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AFC South: Path to the Playoffs

We’ve got five weeks left in the NFL season, and the AFC South is still up for grabs.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Indianapolis Colts Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

This week, Josh outlined the NFL playoff picture and if the Colts control their own destiny. I’m going to take a step back and look at the AFC South as a whole.

We know that only one team from the division will be making the playoffs, unless the rest of the AFC implodes in the last month. So winning the division is the only path to the playoffs for these four teams. So how can it be done for each team? Let’s look.

Houston Texans (6-5) - The Texans have been unable to put away the rest of the division, despite holding a multiple game lead at one point. Suddenly, the Texans are only a half game up on the Titans, and one game on the Colts.

The Texans primary advantage right now is their record within the division. They’ve beaten each team once, holding a 3-0 record in the South. this means, at worst, the Titans cannot lose any head to head tie-breakers with any of the other three teams.

What might hurt the Texans, though, will be losses to common opponents and their AFC record. Let’s start with common opponents (so basically the NFC North and AFC West). The Texans have struggled against the West, going 1-3 against teams there, but have thrived against the NFC North going 2-1 so far. Currently, this puts their Common Opponent Record (COR for the purposes of this article) at 3-4 with one to go.

Within the AFC, it gets a little worse. So far, the Texans have five losses, and four have been within the AFC itself.

Moving forward, the Texans have some difficult games. They’ll head on the road to Green Bay this week, and stay on the road, heading to Indianapolis after that. It’s not out of the question to think the Texans could be out of first place after those two games. They also have home games against Cincinnati and Jacksonville, as well as a season ending road game in Tennessee, which could be HUGE.

Best case scenario for the Texans? I think 10-6. I don’t think they win in Green Bay, but all other game they could realistically win. Although both Indy and Tennessee will be difficult.

Worst case scenario? Probably 8-8. No matter how the Packers, Colts, and Titans games end up, I don’t see the Texans losing at home to the Bengals or Jaguars.

Fortunately for the Texans, 9-7 could legitimately win the division again, and that is likely well within this team’s grasp. Those last three division games loom large.

Tennessee Titans (6-6) - The Titans continue to hang around after escaping Chicago with a victory. They sit in second place right now a half game back of the Texans, and a half game ahead of the Colts. Tennessee is on the bye this week, which means that it’s entirely possible they could move into a tie (possibly three-way) without playing a game this week.

What really, really, really hurts the Titans, though, is an abysmal division record. Currently, they sit at 1-3 in the division, and have been swept by the Colts. Meaning that they must finish a full game clear of Indy if the division comes down to those two teams.

Where the Titans did themselves some favors, though, is where the Texans did not, in COR and AFC Record. Again for the COR, we’ll look at records against the AFC West and NFC North. Against the West, the Titans currently sit at 0-2, and have yet to play both Denver and Kansas City. But against the North, their record is an astounding 3-1, bringing their total to 3-3 at the moment. Meaning those next two games are big for the Titans.

Within the AFC (outside the South) the Titans have lost two games. However, that could quickly change to four depending on these next two. This means the Titans will automatically have fewer AFC (non-South) losses than the Texans. True, but they are still (for the moment) in the hole for head to head, and division records.

Moving forward, as I mentioned, the Titans are on the bye before hosting the Broncos and then traveling to Kansas City. Both immensely challenging games. The Titans finish the season heading to Jacksonville and then hosting the Texans.

Best case scenario for Tennessee? Honestly, I see 8-8 as the ceiling for this team. I don’t think they beat the Chiefs in Arrowhead, and beating both Denver and Houston seems like a stretch.

Worst case scenario? Looking at those last four games, couldn’t you see the Titans losing out? 6-10 is definitely worst realistic case for the Titans.

Basically, Houston needs to beat Houston and Jacksonville to give themselves a chance. And hope the Colts fall off the map.

Indianapolis Colts (5-6) - Injuries. That’s the story for the Colts. They’ll need Andrew Luck back to have any hope of winning the AFC South. Indy seemed to be turning the corner before Luck’s injury, so we’ll have to see how they play with Luck, and hopefully other key players, back.

All year, the Colts have had opportunities to take the division, or get closer, and squander them. Look no further than an uninspiring loss to Jacksonville, and a meltdown against Houston. If the Colts hold on to beat the Texans, they are likely in the driver’s seat of the division. But they didn’t, so they aren’t.

In their COR, it doesn’t look great for the Colts. Against the West, the Colts sit at 1-2, with a game still to go against the Raiders. Against the North, they are 2-1, with a trip to Minnesota looming. Much like the Titans, the two remaining COR games could be huge.

As for record within the AFC, the Colts are in the same boat, with only one loss coming against an NFC opponent. They current have 3 losses in the AFC outside the division, with two more to play. So again, they could swing from worst (out of the three front runners) to best depending on those two games.

The upcoming schedule is full of question marks. Two more division games are coming up, both at home, against Houston and Jacksonville. Those are the only two home games left on the slate, as Indy must head to New York, Minnesota, and Oakland. The question marks lie with the Jets and Vikings. Will the Colts play the good or bad version of those teams? Will the good or bad Colts show up to those games?

Best case scenario? Honestly, I see 9-7 as the ceiling for this team because, frankly, I don’t see them winning in Oakland. Fortunately, as I mentioned earlier, I think 9-7 could get the job done.

Worst case? I think 6-10 is worst case, because I don’t see the Colts losing to Jacksonville at home. I also think they’ll beat Houston too, but I’m not sold enough on that to consider it a lock.

The Colts can dig themselves out of this mess to win the division, but they’ll need outside help.

Jacksonville Jaguars (2-9) - For Jacksonville, it’s simple. Win out, and hope for a dumpster fire in the rest of the division. And by dumpster fire, I mean, every single team needs to lose out while Jacksonville wins out. I mean, maybe they could win a 7-9 tie-breaker with the Texans or Titans (I haven’t done the records comparisons if that happens) and they would win that over the Colts (because they’d have head to head).

Best case scenario? I just said it. Win out and hope the apocalypse descends upon the rest of the division. Realistic best case? Probably 5-11. I legitimately could see Jacksonville finding a way to win three games (not the Denver game), but probably not more.

Worst case? They lose out and finish 2-14. Because really, I could see this happening. Fact. Jacksonville has never had the first overall pick. And with 2 wins, they might not this year either (thanks to Cleveland).

So Who Has the Advantage?

Definitely Houston. Like it or not, they’re still in the driver’s seat. A win against any division opponent automatically gives them a winning record in the division, which no one else can attain. A win against Indy all but prevents them from losing a three-way tie with the Colts and Titans.