Barring a stunning turnaround by Jacksonville and/or Houston this season under rookie NFL head coaches, the AFC South should be a two-team race for the second consecutive season between Tennessee and Indianapolis.
The Titans and Colts both finished 11-5 last season, with the Titans winning the division via tiebreaker and the Colts getting a wild card.
No. 1 Indianapolis Colts
The Colts and Titans are both near even-money choices to win the loop, but Indy warrants an edge largely because of a superior defense and the benefit of a less taxing schedule.
Indy responded to the retirement of QB Philip Rivers by dealing for disgruntled Philadelphia signal-caller Carson Wentz, who should enjoy operating behind an offensive line that yielded only 21 sacks last season, the second-fewest in the league. By contrast, the Eagles gave up a league-high 65. Indy will hope Wentz is not permanently shell-shocked and will flourish, especially going against three division rivals that all finished in the bottom five in defense in 2020.
Wentz should be in a comfort zone being reunited with his old position coach, Frank Reich, who is the head man with Indy.
And there’s a lot to like at running back, with Jonathan Taylor (5.0/carry, 1,169 yards) coming off a productive freshman season. He’ll be joined by third-down specialist Nyheim Hines. And if Marlon Mack has anything left after his Achilles injury in 2020, a year after a 1,000-yard season, it will be a formidable group.
Regardless, they’ll be running behind a line that now includes ex-KC standout OLT Eric Fisher (also coming off an Achilles injury) to replace retired 10-year starter Anthony Castonzo. Fisher will be next to All-Pro guard Quentin Nelson, but might not be ready by Week 1.
Passing targets are solid in TE Jack Doyle, a two-time Pro Bowler, and second-year man Michael Pittman, who is challenging longtime star T.Y. Hilton to be the go-to guy.
Defensively, three-time Pro Bowl LB Darius Leonard and DeForest Buckner, who had 9.5 sacks last year, should be aided by rookie edge rusher Kwity Paye of Michigan, drafted in the first round to join a secondary that’s widely said to be in great shape. Indy also was particularly stingy stopping the run.
Note: The Colts will play host to a league-high three games in which a West Coast team visits and has the inconvenience of playing in the early Sunday “jet lag” time slot.
The Titans are loaded offensively at the skill positions, but how long can two-time defending rushing champ Derrick Henry keep producing with such a heavy workload. Last season he became the eighth RB in league history to eclipse 2,000 yards, but at what cost? Counting playoffs, he had a career-high 396 carries last season, a year after having 386. Both were league highs.
Assuming the Titans back off a tad on his touches, more will be loaded onto the shoulders of QB Ryan Tannehill (33 TDs, 7 INTs in 2020), who had to be thrilled with the team’s acquisition of ex-Atlanta WR Julio Jones, a seven-time Pro Bowler who’s averaged 15.2 yards a catch in his career. He’ll join incumbent A.J. Brown, who’s coming off a 1,000-yard season in which he scored 11 TDs.
On the downside, Tennessee no longer has TE Jonnu Smith (New England) and Corey Davis (15.1 norm). That’s got to hurt.
Defensively, the team ranked 28th overall in 2020 and had a pass rush that was particularly anemic, having a league-high six games without dragging down the quarterback. Included was a three-game stretch in which the enemy passer stayed clean, covering a total of 126 throws. If ex-Steelers edge rusher Bud Dupree, who had 19.5 sacks in 27 games the past two years, can still play at a high level coming off an Achilles injury, that will be a boost. But he’s now on the PUP list. And first-round draft choice Caleb Farley, a DB, is on the non-football injury list.
Note: The Titans hit the road to face three teams coming off extended rest having played the previous Thursday. The Colts don’t have any such games. Also, Tennessee is the only division rival to face two-time AFC champ Kansas City, and it will do coming off a MNF game against Buffalo.
No. 3 Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars had a face lift in the offseason by hiring “rookie” head coach Urban Meyer and giving the QB job to rookie Trevor Lawrence of Clemson. Plus, the team will have two new coordinators.
That’s not usually a recipe for instant success, but with the Jaguars it shouldn’t be hard to improve on a 1-15 season in which they lost their final 15 games. A team that had the 28th-rated offense and 31st ranked defense can’t get much worse.
Meyer, who won three college championships (Florida 2, Ohio State) as head man and never had a losing season, will be following in the early footsteps of Nick Saban, who won a college title (LSU) and never had a losing season before also heading to the state of Florida in 2005 to coach in the NFL. He did take a Dolphins team that was 4-12 a year earlier to a 9-7 mark that first season, but abruptly abandoned the squad after a 6-10 season in 2006. The rest is Alabama history.
Meyer loaded up on Clemson stars in the first round of the draft, also taking RB Travis Etienne, who will join rookie RB sensation James Robinson, who rushed for 1,070 yards last season.
On the negative side, however, is the team has mediocre-at-best OTs and have been criticized for not having a pass-catching tight end. Not to mention the secondary is pretty shaky on an already porous defense.
Note: The Jaguars have the easiest opening month schedule based on foe win expectancy, with consecutive games against Houston, Denver, Arizona and Cincinnati. But after that, it gets harder with five straight against teams that had 10-plus wins last season.
No. 4 Houston Texans
Winning four division titles in a five-year span from 2015-2019 is a distant memory. This year, under rookie boss Davd Culley, they have the highest preseason Super Bowl odds of any team.
But history says there’s a flicker of hope for Houston and its futures backers. Before online betting was the rage at DraftKings
, William Hill
, there was a similar long shot that came through in 1999 when the Rams’ Super Bowl odds ballooned to 200-1 at some Vegas books in late summer after first-team QB Trent Green was lost for the season with a knee injury. Who knew his backup, Kurt Warner, was a future Hall of Famer?
In news this week, QB Deshaun Watson, last year’s second-rated passer, reluctantly arrived in camp to avoid being fined, but he won’t be all-in. He’s still demanding a trade and skipped offseason work. And that’s on top of facing 22 active lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct. He might not play anywhere this year.
Then there was three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt requesting his release, receiving it (with no compensation to Houston) and signing with Arizona.
Considering the team went 4-12 with both those stars, optimism is fleeting at best. Especially for a defense that allowed a league-worst 5.2 yards a rush, a league-high 69.7 completion rate, the highest YAC total, and forced a league-low nine turnovers? And the team didn’t have any draft choices in the first or second round, so big-time help isn’t coming from the colleges.
If there’s something the Texans have in abundance is veteran running backs (David Johnson, Mark Ingram and ex-Broncos star Phillip Lindsay). But they seem a better fit with a winning team playing from ahead.
QB Tyrod Taylor, a former starter for the playoff Bills in 2017 when Culley was his position coach, and last year on opening day for the Chargers, will probably be the early No. 1 at the position. Stanford rookie Davis Mills, taken in the third round this spring, could be inserted if the season goes way off the rails early.
Note: Compounding the Texans’ problems is that they have the most difficult schedule in the South,
Best Bet Value
The Colts for the Super Bowl. It sure helps that they’ll get two games apiece against Houston and Jacksonville. And, of course, shop around.