“I want to thank you all for coming to the yearly meeting of the NFL’s eight divisions,” said the AFC East. “As home to the reigning champion, it is my honor to conduct today’s proceedings, as we prepare for a new season. I look around, and couldn’t be more thrilled at how my brothers have grown over this offseason. Just look at AFC West over here! Have you been working out? You look so strong.”
The AFC West bashfully looks at the floor.
“Now unfortunately we begin this year’s meeting with the same issue as always: competitive balance. I know we all have a down year now and again. Look at where NFC South was just three years ago. Now, the division has produced back to back NFC Champions!”
“But one of our own has continued to struggle for far too long. No Super Bowl champion since 2006. No Wild Card teams since 2012. Last year, they had the audacity to send a team quarterbacked by Brock Osweiler to the playoffs! We cannot keep allowing such mediocrity to host a playoff game each season. I wouldn’t dare shame this division by saying its name out loud, but obviously you know who you are…”
One by one, each division turns and looks down to the end of the table, where the AFC South is leaning back, ZO2 Primes up on the table, playing with a fidget spinner, not hearing a single word.
Is this the year we finally stop being embarrassed by the AFC South? Only one way to find out! Let’s examine how each team will perform against their win totals.
AFC South Win Totals
Indianapolis Colts: Under 9
Oh! Hello Colts! I didn’t expect to see you so soon. I figured you’d be like third or fourth on this list, but for some reason, Vegas has placed the most faith in this bunch. Whoops, that’s an awful typo. I meant, Vegas has placed the most faith in Andrew Luck.
It’s been the Colts modus operandi, since before they broke the neck of their first generational QB, Peyton Manning, to surround their signal caller with a mediocre supporting cast and expect great things. Instead of division titles, Luck has spent the past two years with a lingering shoulder injury because his offensive line managed as much protection as a hand-knit condom.
Now, following offseason surgery to correct his bum throwing arm, Luck may not be ready for the start of training camp. So there’s a chance he may not even start next season looking like the dynamic passer that we remember. And even if he does, Indy will still need the rest of the team to step up this season.
In an NFL where every team’s aerial attack is getting more productive (the league average passer rating last season was 87.6), a top-10 passing game isn’t good enough to consistently win on its own. The Colts have to find success in another facet of the game, be it somewhere on defense or in the run game. Considering their starting running back is a member of the AARP, it probably won’t be the run game.
However, Indy’s defense could be excellent this year. Or it could be a hodgepodge of garbage. There’s little to go on, since they completely overhauled the unit. Indy will have eight different starters in Week 1 between 2016 and 2017. And while they managed to get younger, they didn’t add a ton of players with prior starting experience, so who knows how it will all work out.
If they hit more than nine wins, it will mean that Luck really stretched the most out of a thin group. The over is possible, but seeing as I’m a little higher on a few other South teams, and I don’t think the division can have three legitimate teams, I’ll take the under.
Houston Texans: Over 8.5
Remember how good a healthy J.J. Watt is? Pretty good.
If Houston gets even 70-percent of that production from Watt, their pass rush, which also features Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus, is going to snuff out opponents. Granted the Texans will need that dialed-up pressure to help a secondary that lost A.J. Bouye and Quintin Demps, but overall, this defense should remain one of the league’s best.
So once again, the Texans’ fortunes will be determined by how much production they can get out of their offense. Whether it’s Tom Savage or rookie Deshaun Watson under center, Houston will essentially be turning to a first-year starter at quarterback. It’s not the best situation for a team that seemed destined to land Tony Romo back in March; but it’s not like things could be worse than last year.
Osweiler was impressively inefficient last season, passing for a lowly 5.8 yards per attempt, throwing 15 TDs to 16 INTs, and completing just 59-percent of his pass attempts (better known as dump-offs). Improving on that mark won’t be hard for Watson or Savage. Of the first-time starting QBs to get significant time last season (Dak Prescott, Carson Wentz, Cody Kessler, Trevor Siemian, and Jared Goff) only Goff managed to produce numbers worse than Osweiler. And Goff didn’t have the benefit of throwing to one of the top eight wide receivers in the league in DeAndre Hopkins.
Houston’s offense should continue to rely on Lamar Miller this year, but a change under center allows for Hopkins and Will Fuller to make a bigger impact on the game.
Considering I already hammered Miami for being lucky last season, is it hypocritical of me to then back a Texans team that made the playoffs with a -49 point differential and an 8-2 record in one-score games? Absolutely! But remember that Bill O’Brien has only ever led this team to 9-7 records, regardless of his quarterback situation. There’s some magic at work here that I’m not willing to challenge.
Tennessee Titans: Over 8.5
Coming off a 9-7 season in which Tennessee boasted one of the league’s best rushing attacks, most prognosticators have the Titans ending a nine-year playoff drought in the coming year. But as noted in the intro, this division kind of sucks: wouldn’t an 8-8 record be good enough to win?
Well the Titans have enough firepower to push for more than just a 9-7 record; they may challenge for a first-round bye.
Last season, behind a greatly improved offensive line, Marcus Mariota actually had enough time to prove that he could succeed as a pocket passer. And his great statistical sophomore season came with Rishard Matthews leading the team in receiving. Now that Mariota has Corey Davis and Eric Decker joining the fray, an offense that finished ninth in DVOA should be even more explosive.
Defensively, Tennessee had an above average pass rush last season, but very poor play from the secondary still left the team with one of the worst passing defenses (both in terms of yards and DVOA). If additions like Logan Ryan, Jonathan Cyprien and rookie Adoree’ Jackson can stop a few balls that come their way, suddenly the Titans have the look of a steady team with few weaknesses to exploit.
The only cause for concern with this team may be Mariota’s health, as he’s been injured in both of his first two seasons, and Matt Cassel is waiting on the sidelines. But considering the Titans powerful run game, they could weather another Mariota injury for at least a few games.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Under 6
As the team many expected to make a jump last season, Vegas set the 2016 Jags win total at 7.5, which proved to be way too high. Now, after another flurry of offseason moves has left Jacksonville with more “team to watch” chatter, bookmakers ignored the noise and left the Jags near the bottom where they belong.
The biggest reason for concern around the Jaguars is a problem that has plagued the division also-rans for years: the quarterback position. While Jacksonville was busy upgrading its backfield, secondary, and offensive and defensive lines, they opted to keep Blake Bortles under center, stubbornly holding out hope that he can still be the guy.
That hope is so strong, Jacksonville didn’t even look for an upgrade at backup over Chad Henne, perhaps worried that having a better QB behind Bortles would add more pressure to the overwhelmed third-overall pick from 2014.
Entering his fourth season, Bortles has as many pick-sixes in his career as he has wins. Now Doug Marrone is the head coach who thinks he can fix Bortles’ bad mechanics. The only problem is, Marrone was on the Jags sideline for the last two years as an assistant. Either he had some good ideas he chose to sit on until Gus Bradley was fired, making him an a******; or he is just blowing the kind of smoke that the NFL offseason is full of.
Jacksonville has a defense with top 10 potential, and a run game that should be improved, too. Yet, until they acquire a quarterback that can convert first downs, I’m selling. Bring in Jay Cutler, or even Colin Kaepernick, and I might buy the Jags as a team on the rise. But the Bortles anchor will sink Jacksonville to the under again.