This past week has been a rough one for the AFC South. Injuries have been cruel to the entire NFL, robbing fans of top players and leaving us stuck watching some truly lousy games. The Colts have been on the receiving end of that as much as any team, and have also witnessed its effect as they have played a number of teams without their best players available. Despite that, three teams in the South came out of this weekend with wins, so let’s take a look at how the AFC South is shaping up at the midpoint of the season.
If the Titans have not been the consistent and dominant force in the AFC South that some like myself thought they might be, they have still done enough to have a great shot at winning the division. They are not dominant on either side of the ball but present a reasonably well-rounded football team that can win games. Marcus Mariota has been consistent, if not outstanding, and that consistency should be helped by the return of first-round wide receiver Corey Davis who has been out with hamstring issues since week two. If Davis can give this offense a bit of a spark in the passing game it might change the look of this team.
At 5-3 the Titans are atop the AFC South and have a very favorable schedule to close out the season. They play the struggling at home before heading on the road to take on the Steelers. They will then get another shot at the Colts in Indianapolis and then home for the Texans to wrap up the third quarter of the season. You don’t have to call it a stretch to say they could, and very likely should, make it out of that stretch as an 8-4 team. If I am a Titans fan I feel pretty good about those chances.
Playing second fiddle in this two-team division right now are the Jaguars. This is a team built to stop the pass in every way. Their secondary is excellent. Their pass rush is ridiculous. Ask Jacoby Brissett. If you head into a matchup against Jacksonville, don’t expect to have success passing the ball. This team is not invincible, however, and their weaknesses are easy to spot.
The Jaguars rank 27th in the league in rushing yards allowed. They’re giving up 124.9 yards per game. Teams that commit to the running game against them have the ability to do so with success and that puts the pressure squarely on their other weakness. Blake Bortles is still the Jaguars quarterback. I am going to tell you now: do not fall for the illusion. Bortles looked very good in his game against the Colts. The team he played was dreadful. Looking good against the Colts is not an indicator of actual ability. Bortles is a liability. If Bortles is forced to win games or throw the ball to come from behind, this team will struggle down the stretch.
The good news for the Jaguars is that they lead the league in rushing, averaging 169 yards per game behind dynamic rookie Leonard Fournette. That means that unless they make mistakes, they won’t have to rely on Bortles to win games. It certainly doesn’t hurt that their upcoming games are against the Chargers at home, on the road to the Browns and the Cardinals, then home to the Colts. There is very little to convince me they can’t run the table there, to end the third quarter of the season at 9-3.
Just when the Texans were beginning to look like a team that could sneak into the playoffs and be a dark horse to make a run, disaster struck. Rookie star Deshaun Watson suffered a freak ACL tear during practice and just like that, another promising rookie season was ended. Watson was tied for first in the league in passing touchdowns with 19 and had two more on the ground. That type of offensive impact was desperately needed for a team that has long relied on its defense to survive. Now they will be forced to go forward with Tom Savage at QB.
On the defensive side, they have already lost J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus and even with Jadeveon Clowney playing well, this defense does not look like the dominant unit it has been. Their schedule is not entirely forgiving either going forward. They lost their matchup to the Colts at home, and now head on the road to the Rams, home to the Cardinals, then back to back road games against the Ravens and Titans to round out the third quarter of the season. With Deshaun Watson, they were likely to be favored to win all but the Rams game. Without him? Most of those games will be coin flip games. At 3-5, the Texans can’t afford to fall behind in the division race, and they will have to play well on the road, where they have gotten 2 of their 3 losses this season.
Then there are the hapless Colts. Our Colts have suffered heavily due to injury, but the root problem has been clear from the start of the season. A major lack of talent is still an issue, both on the roster and on the coaching staff. Chris Ballard did an admirable job improving some of the pieces on the defensive side of the ball, but because of their youth and inexperience as well as a number of remaining holes, there have been a lot of struggles. The offensive side of the ball was exposed for what they are without the presence of Andrew Luck. A talent-poor unit in need of a lot of work in the coming offseason.
Combining those two problems, injury and lack of talent, this was doomed to be a rough season from the start. With Luck heading to IR, the illusion of him coming in and saving this season was washed away. This is Jacoby Brissett’s team for the rest of 2017. Against the Texans, they were able to do just enough to win, but there is no sense that this team has any kind of run in them. Dysfunction seems to be a part of the norm, with wild conspiracy theories bubbling to the surface because of some of the strange goings-on.
With all that said, this team is not technically out of the playoff race. Don’t get me wrong, if someone wants to bet you that the Colts will make the playoffs you should laugh and take their money. But it isn’t statistically impossible. The most obvious reality for this Colts team is that they go as T.Y. Hilton goes. In their six losses? Hilton’s high in yardage was 57. In the three wins? His low was 153. Draw whatever conclusions you want from that, but here’s the one I’m making: The Colts need T.Y. Hilton to be on if they want to win.
The schedule for them is not awful. They face the Steelers and Titans in back to back home games, before heading to Jacksonville and then Buffalo. If they didn’t get a single win in that stretch it would not surprise me. It also wouldn’t surprise me if they went 3-1. Divisional games are tough to predict. I’m not ready to start picking the Colts to win games just yet and against the Steelers won’t be the game I start. It is like I said though, if T.Y. Hilton shows up, this team’s ceiling is totally different.
Who is your pick to win the AFC South?
This poll is closed