With the NFL season kicking off this Thursday with the Philadelphia Eagles opening up the defense of their Super Bowl LII title against the Atlanta Falcons, what better time to preview the season, especially now that rosters are mostly set after a mostly ignored preseason.
These previews are going to feature a quick look back at last season, any major personnel moves that may affect the upcoming season, and a prediction for how we think each division is going to play out. At the end of the week, we’ll post a separate post that combines them all and predicts the playoff participants, as well as who we think will be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy after Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta on February 3, 2019.
As we continue our journey around the AFC, we have arrived in the AFC South, which in recent years, is one of the weaker divisions in football. Since 2002, when the NFL went to eight divisions, only one team from the division has won a Super Bowl, the Peyton Manning-led Indianapolis Colts’ win in Super Bowl XLI. The Colts were the dominant team in the division during Peyton Manning’s career in Indianapolis, winning 7 of the first 9 division titles, but in the seven years since he left the Colts, the Houston Texans have the most division titles (4), the Colts have two, and Jacksonville won their first division title in the era last season. The Tennessee Titans last won the division in 2008.
The Jacksonville Jaguars won a division title for the first time since 1999, their first season under new coach Doug Marrone, who replaced Gus Bradley at the tail end of the 2016 season when the team was 2-12. The team improved seven last season, one of the best improvements in the NFL, riding the second-best defense to a 10-6 season and ending their 10-year playoff drought. They reached their Week 8 bye exchanging wins and losses through the first seven games (4-3), and finished the season 6-3. Despite losing their last two games, they managed to win two games in the playoffs before losing a close game to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. It was the Jags best season in a long time, and their defense looks to carry them going forward.
The Tennessee Titans also made the playoffs, matching the 9-7 record from the previous season. Despite losing three of the their final four games, a win over the Jags in Week 17 assured their return to the playoffs, also for the first time since 2008. They even managed to win a playoff game, defeating the Kansas City Chiefs in the Wild Card Round, before losing to the Patriots in the Divisional Round. It wasn’t enough to save Mike Mularkey’s jobs, who was fired after the season.
The Indianapolis Colts also dealt with the loss of their quarterback, with Andrew Luck getting injured before the season. They finished the season 4-12, their first losing season since 2011. Other than two wins against the Houston Texans, their other two wins came against the eventually winless Cleveland Browns and a San Francisco 49ers team was in the midst of losing their first 9 games of the season.
Finally, the Houston Texans failed to make the playoffs after winning the division the prior two seasons, and the season was derailed early with the season-ending loss of defensive superstar J.J. Watt in Week 5 and the Week 9 loss of rookie quarterback sensation Deshaun Watson. They also finished 4-12 on the season, 10 of their final 11 games after their Week 7 bye. Having the worst defense in the league sure didn’t help.
Major Personnel Moves
The Colts are happy to see the return of Andrew Luck, and if he can return to his pre-injury form, he will definitely be an improvement over either Scott Tolzein or Jacoby Brissett. They also have a new coach, after the firing of Chuck Pagano after the 2016 season, with Frank Reich, formerly the Eagles offensive coordinator, taking over after an aborted Josh McDaniel deal fell through when McDaniels decided to return to the Patriots.
The Titans are also trotting out a new head coach, with former Patriot linebacker Mike Vrabel taking over for the departed Mike Mularkey. They will also look to former Patriots teammates on both sides of the ball, with running back Dion Lewis and cornerback Malcolm Butler joining the team as free agents during the offseason.
The Texans didn’t add many “name” players, though they hope their fortunes will be boosted by the return of the aforementioned Watt and Watson. The Jaguars are also running back mostly the same team, though they did lose two top receivers – Allen Hurns (Dallas) and Allen Robinson (Chicago) – as well as tight end Mercedes Lewis (Green Bay).
The division could either be dominated by the Jaguars or the teams could all finish 3-3 in the division and hope for performance outside of the division for separation. I have the Jags in first place based on a (projected) strong performance, because of a favorable schedule, against the teams from the AFC East and NFC East. But I could also easily see the winning team from the division finish with nine or ten wins, like the champions have done in each of the last three years.
1. Jacksonville Jaguars – 12-4 (5-1 division)
2. Tennessee Titans – 8-8 (5-1 division)
3. Houston Texans – 6-10 (1-5 division)
4. Indianapolis Colts – 5-11 (1-5 division)