls or not, they got romped by the Patriots, in a game that New England would have won no matter how much the balls were inflated. So, to compensate for those shortcomings, the Colts loaded up on veteran talent, in hopes that this will be enough to get them over the top. Indianapolis looked like the second best team in the AFC last season to New England, and it just might be that they will benefit if the Pats suffer a championship hangover. There are other tough teams in the conference, but none seem to stand out as obviously as the Colts, which makes the Colts surely one of the favorites to go all the way, or at least to represent the AFC in Super Bowl L. Andrew Luck is only getting better, and this just might be the year that Indianapolis breaks through again to get back to the Super Bowl! They had one of the most explosive offenses in the league, and added more talent during the off-season, to boot! Their defense left something to be desired, but with an offense as strong as it was, they easily won a lot more games than they lost. They benefited last year from being in a very weak division - likely the weakest in the NFL, honestly - and seem ready to benefit from the same this year. The only team that is halfway decent other than the Colts would be the Texans, and they have plenty of holes to fill before they can seriously challenge the Colts. At the very least, they easily have enough talent and experience to take this division, most likely easily. A pile of wins for this team in the regular season, but they have to try to follow that up with similar success in the postseason. They have enough talent to make this happen.
2. Houston Texans (projected second place) - The Houston Texans erased the memory of their disastrous 2013 season by sprinting out to a 3-1 start, and even threatened to defeat the Cowboys in Dallas in Week 5, before ultimately losing in overtime. The rest of the way, the Texans were essentially hovering at or near .500. They lost the games that you would figure they would lose, and they beat the teams that they should have won against, with the only possible exception being a late season upset win over Baltimore. Their offense was good but not great, although their defense was one of the better units in the league. Statistically, they probably could have ranked among the better teams in the NFL, and indeed, they made a pretty solid run to the playoffs, ultimately falling short. But they also benefited from a weak schedule, having earned a last place finish last season. Also, they may have snuck up on people. Neither of those things will be a factor this season, and so this might be one of those frustrating seasons when this team actually improves, yet fails to improve on their overall won-loss record from last season. They are good enough to beat up on the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans, but not likely good enough to defeat the Colts. This will likely be a middle of the pack team, made better by being in such a weak division.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars (projected third place team) - The Jacksonville Jaguars should be the beneficiaries of a long series of high draft picks. That is what you get when you basically stink for as long as Jacksonville has, although there are signs that they are getting better. Bartles seems to be getting better, and the Jaguars seem to have faith enough in him to keep him as their starter. Whether this is justified or not might be another matter, but we should give him the benefit of the doubt and see if there is significant improvement this season. Considering that the Jags scored a league-low 249 total points last season, and ranked last offensively, there really is only room for improvement. This team managed to score 20 or more points only three times last season, and the most that they scored in a single game was 25 points, against the Giants. The defense had its fair share of problems as well last season, giving up 30 or more points six times. But that said, four of those games came in the first four weeks of the season, and to their credit, Jax seemed to tighten up some after that. The question is, can they sustain it for the duration of an entire season. I am skeptical, and that is why I could not in good conscience rate them higher than third in the division.
3. Tennessee Titans (projected last place) - Last year, I suggested in my AFC South preview that the Titans were a strange team, hard to figure out or predict. Well, for once, they remained consistent throughout the season, although it was not the kind of consistency that anyone really wants. Tennessee had one of the worst seasons of any team, and surely the worst in franchise history. Perhaps what was most frustrating about it was that the Titans managed to pull off a major upset road win at Kansas City right away, teasing their fans (and themselves) into believing that they might be really good. The Chiefs had been a playoff team the year before, so that was huge. But they lost their next four games and, overall, they compiled a 1-14 record for the duration of the season following that opening game victory. But the Titans ranked near the bottom on both offense and defense, They allowed 30 or more points six times, and the highest score that they managed in a single game last season was 28 points against the Browns. In that game, they held a 25-point lead at home, before blowing it against Cleveland, ultimately losing, 29-28. Unbelievably, they only reached 20 points or more five times last season, to illustrate how poorly the offensive unit performed, and they lost all but one of those games when they did score that much (the exception being that win at Kansas City). So, when you cannot yourselves score points, but you allow a ton of points, you are going to have a bad season. However, Tennessee seems to have done well in obtaining Marcus Mariota, their quarterback of the future. They made other moves and picked up other players that should help but, honestly, there were just so many holes on this team, that they cannot possibly hope for a quick fix to make them competitive this season. That is why I cannot see them getting out of last place.