Every year there is at least one division that plays exceptionally well. That doesn’t necessarily mean all four teams have standout years, but their body of work as a division stands out from the rest.
Last season, with three teams winning ten games, it was the NFC South. The year before that, it was either the AFC West (with two 12-4 teams) or the NFC East (more wins – 39 – than any other division). It varies from season to season, and it isn’t always cut and dry which division is the best in a given year.
There is, however, one thing that has been cut and dry. It was not going to be the AFC South. Since the division formed back in 2002, the AFC South has only had one season where three teams won 10+ games (2007). All three made the playoffs that year, but the division winner has often been the only playoff team from the division.
That was the case in four of the last five seasons.
But heading into the 2018 season, it appears like the AFC South could be in for a culture change. Last season saw the Jacksonville Jaguars emerge and win the division title and the Tennessee Titans won the wild card. The Houston Texans looked exciting and had promise until Deshaun Watson was injured.
As for the Indianapolis Colts—they struggled, to say the least, without Andrew Luck behind center.
With players returning, free agent additions, and the draft, there is a good reason to have hope for all four AFC South teams next season (well–three of them).
The Jaguars have been one of those teams with high expectations in past years. But last season, they did something they usually don’t do—they lived up to them. So, when teams prepare for the Jags in 2018, they are not going to be caught off-guard again.
Barring a massive shift in philosophy, the Jaguars will look to lean on their defense and running game next season, much as they did in 2017. The defense lost nickelback Aaron Colvin in free agency, and linebacker Paul Posluszny retired. But otherwise, the unit remains intact and should be just as dominant in ’18 as it was last season.
The question marks, as usual, come on the offensive side of the ball. Will Blake Bortles regress back to the train wreck of a quarterback he was in 2016? Or will he build off of last season’s success and look more like the guy that threw 35 touchdown passes in 2015?
Much like last season, the Jags will lean on the passing game as little as possible. Leonard Fournette and T.J. Yeldon proved to be a very good 1-2 combo and will hopefully be an even better one going forward. The addition of free agent left guard Andrew Norwell should help with that.
But it will also help if their group of young receivers can step up their game a little. With Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson finding new homes, they’ll lean on Marqise Lee, Dede Westbrook, Keelan Cole and free agent additions Donte Moncrief and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins.
All in all, the Jaguars should be just as good if not better than they were in 2017. That is, if Blake Bortles doesn’t mess things up and everyone stays healthy.
The Tennessee Titans are an interesting team. When you look at their stats from last season, you have to wonder how they made the playoffs. They were not particularly good at anything on offense; their run game ranked 15th in the league and their passing game 23rd. Their defense wasn’t exactly great either. While they were not bad at stopping the run (fourth), they struggled against the pass (25th).
It’s because when things clicked, they played great football. That’s how they were able to win six games by a touchdown or less. When push came to shove, they made the plays they needed to. But when they didn’t click, it could be downright ugly. The shellacking they received at the hands of the Houston Texans in Week Four is proof of that (57-14).
While they have only made a handful of free agency moves, the ones they have made should pay off early and often. Malcolm Butler should help out in the secondary. Letting DeMarco Murray go will clear the way for Derrick Henry, while former Patriots running back Dion Lewis will give the Titans a significant receiving threat out of the backfield.
Josh Kline will at least give the Titans some depth on the offensive line if he doesn’t make the starting five better.
The Titans still have room for improvement on both sides of the ball. But with the free agent moves they’ve made so far, the roster has improved. If everyone can stay healthy and they continue to improve the team in the draft, the Titans will undoubtedly be in the mix again in 2018.
Will they go 9-7 again and make the playoffs? Who knows, but they will not be easy to beat.
How far the Houston Texans go in 2018 will depend on whether the defense and Deshaun Watson can stay healthy. Once Watson was inserted into the lineup last season, the Texans came alive on offense. After he was injured, the offense went into a coma. There was just no way Tom Savage was going to be able to replace a player as dynamic as Watson.
But even when Watson was healthy, they weren’t exactly winning many games. Free agency weakened the secondary. When J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus suffered season-ending injuries, the outlook became bleak.
However, with Watt and Mercilus expected to return and the addition of Tyrann Mathieu and Aaron Colvin to the secondary, the defense should be much better than it was in 2017.
Perhaps the most important additions the Texans made, however, were on the offensive line. The unit was not very good last season. With no picks until the third round of the draft, they had to look to free agency to improve it. They did just that with the additions of guards Zach Fulton (from the Chiefs) and Senio Kelemete (from the Saints) along with former Buffalo Bills tackle Seantrel Henderson.
Assuming Watson can pick up where he left off last season, the Texans offense is going to be a ton of fun to watch. But if the defense can regain its former glory, the Texans will be a playoff team in 2018.
The Colts are still a bit of a mystery. Their outlook will depend primarily on whether quarterback Andrew Luck returns. There is no reason to think he is not going to play. But he was expected to return last season and didn’t. If he doesn’t, they will be terrible yet again. Jacoby Brissett is not bad, but he does not have the instincts that Luck has or the ability to help a talent-deficient roster look better than it is.
If Luck does return, the key will become the ability of the offensive line to protect him. They have done a terrible job throughout his career (hence the injury issues), and they did not do a good job protecting Brissett last year. They allowed the most sacks during the regular season (56) and the sixth most QB hits (113).
You would think by now that the Colts would realize they need an infusion of new bodies on the offensive line. But they do not appear to be too interested in bringing in too many new guys. They’ve signed former Chargers tackle Matt Slauson. That’s it.
Maybe they’ll address the line with the extra second-round picks they acquired when they traded the No. 3 pick to the Jets. That way they can build a line that should last for years to come—assuming they can pick the right guys.
Whoever plays quarterback will have a couple of new targets to work with, wide receiver Ryan Grant and tight end Eric Ebron. Both come to the Colts with a ton of potential but have yet to live up to it. If they can get on the same page with Luck or Brissett early on, they could prove to be absolute steals.
The draft is going to be the key to the 2018 season for the Colts (along with Luck’s health). The Colts could use help in just about every facet of the game. But even if they hit on every pick, there are too many holes in the roster.
They will be more competitive, but fans should not expect much from the Colts in 2018.
The competition for the AFC South should be very intense with the Jaguars, Titans, and Texans expected to have good teams next season. All three appear to have improved their rosters through free agency. Fans will be hoping they do so even more in the coming draft. But regardless of how well they draft, the division winner will likely come down to the team whose roster stays the healthiest among the three.