The NFL season has finally arrived. This time, without the four-week preseason to hype us all up for the real games to begin. This season will look very different as many games will take place without fans to start the season, along with limited capacities for other games.
One recurring narrative coming into this season is the AFC South being one of the most tightly-contested divisions in the NFL. Here is a breakdown of each team in order of their finish in the final division standings.
- Indianapolis Colts (2019 record: 7-9)
Last season, the Colts were faced with adversity several weeks before the season began as franchise quarterback, Andrew Luck, abruptly retired, forcing the Colts to rely on Jacoby Brissett to lead the team back to the playoffs. Brissett started in 15 of their 16 games last year and led the Colts to a 7-8 record as the starter (Brian Hoyer lost his one start against Miami). However, it appeared as if the Colts were going to reach the playoffs again after starting 5-2. Due to injuries and a struggling offense, the Colts collapsed down the stretch, losing seven of their last nine games. This was highlighted by a shoddy 2-6 road record.
Brissett was a game manager for the team as he threw for 2,942 yards and 18 touchdowns with only six interceptions. However, the passing attack lacked punch as they had they ranked 30th (out of 32) in passing offense. The running game helped to ease that flaw as they ranked seventh in rushing offense thanks to Marlon Mack running for 1,091 yards.
This offseason, the Colts signed a new signal-caller in long-time Chargers’ quarterback Philip Rivers. Rivers struggled last season with 23 touchdowns and 20 interceptions but should find more success behind the sturdy offensive line of the Colts.
Next, the Colts turned to improve their mediocre defense by trading their first-round pick in this years’ draft for star San Francisco 49ers’ defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. Other additions included veteran corner Xavier Rhodes and kicker Rodrigo Blankenship, who replaces the aging veteran Adam Vinatieri.
The Colts have established an excellent foundation with one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. With Marlon Mack establishing himself as the number one running back and a veteran, talented QB in Philip Rivers, the Colts offense will show more signs of life than they displayed in 2019. Along with an improved defense, I expect the Colts to win the brutal three-way battle for the division title, their first since 2014.
2. Tennessee Titans (2019 record: 9-7)
Even though the Titans did not win the division in 2019, they were the most successful team in the AFC South last season. It started off poorly as the Titans lost 16-0 at Denver and benched their starting quarterback in Marcus Mariota. They started Ryan Tannehill for their Week 7 matchup against the Los Angeles Chargers and the Titans took off from there, winning seven of their last 10 games and reaching the postseason as the last AFC wild-card team. They defeated the New England Patriots 21-13 in Tom Brady’s final game as a Patriot. They then proceeded to dominate the top-seeded Baltimore Ravens 28-12 and advance to their first AFC Championship game since 2002. While they lost 35-24 to the eventual Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs despite leading 17-7 in the second quarter, the Titans produced a fantastic season that excited the fanbase.
This offseason, the Titans rewarded Tannehill for turning their season around with a four-year, $118 million contract. The Titans made minimal changes to their roster but recently added pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney on a one-year deal, reuniting him with Mike Vrabel whom Vrabel coached at Houston. They bolstered the offensive line by drafting Georgia tackle Isaiah Wilson.
The Titans were led by 2019 NFL rushing champion in Derrick Henry who had 182 and 195 yards rushing in their two postseason wins respectively last season. While he and Tannehill were fantastic last season, I do not see the Titans replicating their success in 2020 and I expect the team to take a step back. However, the roster is still well-rounded and coached well so they will finish 9-7 for the fifth season in a row and reach the wild card round once again.
3. Houston Texans (2019 record: 10-6)
“Thank God we have Deshaun Watson” is what every Texans fan tells themselves when they see the atrocious moves head coach and general manager Bill O’Brien makes. Last season, this was especially the case as Watson dragged the Texans to the division title with 3,852 yards and 26 touchdowns. The Texans faced the Buffalo Bills in the wild card round at the usual time slot for the Texans that weekend, 4:30 p.m. EST on a Saturday.
In a game that was utter chaos, Watson led the Texans back from a 16-0 second-half deficit and forced overtime tied at 19. Deep into the first overtime period, Watson broke two sack attempts and found a wide-open Taiwan Jones, who ran past the Bills defense to set up Ka’imi Fairbairn’s game-winning field goal to give the Texas the 22-19 victory. In their divisional round matchup against the Chiefs, the Texans blew a 24-0 lead in the second quarter as poor coaching from O’Brien contributed to the Chiefs scoring four touchdowns in 10 minutes. The Chiefs led 28-24 at halftime and would win 51-31.
This offseason, O’Brien was promoted to GM and decided to make some puzzling moves. He traded all-pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals for a second-round pick and a washed running back in David Johnson. Then, he decided to trade a second-round pick for Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Brandin Cooks. They essentially traded Hopkins for Cooks and Johnson, a curious move to say the least. While getting draft picks is nice, a first-round pick would have been better since they lost theirs in the Laremy Tunsil trade.
While the Texans have a deeper receiving corp with Cooks, Will Fuller, Kenny Stills and Randall Cobb, they lose the security blanket and threat in Hopkins. The Texans were 29th in pass defense and did little to fix it this offseason. They are still a flawed team but with Watson’s talent and the AFC being full of mediocre teams, the Texans will take the sixth-seed in the AFC playoffs
4. Jacksonville Jaguars (2019 record: 6-10)
#Sacksonville is dead.
Nearly every member of the 2017 team that lost 24-20 in the AFC Championship game to the New England Patriots is gone. The Jaguars have rebooted the roster, a dramatic change from their roster two years ago. Gardener Minshew is the new quarterback after the Nick Foles experiment failed for the Jaguars, posting an 0-4 record as a starter. Minshew was solid with 21 touchdown passes and 3,271 yards and went 6-6 as the starter. DJ Chark blossomed as a dependable target with 1,008 yards on 73 receptions.
This offseason, the Jaguars unloaded talent to other teams such as trading AJ Bouye to the Denver Broncos, Yannick Ngakoue to the Minnesota Vikings and Leonard Fournette was released, signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Due to trading Jalen Ramsey at the trade deadline, the Jaguars had two first-round picks, using them on Florida cornerback CJ Henderson and LSU linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson.
The Jaguars have solid pieces on their roster but their talent pool is depleted and the roster is filled with inexperience and inconsistency. I predict the Jaguars will struggle this season and will win the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes and earn the number one pick in the draft.