AFC South Preview

Story by Jeremy Brener

The AFC South has been tabbed as one of the NFL’s weakest divisions in the past couple of seasons, and with good reason. The division has not had a double-digit win team in the last two seasons and has had multiple representatives slated to pick in the top-five in the NFL Draft in the last four drafts. The division has a very low floor and not a high ceiling. However, with four teams on the rise, it certainly will not be a boring division.

Houston Texans:

At the beginning of every season, Houston is predicted by experts to miss the playoffs and sink. Yet, the team is coming off three consecutive 9-7 seasons under head coach Bill O’Brien. The team is coming off its first playoff victory under O’Brien and had the league’s top defense last season without three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt.

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The defense did experience two big losses in the secondary in Quintin Demps, now with Chicago, and former UCF Knight A.J. Bouye, now with division rival Jacksonville. The losses to the defense will hurt the secondary, but the addition of Watt next to Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus create arguably the league’s best front seven. Teams with weak offensive lines will struggle to gain yardage against Houston. If you want to beat the Texans, you need to get the ball out QUICK!

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The offense is anchored by the defense, and it is not the team’s strongest spot. Its quarterback troubles have haunted them from taking the next step as a team. The drafting of Deshaun Watson in the first round of April’s draft was a sign for a future, but for the beginning of the season, four-year veteran Tom Savage will start under center. Savage has had a solid preseason and has more experience in the offense than Watson. The former Clemson quarterback will likely see the field at some point this season given Savage’s injury history, but this job is Savage’s to lose. He’ll have DeAndre Hopkins and Lamar Miller as his best weapons in the offense, which will hope to escape its woes it had last season.

Overall, Houston is a veteran team filled with talent and looking to take the next step. The only thing stopping them from taking the next step is themselves.

Predicted Record: 10-6

Indianapolis Colts:

Just three seasons ago, the Colts were one win away from heading to the Super Bowl. Ever since the team were blown out in the Deflategate AFC Championship in the 2014 season, they are a mediocre 16-16, going 8-8 in each of the past two seasons.

The reason why the Colts have gone .500 is because the team is average. Average receivers, average defensive line, average secondary. Very few players stand out for the Colts except for one, whom they call Andrew Luck. Luck is a Top-10 quarterback in the league, when healthy. He has missed ten games in the past two seasons due to a shoulder injury. Now, he’s on the PUP list for the same injury. Luck can’t seem to shake this. If he’s on the PUP list at the beginning of the season, he will miss at least six contests. That’s enough to knock the Colts out of contention already if they start poorly. The offensive line for the team struggle to protect Luck.

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The defense did improve over the offseason. Acquisitions of John Simon at outside linebacker and Malik Hooker at safety will definitely help the team. However, the injury to corner back Vontae Davis does not do them any favors. The team is a lot better with Davis in the lineup and injuries have been a pattern for this team as of late.

With the Colts already bit by the injury bug before the beginning of the season, I have a hard time seeing them be strong contenders for the division crown. They will be in it for most of the season because of the division they are in, but winning this division seems very unlikely for Indianapolis right now.

Predicted Record: 7-9

Jacksonville Jaguars:

DUUUUUUUUUUUUVVVVVVVVVVVVAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLLL!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Can you hear the excitement? Jacksonville is a very popular team among many of us at Hitting the Field and many among the UCF population, especially with former Knight Blake Bortles as the Jaguars quarterback. Bortles, however, is on very thin ice. New head coach Doug Marrone opened up the quarterback competition in the past week after his poor performance at the beginning of camp. Bortles will be under center against the Texans, but he has a very short leash. He is also in the final year of his contract, so a lot is on the line for Bortles to play well. If he underwhelms, the Jags will have to look elsewhere for quarterback’s.

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Quarterback is the main position of concern for Jacksonville, as it has used the rebuild to improve itself in other areas. On paper, the defense looks like they will be tough to score on. Former Florida State Seminole Jalen Ramsey and former UCF Knight A.J. Bouye will play opposite one another at corner back. The signings of veterans Calais Campbell and Barry Church bring a renewed leadership to the defense. Myles Jack and Dante Fowler look to build their talent in their second seasons in Jacksonville.

The team’s defense is its bread and butter, the offense — not so much. If this team wants to start winning the games, the offense needs to do a 180. Bortles was 28th in passer rating out of thirty quarterbacks who qualified. If Bortles can impress, this can be a surprising team, but likely, this team will struggle and a replacement will be found for Bortles.

 Predicted Record: 5-11

Tennessee Titans:

Tennessee poses as the most interesting team in the division this year. After having the league’s worst record in two consecutive seasons, the team bounced back and boasted a 9-7 record last season, a tiebreaker shy of making the playoffs last year.

A lot of the team’s success came from Marcus Mariota, who progressed a lot from his first to his second year. Late in the year, his season tragically ended due to a broken leg in a Week 16 loss to Jacksonville. This season, he is a year older and has some brand new wide receivers to throw to. The team signed Eric Decker after he was cut by the Jets and drafted Corey Davis with the fifth pick in this past draft.

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Mariota headlines a team filled with young stars with Taylor Lewan, Jack Conklin on the offensive line and Jurrell Casey on the defensive line. The team sent Lewan and Casey along with veterans DeMarco Murray, Brian Orakpo, and Delanie Walker to the Pro Bowl in Orlando. The mix of talent and the balance of the team were the reasons behind its success last season. In this upcoming season, the team will have to build upon that if they want to go to the playoffs.

Tennessee is a legitimate threat to win this division, expect them and Houston to battle it out for the crown just like last season. However, the Titans’ lack of success against teams in the division is worrisome and its tendency to lose games they should win will cost them. The team will be in play for a wild card spot, but the AFC is strong and they will barely miss the cut.

Predicted Record: 9-7

Outlook:

I have Houston taking the division at 10-6. The team has experienced a lot of success in the division the last few seasons, going 14-4 in divisional games since O’Brien joined the team.

Having the Texans winning the division is a loose prediction. I wouldn’t put all my eggs in its basket. The Titans or the Colts winning this would not surprise me very much. There will be plenty of AFC South jokes to be had this season, but one thing’s for sure. This division has four teams all on the rise, all looking to improve, and all looking to take the next step.

The Super Bowl champion may not be coming out of this division, but that does not mean we won’t see exciting football from the AFC South this season.

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