EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the sixth of eight NFL division previews. Next week, the NFC West.
From top to bottom, there isn’t a more tightly wound division than the AFC South.
Jacksonville is the not-so-overwhelming favorite to repeat as champ at 8-5, but Indianapolis is at 4-1, the shortest odds for any team that’s listed as a division’s long shot at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook.
Last year the South had a wild card for the first time in five years when Tennessee advanced with a 9-7 mark. Still, the loop had a collective mark of 10 games under .500, the worst for any of the eight divisions and the eighth straight time the South didn’t at least break even.
There’s a good chance that under .500 streak ends this year. Schedule-wise, the South gets to face the NFC West and AFC North, which aren’t as strong as past years. Thus, there’s a strong chance of a wild card surfacing here.
Anyway, here is the predicted order of finish for the division. Odds are provided by Westgate Las Vegas:
1. Houston (5-2 to win division; 16-1 to win Super Bowl): Early on last year, the Texans were the surprise team in the division behind rookie QB Deshaun Watson, averaging 34.6 points in his six starts. But then came a season-ending knee injury in a midweek practice that essentially ended their playoff hopes. Without him starting, Houston’s norm was 13 points a game as the team’s record nose-dived to 4-12 after going 10-6 the year before.
Watson’s back now, and if he’s anything close to his old self throwing to DeAndre Hopkins and speedy Will Fuller, the Texans have the most upside in the division. Especially with the return of standout DE J.J. Watt and OLB Whitney Mercilus, who also missed significant time last year because of injuries. Former Cardinals standout safety Tyrann Mathieu was added to bolster the secondary, so things are looking up.
It’s the rebuilt offensive line that has to come through because workhorse RB Lamar Miller often goes down at the first sign of contact and had a long of only 21 yards on 238 carries last year. But if RB D’onta Foreman can steal some of those carries, he’ll help a bunch. He had three 20-plus runs on only 78 carries in 2017.
Note: Based on the Westgate’s win expectancy totals, the Texans have the easiest schedule in the league. But in Week 1, it’s the hardest, when they face the Patriots in New England.
2. Jacksonville (8-5 div; 16-1 SB): The Jaguars had a Super Bowl berth within their grasp in last season’s AFC title game at New England when they held a 10-point lead and the ball in the fourth quarter. Then, poof!
Still, the Jaguars’ 10-6 regular season and playoff run was a reason for rejoicing after finishing 3-13 the year before. But there were warts. QB Blake Bortles ranked 20th on the passer chart and of his 13 interceptions, six came in enemy territory. Gasp! He also had nine fumbles, plus a league-high four in the playoffs.
And as good as bulldozing and injury-prone RB Leonard Fournette was last year (1,040 yards), he averaged only 3.9 yards a carry, which included a stat-puffing 90-yard romp in the final two minutes in a Week 5 trouncing of Pittsburgh.
Then there’s the second-ranked defense. Twice late in the season the unit was gored for 40+ points first by 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo and then in the playoffs by Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisbergter. And don’t count on the defense to score seven TDs again. That matched the highest total by club the past five years.
Note: Last year the Jaguars improved their win total by seven games over the previous season. Since the inception of the 16-game schedule in 1978, a total of 24 teams have done at least that (excluding 2017), and all but two had a worse record the next season. But 9-7 still might get a WC berth.
3. Tennessee (3-1, 20-1): Rookie coach Mike Vrabel takes over for the Titans after Mike Mularkey was let go after the Titans’ playoff run to the divisional round.
Vrabel promises to open up an offense that had only 14 TDs through the air in 2017, the fewest for any playoff team since Mark Sanchez’s Jets in 2009. But it won’t be easy since Mariota is on his fourth play-caller in four years.
In the running game, ex-Patriot Dion Lewis was acquired in free agency and will add spice to a backfield that has hard-nosed Derrick Henry (744 yards, 4.2). And favorite Mariota target, TE Delanie Walker, returns. But he’s 34.
The defense looks particularly capable in the secondary with the addition of another ex-Patriot, Malcolm Butler, who will join All-Pro safety Kevin Byard. And DL Jurrell Casey anchors the front wall. But there just doesn’t seem to be enough pizzazz to the offense to get Tennessee back in the postseason mix.
Note: The Titans had the biggest comeback victory of last season, rallying from a 21-3 hole at halftime in Kansas City to win 22-21.
4. Indianapolis (4-1, 60-1): Rookie field boss Frank Reich takes over after helping the Eagles win the Super Bowl as offensive coordinator. The Colts will hope he’s as successful as their last rookie hire, Jim Caldwell in 2009, who guided the team to a 14-0 start and the AFC championship.
Absolutely all hope hinges on the healthy return of QB Andrew Luck, who sat out last year’s crash-and-burn 4-12 season with a forever-lingering shoulder injury. His line has improved through the draft, but probably not enough. It allowed a league-high 56 sacks last year. Luck could be running for his life and soon be back getting X-rays.
However, if new alpha RB Marlon Mack overachieves, maybe Indy plays meaningful games in December. The defense, meanwhile, seems extremely weak at linebacker. Plus, arguably two of the team’s top defenders last year, DL Johnathan Hankins and CB Rashaan Melvin, are gone.
Note: In five of the Colts’ 12 losses last season they squandered a double-digit lead, an NFL high.