The AFC South has a long-standing reputation as one of the worst divisions in the NFL. It used to be because the Peyton Manning-led Colts dominated while the rest of the teams struggled to win more than 8 games a year. These paltry performances resulted in high draft picks and considerable cap space for the “other” teams in the AFC South to make major changes and start to close the gap.
Over the last couple of years, it appears that the gap has started to close. There is little arguing that the Houston Texans, Tennessee Titans, and Jacksonville Jaguars have started to amass impressive talent on their teams and that the division no longer goes through Indianapolis.
Every season there is new discussion about how dangerous the Jacksonville Jaguars could be with their free agent and draft classes listed as one of the strongest in the NFL. Similarly, it feels like the Houston Texans have been a quarterback away from putting together a team led by defensive juggernaut J.J. Watt that can make some real noise in the playoffs. The Tennessee Titans added quarterback Marcus Mariota, running backs DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, and wide receivers Corey Davis and Eric Decker to get their offense moving.
Somehow, all of these moves have not resulted in a breakthrough just yet. The Indianapolis Colts entered the 2017 season with considerable roster overhaul, a new general manager, and injuries to crucial players on their roster including Andrew Luck, Ryan Kelly, Vontae Davis, and Clayton Geathers.
While it hasn’t been pretty, this wounded and limping Colts team has been able to win a trade with New England that saw them send former first round wide receiver Phillip Dorsett to the Patriots for third-string quarterback Jacoby Brissett. Brissett has led the Colts to a 2-3 record through five weeks and kept hopes alive for Luck to return in a position to make a playoff run in the back half of the season.
Similarly, while the Tennessee Titans have been the team on a verge of a breakout, their chances fall on the healthy shoulders of quarterback Marcus Mariota. With him, they can seize this window of opportunity to take control of the division. Without him, they drop considerably and are long shots to win the division or make the playoffs.
Unfortunately, Mariota has been dealing with a hamstring injury that is holding him out of games, and his 2016 was cut short due to a broken leg. Are these injuries a case of short-term bad luck or will they haunt him throughout his career? The answer to that question has a pretty heavy influence on Tennessee’s chances to take the next step.
Enter the Jacksonville Jaguars, with struggling quarterback Blake Bortles. If you would have asked me in the preseason if the Jaguars had any prayer of leading the division after 5 weeks with Bortles under center, I would have confidently said “no.” The NFL is so dependent upon having a reliable signal caller who can keep the offense moving that the absence of one typically will leave a team on the outside looking in.
However, this team has started to create a defensive identity that belongs in the conversation with Denver or Seattle over the last few years. The Jaguars are very stingy against opposing quarterbacks and don’t allow much to get going through the air. They have a rookie running back with a bright future in Leonard Fournette who has helped the Jags jump out to an early league-lead average of 165.2 rushing yards per game. This combination screams ball control and forces opponents to match their production on the ground, shortening the game and playing into their offensive strengths, and punishes teams who get frustrated with the grind and try to go to the air.
If there ever was an NFL team that is just a quarterback away from being scary good it is Jacksonville. Even without that piece, they’re the best team in the AFC South right now.
This leaves the 2017 Houston Texans and rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson. This team has certainly played competitive football and the early returns on Watson have been impressive. They are the defending AFC South champions, twice over, and have won the division in four of the last six seasons. It is entirely reasonably to say that since Peyton Manning left the division for the Denver Broncos, Houston has been the team to beat.
For the longest time, it was the lack of a reliable quarterback that held the Texans back from making their own mark in the playoffs. With hopes that Watson is the answer at the position, now Houston has to overcome attrition. Once a team starts to get good enough to win the division and regularly make the playoffs, it takes a bit more creativity to manage the cap and roster to hold everything together. It also takes some luck that whomever you sink considerable resources into will stay healthy and productive on the field.
The Texans have had a bit of difficulties in this regard. The team’s best cornerback, A.J. Bouye left for division rival Jacksonville in free agency. A season ago they lost center Ben Jones to the Titans. They also lost rotational linebacker John Simon to the Colts. If that isn’t bad enough, the team lost defensive end J.J. Watt and outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus on one drive over the weekend. Throw in an suspension for Brian Cushing, who is on the decline and that Bernardrick McKinney is a liability in the passing game and this defense is starting to have an uphill battle that the front office might be losing.
Despite the heroic early play of Watson, the Texans may now be the worst team in the AFC South with a disappointing defensive trajectory. They will soon find themselves in a situation that is similar to the one the Indianapolis Colts just faced — they might have a young quarterback who is battling to stay productive and win football games on a cheap contract before they have to put considerable resources into keeping him on the roster and lose that advantage.
Anyway you slice it, best or worst in the AFC South doesn’t mean a whole lot right now. The division is still bad and while the Indianapolis Colts have certainly lost the throne, every team is closer to average than they are to dominant. No team has dominated the division in the same way as Peyton Manning did during his tenure in Indianapolis. He has a statue to prove it.