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AFC South projected to be one of tightest divisional races in 2017

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NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Indianapolis Colts Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

A team’s best path to the playoffs each year is to win their division, which guarantees a spot in the postseason.

That was really good news for the Colts in the early years of the Chuck Pagano era, as they played in and dominated an easy division. After finishing second in 2012, they won the division in both 2013 and 2014, and they set an NFL record by winning 16 in a row against division opponents from 2012-2015. That was an incredibly impressive accomplishment regardless of how strong the division was, but in recent years the Colts have fallen behind. They finished second in 2015 with Luck injured for much of the year, and then in 2016 they finished third despite Luck healthy and playing at a high level.

No longer is the AFC South a given for the Colts, and they’ve seen the talent level of the Texans, Titans, and Jaguars increase over the past few years. It has been competitive the last two years, and that should be expected once again, whether it’s considered a good division or not.

Last week, NFL.com’s Conor Orr ranked his predictions for the tightest division races of the 2017 season and had the AFC South second, behind only the AFC West. Orr said that there are four potential playoff teams in the division and three potential 10-win teams, predicting that the division will be decided in the final week of the season. Here’s what he wrote:

The AFC South earns second place here because, while the division has four teams that could make the playoffs, it's a quartet defined by a sort of middling quality that brings the whole operation back to earth. Unlike in the AFC West, I don't see a legitimate Super Bowl contender in this division, but that doesn't mean it won't be thrilling to follow. The division has budding stars -- Marcus Mariota, Jalen Ramsey, Jadeveon Clowney -- alongside a bedrock of accomplished stars like Andrew Luck and J.J. Watt. A few rookies, like Leonard Fournette and Deshaun Watson, have the capability to change the power structure for the long term. The Texans and Colts end the season facing off against one another, while the Jaguars and Titans also have a campaign-ending date. How good are the odds that one of these games decides the division?

I agree with Orr: I expect the AFC South to be quite competitive and tight, and I expect it to be decided very late in the season, perhaps even in the final week. That week 17 matchup between the Colts and the Texans could loom particularly large, as in each of the past two years the Colts and Texans have met in December in a huge game with the division on the line. It’s very reasonable to think that it could happen again, only this time it would be in the final week of the season.

The Titans are a team very much on the rise, while the Texans have a very good roster that now has Deshaun Watson in the mix at quarterback. The Jaguars, meanwhile, have a talented team but have yet to put it all together. The Colts will have competition from those three as they hope to get back to the top of the division, and the Colts’ advantage is that they have the best quarterback in the AFC South in Andrew Luck. That might not be enough to win it, however, so hopefully their defense and the rest of the team steps up and improves too.

Either way, the AFC South should indeed be a very competitive race in 2017, one that could come down to the final week.