Colts fans have grown used to the idea that the Colts are the big dog in the AFC South. That sort of confidence isn’t hard to understand. Since the creation of the AFC South in 2002, the Colts have dominated it. They are responsible for winning 9 divisional titles, with the next team, the Houston Texans, only netting 4.
Over the last decade, national pundits, talking heads, and sports writers knew one truth: the AFC South was terrible. That just isn’t true anymore. The Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tennessee Titans both won their wild-card round games to move to the divisional round matchups.
The Titans will go to Foxboro to take on the New England Patriots, while the Jaguars will travel to Pittsburgh to challenge the Steelers. In itself this is impressive. The AFC South has lived at the bottom of the league for a while, buoyed only by the Colts’ constant success through the Manning Era. This newfound playoff success is proving that this is a division on the rise and one that should not be taken lightly moving forward.
While neither of these two teams will be favored in the divisional round, it should be noted that Jacksonville absolutely shellacked the Steelers at home during the regular season and could certainly do so again given their defensive talent and running game. The Titans don’t seem like they should have a prayer against the Patriots in Foxboro in January, but if they can play the kind of grinding style of football they did to beat the Chiefs, anything could happen.
What I would like to do is look beyond the playoffs at what we might expect from these teams moving forward. So, we will take a look at each team in the division and try to get an idea of how the Colts compare inside this division that was theirs for so long.
The Jaguars are the division winners for the 2017 season, and it isn’t hard to see why. Their defense has been brutal all season long. The tandem of A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey is probably the best in football at the cornerback position. As Jacoby Brissett found out twice this season, their front seven is just as nasty. They routinely punished quarterbacks, and the addition of Marcell Dareus solidified a run defense that was lacking early on in the year.
Perhaps what is most terrifying about this team is that they are just starting to see their young talent emerge. Their defense is young and largely locked up for the next several years. They have a truly impressive running back in Leonard Fournette who is likely to take another step next season. Their only real area of need team is at the quarterback position.
If they are able to grab a quarterback in the draft and develop him into a more reliable starter than Blake Bortles, they will be a terrifying team to play for the next several years. I fully expect that if Kirk Cousins comes available from the Redskins, the Jaguars will lead the way in the bidding war. The Colts can expect a perennial headache from the Jaguars, and they will have to build their team accordingly to compete.
The Titans were the team that I thought would win the AFC South at the beginning of this season. On paper, they have the most balanced team in the division. That held true this season, but it is also fair to say they did not get the leap in Marcus Mariota’s play that they were hoping for and their defense seriously underperformed. There is likely some truth to the idea that their coaching staff impacted that, but they also have not surrounded Mariota with game-changing receiving threats who can help him apart from TE Delanie Walker. Derrick Henry has shown that he can be a force late in games, as he proved against the Chiefs, and earlier in the season against the Colts.
Their defense under Dick Lebeau has been solid and gotten consistent pressure on the quarterback, with their whole cast of defensive players contributing to that effort. While they were ranked 7th by Football Outsiders against the run, their pass defense struggled and they will need young players like Adoree Jackson to take significant steps forward to improve in that regard. This is another team that should be solid for a while to come.
However, in my view, they are the most likely team to slip to the bottom of this division next season. Mariota proved that he thrives in a fast-paced style of offense over the last couple weeks of the season. Even so, the Titans coaching staff seems set on imposing a slow and grinding run-first offense that does not suit their strengths. Add to that the fact that their playoff win seems to have secured Mike Mularkey’s job as far as the front office is concerned, and they seem to be exactly where the Colts have spent their last several years.
Still, despite underperforming, they managed to secure a wild-card spot in the playoffs and advance. That is certainly more than they’ve been able to do in years past.
The Texans are an interesting team. Deshaun Watson was electrifying before he tore his ACL and went on season-ending injured reserve. That was a crushing blow for them. Add to that the loss of J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus to injuries and A.J. Bouye to free agency, and we saw the impact it had on both sides of the ball.
I do not expect that the Texans will return to the type of dominant force they were on defense, even when they return to full health. J.J. Watt has missed the majority of the last two seasons with injuries. If he is able to come back and be the same player he was, that will be a huge lift to the defense, but when next season kicks off he will be 29, and the likelihood that he will continue to struggle to stay healthy will only get worse.
Unlike the Jaguars, who appear to be at the beginning of their window with some of their top talents on defense, the Texans are closer to the end. They have several free agent decisions to make this offseason, and while they have the money to do it, they will have to begin making tough decisions over the next couple of years. They have leveraged much of their future in the way of draft picks for the now. That means that if they are unable to develop their current players and win, their margin for error has become razor thin. They have no first or second round pick this year, and just four picks total.
Having said all that, a franchise quarterback covers up a lot, as Colts fans can attest. If Watson can come back and play at the level he did this season, this team will be competitive. DeAndre Hopkins remains one of the most dynamic receiving threats in the league, his production good regardless of the talent of the person getting him the ball. With a healthy franchise quarterback, this could be a more potent duo than Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. The Colts will have their hands full.
So where does that leave the Colts? They are a team that is certainly flawed, although not so deeply as the national media might have us believe. So much will be up in the air without the knowledge of who will be at the helm of the team. Combine that with the general uncertainty around Andrew Luck’s health, and it is easy to see how you might take a negative outlook of the franchise from afar. Up close, however, the picture looks quite a bit different.
Let’s start with the much-maligned defense. Up front, you have the trio of Johnathan Hankins, Al Woods, and Henry Anderson. When he went out with one of the weirdest football injuries I’ve ever heard of, Henry Anderson was really heating up. He has been a player who was constantly held back by injuries. If this had been a more typical one I might be concerned. However, as it was a throat injury, it shouldn’t hamper his return to regular form. That makes this one of the more imposing lines the Colts have had in a very long time.
The linebackers are the weakest group on the team. While John Simon and Jabaal Sheard are solid on the outside, I expect the Colts to address the need for a real edge rusher and some talented inside linebackers both in free agency and the draft. It may not make them a group that blows anyone away, but improvement even a little would have been the difference between wins and losses in several games this season.
The secondary is the place the Colts could really shine next season. Malik Hooker was as good as advertised in the safety position, but will need to recover from a torn ACL. When he played, Quincy Wilson looked solid, and Nate Hairston did as well. If their first-year players take a step forward, and they re-sign Rashaan Melvin or Pierre Desir or both, this could be one of the most well-rounded secondaries in football. Is that a bit optimistic? Maybe. But I don’t think I am wrong.
On the offensive side of the ball, the real question looms large. If Andrew Luck is healthy, it cures a lot of problems there. With Luck playing, no one believes T.Y. Hilton’s numbers look the way they did in 2017. Marlon Mack made a lot of mistakes in the running game and in pass protection that need addressing, but with Andrew Luck throwing him the ball, the screen game could easily become one of the most dangerous things about this offense. Jack Doyle did the kinds of things we have grown to expect from him, and that will undoubtedly continue.
Free agency will likely see a major overhaul of this offense in several places, though. The offensive line is primed for Ballard to spend some serious money on it. There will likely be some quality interior linemen up for grabs during that time, and the draft could see more added on the line as well.
We will also likely see a tight end and at least one receiver brought in as well to add a red zone threat across from Hilton. There is also a need at running back to share the load with Mack, who is still a developing player. Given the deep draft class of running backs, that may be a need that is filled there.
Overall, this team has a ton of young talent that, if placed in the hands of the right coaching staff, could develop into a very balanced and dangerous group. If Andrew Luck is healthy, that development could be hurried along a lot more quickly than many might expect. That will remain a major question mark until we start seeing him throw consistently and with some zip.
If the Colts are able to bring in a top quality head coach, it will give them a major advantage in a division where coaching talent might be the biggest deficiency across the board. One thing we can be certain of is that even with Andrew Luck healthy, this division has seen significant improvement, and is infused with a lot of youth. We should expect every season to be a fight to win it. While that might not be as appealing as being able to rubber stamp 6 wins every year to some, championship teams are built through playing top competition and succeeding.
Finding a way to win in this division with consistency going forward will not be easy. It will mean they have had to build a team that is one of the best we have seen as Colts fans. I don’t think that they will be there next season, but I think Ballard has them headed that way, and personally, I cannot wait.