For quite a few years now, the AFC South has seemed to be the weakest division in the league. However, with the Texans having won the division title two years in a row now, both times with 9-7 records, you can hardly consider them dominant. The Titans made some serious strides last year. After many years of losing, the Titans looked surprisingly good and made a serious run to qualify for the playoffs, although ultimately running just short at the end. The Colts were the third place team last season, although they had strong offensive production behind star quarterback Andrew Luck. And while all of the rest of the division were able to make decent runs to make the playoffs, the Jacksonville Jaguars were, once again, a very lowly and inept team, ranking low on both offense and defense, and winding up with a record of 3-13, one of the worst records in the league.
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) - Remember two years ago, when the Indianapolis Colts made it all the way to the AFC title game, overcoming a 28 point deficit twice to the Chiefs, and then shocking the Broncos in Denver during the division round. At that point, the Colts seemed far and away the best and most promising team in this division, and many expected them to essentially take over from the Patriots to become the best team in the AFC, the team of the future. Some even suggested that the Colts had been cheated because of "Deflategate", even though the Colts lost that game, 45-7. Well, Indianapolis followed up on that tremendous promise with two staggeringly mediocre seasons, finishing 8-8 both times, and out of the playoffs. threw for a whopping 4,240 yards with 31 touchdowns to just 13 interceptions, and a solid 96.4 percent quarterback rating. Running back Frank Gore has added some serious power to the running game, and the offense looks set for another explosive season. Offense, however, is not where the problem is with this team. Their defense has a lot of holes in it, allowing 24 points or more in the majority of their games, and even allowing a total of 96 points in two consecutive games late in the season, one of them against the lowly Jaguars, where they allowed a whopping 51 points! That took them from a 6-5 mark, and being serious contenders to take the division, to 6-7, and effectively knocked out of the playoff race altogether. If the Colts are to improve this season, they simply cannot allow gaps and inconsistencies like that, and need to make some improvements on the defensive side. However, Luck and the Indy offense is just too good to keep bumbling like this, and I predict a fairly strong recovery, and a return to the very top of this division for the upcoming season.
2. Houston Texans (projected second place) - The Houston Texans have now won the AFC South division title for two years straight. However, it remains unclear if this is because they are actually a relatively good team, or if they have largely benefited from being in an unusually weak division. It might be a little of both. One thing for sure, Houston continues to have weaknesses, particularly on the offense. Last season, the Texans were one of a very few teams to fail to score 30 points in any game. Quarterback Brock Osweiler threw more touchdowns than interceptions, and he had a lower Quarterback Percentage Rating (55.3) than his back-up, Tom Savage (63.1), according to Pro Football Reference. Yet, the Texans won the division title and managed to beat a 12-4 team in the playoffs, before getting blown out by the Patriots up in Foxboro. Of course, it might be good to remember that the Raiders lost their key weapon, quarterback Derek Carr, who was injured and could not play that game. But lucky or not, the Texans have to be given credit for having enjoyed as successful a season as they did. And much of that good fortune was made possible by a fairly solid defense. The Texans especially benefited from an unusually strong divisional record, which effectively knocked out the other teams from contending for the division title. Houston compiled a perfect 5-0 record within the division, before losing what amounted to a meaningless regular season finale against Tennessee. The Texans still have a fairly tough defense, and if J.J. Watt can return and get back to his usual form, that should make Houston's defense even tougher. That said, they really need to pick things up on the offensive side of things, because the problems were costly, and might prove more costly this season if they are not corrected. In six games, this team failed to produce more than 13 points, and they were 1-5 in those games, so the ineptitude on offense was detrimental to their being a potentially elite team. They might even be able to win another division title this season, but if they do not at least remain as strong on defense, and make serious adjustments and improvements offensively, than they likely will not be all that good, and will continue to have the reputation as the least inept team in a weak division.
3. Tennessee Titans (projected third place) - The Tennessee Titans made some huge strides last season. In his second year at the helm, emerging young quarterback Marcus Mariota started to really show what he was capable of, and he was indeed impressive! Mariota threw 26 touchdowns to just nine interceptions on the season, winding up with an overall quarterback rating of 95.6. The Titans were a middle of the pack team on defense, although that actually served as a marked improvement over previous seasons, when they always seemed to rank very near the bottom of the league. And all of these improvements counted for something, too, because Tennessee managed to compile a 7-3 record overall in games decided by 7 points or less. It was unfortunate that Mariota wound up injured towards the end, and that this team failed to qualify for the playoffs, because it really would have been interesting to see how he would have handled the pressure of the playoffs. He should return healthy this season, which is good news for Tennessee. However, they will not be able to sneak up on people this season, as they now have to deal with the pressures of having been a winning team last year, without even having benefited from that enough to actually qualify for the playoffs. It might even be possible that this team gets better on both offense and defense, and still fails to improve on last season's mark of 9-7. They still are young and inexperienced, and I believe that they will now have to deal with some growing pains during this coming season, which is the reason why I am predicting a third place finish.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars (projected last place team) - For a few years, the Jacksonville Jaguars have seemed to be on the brink breaking out to be a more serious team. Than last season, this team's season kind of tailspinned, and the Jaguars were solidly back on the bottom of the worst division in the league. The Jaguars averaged less than 20 points per game, while allowing an average of 25 points per game. They were especially bad on the road, only managing to win one game in Chicago against the also lowly Bears. However, Jax did manage to upset both the Colts and the Titans, and their win against Tennessee effectively ended that team's playoff hopes. So, the one major highlight for the Jaguars was that they managed to play spoilers. Still, Jacksonville has a lot of work to do if they hope to contend more seriously this year. They have their work cut out for them on both offense and defense. That said, quarterback Blake Bortles seems to be improving, and establishing himself still more is team's starting quarterback. Their running game really needs to improve. So does their defense. Just too many problems with this team to think that they are capable of anything but another last place finish.