Titans a slight favorite to win AFC South

Titans a slight favorite to win AFC South

August 15, 2017 3:01 AM

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fifth of eight NFL division previews for the 2017-18 season.

The AFC South figures to be one of the most muddled divisions in 2017, with Tennessee at 8-5 the slight favorite to dethrone two-time defending champ Houston.

Those odds are the weakest for any projected loop front-runner.

Unlike last season, though, when the Titans, Texans, Jaguars and Colts approached the season delighted with their QB situations, this summer only Tennessee seems to be in a comfort zone.

Indy’s Andrew Luck (PUP list) probably will miss early-season action after January shoulder surgery, while the often-ineffective Blake Bortles of Jacksonville looks to rebound from a down season.

And in Houston the Texans are wondering whether disabled-list candidate Tom Savage or rookie Deshaun Watson will end the team’s QB carousel.

But the Titans shouldn’t get too cocky, as third-year QB Marcus Mariota finished the past two years on crutches (knee).

The division that has gone a collective 68 games under .500 since 2010 seems unlikely to earn a wild card. Then again, each of the four teams gets to play Cleveland, San Francisco and the LA Rams.

Now to take a stab at how the division figures to play out. The odds are courtesy of Westgate Las Vegas.

Tennessee (8-5 div; 30-1 SB): If Mariota can remain upright behind a line led by a pair of Pro Bowl tackles, the Titans will be the team to beat, especially with Las Vegas native DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry at RB.

Murray had five 100-yard games in helping the Titans average 136.7 rush yards a game, third in the league – up from 25th in 2015. That running boost helped Mariota throw 26 passes with only nine INTs. And this year he’ll have WR Eric Decker plus TE Delanie Walker and WR Rishard Matthews, both of whom had 65 catches and totaled 16 TDs last year.

Defensively, the Titans line up well OLBs Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan, who teamed for 19.5 sacks last season. A rebuilt secondary should benefit. On the negative end is yielding a league-high eight defensive/kick return scores last season. And it was no fluke. In 2015, the Titans gave up six, tied for third most. That has to improve. And if it does, the Titans should earn the loop crown for their first playoff berth since 2008.

Note: The Titans were 8-8 ATS, their eighth straight year without a winning ledger. It’s the longest current streak in the league.

Jacksonville (17-4, 80-1): Coach Doug Marrone, who’s the only field boss to lead Buffalo to a winning record the past 12 years, will be trying to guide Jacksonville its first winning season in 10 years after taking over from Gus Bradley late last season. But for that to occur Jacksonville can’t go 2-6 or worse the first half of the season yet again. It’s been that way the past six years, including 0-8 in 2013.

What could give Jacksonville a fighting chance is a mean-spirited defense that held foes to 5.0 yards a play last season, third best in the league. And the Jags added Houston star CB A.J. Bouye to the mix in free agency.

Offensively, the Jags grabbed LSU RB Leonard Fournette with the fourth pick in the draft to help take the heat off Bortles, who had a league-high 72 completions of 20-plus yards in 2015 but only 43 last year despite 19 more throws. He was particularly inept against quality defenses, diving beneath the Mendoza Line (39.6) in passer rating vs, Houston’s overall No. 1 unit and Denver’s top-rated pass defense. If he’s a step above mediocre, that could work.

Note: In Week 4, the Jags will play at the NY Jets seven days after playing in London. No team in the 17-game history of the London series has ever returned to the U.S. to play on the road next week. Thirty-three of the 34 teams had byes.

Houston (9-4, 40-1): Houston was 9-7 in 2016 but was outscored by 49 points and had only 23 offensive TDs, tied for fewest in the NFL. No winning club has had that big a negative margin since Arizona (53) in 1998.

The Texans got good production from RB Lamar Miller (1,073 yards), who was acquired from Miami last year, but he had a career-high 268 carries – seven times exceeding 20 rushes in a game – and was sidelined by an ankle injury the last two games. In his first three years, he hit 20 carries just once.

The bigger “if” is at QB, where disappointing Brock Osweiler is gone. Watson got a leg up on Savage with his performance in last week’s exhibition against Carolina’s scrubs. But Watson’s no finished product. Last year at Clemson he had 17 INTs despite almost always playing with the lead. He also reportedly lacks major league zip on his throws but he sure can run.

On defense, the league’s top-ranked unit returns with DE J.J. Watt. That’s a mouthful.

Note: Houston’s defense was on the field only 950 plays, the fewest for any team the past two seasons, which contributed to it yielding the fewest yards in the league.

Indianapolis (13-4, 50-1): If Luck is out for any significant stretch, this could be reminiscent of 2011 when Indy was unprepared for Peyton Manning’s season-long absence and went 2-14 with miserable backup QB play. Filling that emergency role this year is Scott Tolzien, who will be 30 by opening day and is 0-2-1 as a starter.

The running game got a semi-boost last year when greybeard Frank Gore creaked past the 1,000-yard mark (1,025). But his norm of not quite 3.9 yards a carry was the worst among 1,000-yard rushers the past three seasons. Maybe rookie RB Marlon Mack of South Florida can help.

The defense could be unrecognizable from last year, with the majority of 2016’s opening-day starters gone. That’s good news, but Indy could be vulnerable if it winds up starting two or three rookies DBs. And even if Luck makes a quick recovery, how much more punishment can he take? Over his five-year career, the Colts have ranked in the bottom four each season in yielding QB hits, including 128 last season – behind only Cleveland.

Note: The Colts have the cushiest schedule in the league based on the 2016 records of this year’s foes (107-146-4, .424). Two years ago, though, Atlanta opponents had a league-low .409 winning percentage, but the Falcons went 8-8.

Next week: NFC South