With the Colts’ opening day matchup against the Bengals coming on Sunday, it made sense to have a look around the AFC South to get a look at what our divisional foes will be facing in the first four weeks of the season, and how they stack up. Let’s get to it.
I don’t know what to think about the Titans. For two seasons I’ve predicted that they would be the best team in the AFC South. They seem perched on the edge of relevance, but it took the abysmal performances of the Texans and Colts, as well as a fairly easy schedule to get them to a 9-7 record and a playoff berth.
They’ll face a much tougher schedule this season and they cannot afford to falter early. After their week one road trip to Miami, they’ll come home to face Houston, before traveling to Jacksonville. They’ll end the first quarter of the season at home against the defending Super Bowl Champion Eagles. It is very conceivable that they could finish that stretch 1-3 and 2 games back in the division, which would make a tough climb for a pretty balanced, but ultimately unspectacular team.
That fast start will be made even tougher by the fact that they have had several valuable contributors to the team, right tackle Jack Conklin, linebacker Brian Orakpo, and rookie first round pick Rashaan Evans, miss all or much of the preseason with injuries. They’ll need to hit the ground running, and injuries can significantly complicate that effort.
The Houston Texans are my pick to win the division. This is a team that was absolutely decimated by injuries last season, and has gotten a lot of serious players back in the offseason. J.J. Watt is back and healthy, and that counts for a lot. We are due for him to stick around for a little bit, and as much as I want to beat the Texans, watching Watt disrupt whole games on his own was really enjoyable, so I’d love to see one more season of him at his peak. Just not against the Colts. Whitney Mercilus is also back, and putting these guys up front to get after the passer means this is a scary defense.
Perhaps most importantly for their team, second year passer Deshaun Watson looks to be fully back from his ACL tear. Watson is an electrifying player with game-changing ability, and although he found himself on the right side of a lot of possible turnover situations last season, and benefited from more than a little good fortune with some of his errant throws, overall he showed himself a dangerous playmaker who takes this team and offense to another level.
The first quarter of the season looks like one that the Texans can be successful in. They’ll travel to Foxboro for their season opener against New England, and the head to face the Titans in Nashville, before a home game against the Giants. They’ll finish off the first quarter in Indianapolis against the Colts. They will likely be favored in all these games with the exception of the game against New England. However, getting wins against the Titans and Colts would give them a two-game lift in the division. If they could get out of this stretch 3-1 they would be thrilled.
The Jaguars are certainly a very talented team on the defensive side of the ball. They have got the football cognoscenti firmly behind them as a team that is right in their Super Bowl window and should be equipped to beat just about anyone they face. However, there are several questions that I have about this team that lead me to believe this won’t be quite the year many are expecting for the Jaguars.
First, how do they plan to score points? The problem with this team is that they don’t have any real threats in the passing game. The loss of Marquis Lee was a big blow to a thin wide receiver corps, and Blake Bortles is not going to do all that well if he is throwing to All-Pro’s, let alone just a bunch of guys. Leonard Fournette cannot be the only offensive weapon on this team, and I am not sure they have any other reliable ones.
Second, this is a team that stayed relatively healthy in the 2017 season. They didn’t lose key players to injury and they didn’t get killed by mistakes from their quarterback. With Watson and Luck both healthy in their division, the chances are high that they’ll find themselves in at least a couple shootouts, which bodes ill for Blake Bortles. You can only hide your quarterback for so long, and expecting another such injury free season for the defense is naive. It is too much to ask your defense to have another performance like 2017, but that is what it will take for this team to win games.
The good news for them is that the first month is relatively winnable. They have a road game against the Giants before coming home for three straight against the Patriots, Titans, and Jets. Realistically, there is no reason they can’t come away with 4 wins here and start their season undefeated, but reason tells me they’re likely to lose at least one. Still, a 3-1 start would be something they could be pretty pleased with, so long as the Titans weren’t their one loss.