If not for the NFC South, the AFC South would take the title of weakest and possibly least talented division in all of the NFL, and despite what the pundits say, I don't see a legit Super Bowl contender in this division. The Colts are the class of the division again and the rest will simply be fighting to finish around .500. The questions in the South are plentiful: Is the Indianapolis defense good enough to allow the Colts to take the next step? Is Houston's defense good enough to carry a roster saddled with a subpar quarterback? Can Marcus Mariota lead the Titans back out of the cellar? And can Blake Bortles take the next step and get the Jaguars back on track to becoming an NFL franchise again?
*NOTE: All division previews were constructed prior to any games and therefore any injuries which occurred in Week 1 were not account for in these previews.
1) Indianapolis Colts
2015 Prediction: 12-4
2014 Record: 11-5, 1st Place
Confidence in Pick: 90%
Why they win the division:
Andrew Luck - Luck has established himself as a special quarterback in this league and I found his run to the AFC Conference Championship in 2014 to be impressive. He has the arm, the mental makeup, work ethic, size and mobility to be one of the best that the NFL has seen. Luck alone wins this division and if he can limit the turnovers (16 interceptions, 13 fumbles), the Colts can make noise in the playoffs again.
Chuck Pagano - I wasn't sure initially about the hiring of Pagano, but I was wrong. It sounds as though some in Indianapolis are souring on him, but there isn't a coach out there who is going to do more with this roster. The team really rallies around Pagano and battles for him and that is all you can ask for.
Offensive Weapons - T.Y. Hilton has established himself as a legit No. 1 receiver and I love the addition of Andre Johnson and Phillip Dorsett. Frank Gore, though long in the tooth, is still a solid back and Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen are solid tight ends. By the end of the year, this wide receiving corps has the potential to be a top five unit, and I believe this is the best supporting cast Luck has had in his four years in the NFL.
Division - The AFC South has been one of the weakest divisions for the past 10-15 years and 2015 is the same narrative - The Colts have an overall decent roster with a great quarterback playing in a weak division. I don't see the Colts as a great team, but there is no team in this division that can compete with them.
Reasons they may not win the division:
Defense - Statistically speaking, the Colts had a middle of the road defense in 2014, but watching them play, my eyes tell me otherwise. Outside of Vontae Davis, there is not a single playmaker on this defense - and no, a 34 year old Robert Mathis coming off a torn Achilles does not count as a playmaker.
Aged free agent pickups - The Colts were active in the free agent market in 2015 and while I like the signings of Frank Gore and Andre Johnson, they are 32 and 34 respectively. We know the history of running backs after crossing 30 and while I hope Gore has a good season, history says it isn't likely. The record with 34 year old receivers isn't much better. The Colts just parted ways with another aging veteran (Reggie Wayne), and the question remains, did they just swap old receivers? Taking the unknown over the known. If Johnson and Gore hold up and just produce to about 80% of their career productivity, that would be solid. However, at their ages, it seems unlikely
Turnovers - Luck had 40 touchdowns and nearly 4,800 yards in 2014, however, according to Pro Football Reference, he also had 16 interceptions and 13 fumbles. That is too many turnovers for any quarterback, let alone one of Luck's talent. In his six postseason games, Luck has 9 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, including a three touchdown and four interception campaign during their 2014 run to the AFC Championship. Until Luck start protecting the ball better, this is not a Super Bowl team.
The Colts have the best young QB in the game and are the best team in a bad division. I have little doubt that they win the division, but despite what the talking heads say, I do not see them as a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Unfortunately, the Colts have constructed another team much like they had in the days of Manning - without Manning, many of those teams were 4-5 win teams. The current Colts are the same. If Luck were to go down, this is a 4-5 win team at best. In any other division in the NFL, this would be a 2nd or 3rd place team.
2) Houston Texans
2015 Prediction: 8-8
2014 Record: 9-7, 2nd Place
Confidence in Pick: 60%
How they win the division:
Defense - This was a very good defense in 2014 and with the additions of Vince Wilfork and the possible return of a healthy Jadeveon Clowney, this could be one of the best front sevens in football. The thought of Clowney and Watt on opposite sides is scary and could cause Indianapolis problems when they matchup.
JJ Watt - Is the most dominating player in football today and with 51.5 sacks over his last three seasons, his ability to get to the quarterback is something we haven't seen since the days of Lawrence Taylor in the late ‘80's early ‘90's and Derrick Thomas in the ‘90's.Watt alone gets this team to six or seven wins, but unfortunately for Watt (and all of NFL fans), his incredible seasons are being wasted by an offense that has lacked a quarterback good enough to get them over the hump and into the playoffs.
Why they won't win the division:
Quarterback situation - When you have a "quarterback competition" and the participants are Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallet, that is not a quarterback competition, that is an organizational nightmare of quarterback roulette. This Texans team could get to the playoffs and make some noise once there if only they had an average quarterback. Unfortunately, they do not, and they will be forced to twirl in NFL mediocrity until they find a quarterback.
Running back situation - Arian Foster is 29 years old and coming off surgery for a torn groin and has a history of injury issues. When healthy, he is one of the best backs in the league. Unfortunately, he hasn't been healthy for an extended period of time and this year looks to be no different. Without Foster, this running attack will be average at best.
Outside of the quarterback position, the Texans are a very solid and well-balanced team. A very good defense and good weapons on offense. The problem is that the missing link on this team is the most important position in the NFL. Teams with good quarterbacks win in the NFL - teams without a good quarterback do not. The Texans do not have a good QB and as a result, they will miss the playoffs.
3) Tennessee Titans
2015 Prediction: 6-10
2014 Record: 2-14, 4th Place
Confidence in Pick: 33%
How they win the division:
Young quarterback and weapons - I really liked the drafting of Marcus Mariota and as I have said many times, I would have taken Mariota over Jameis Winston if I were the Bucs. Say what you want about the offense he ran, the fact of the matter is, this kid threw for 105 touchdowns over the past three seasons at Oregon and threw just 14 interceptions...that is a 7.5/1 TD/INT ratio! Add in his rushing touchdowns (29) and receiving touchdowns (2), and Mariota accounted for 136 touchdowns in his three year college career - 57 touchdowns and 4 turnovers in 2014. I also like some of the young receivers the Titans have put around Mariota. I think Kendall Wright will have a breakout season and I think Dorial Green-Beckham has the potential to be a big time receiver in the NFL.
Why they won't win the division:
Overall talent level - The Titans have some exciting players, but if you go up and down their 53-man roster, this roster would rank in the bottom third of the league when it comes to talent.
Inexperience - While I like the young talent the Titans have collected - particularly on the offensive side of the ball - they really have zero players with any proven track record and potential is exciting, but doesn't win games.
The Titans will be good enough to surprise teams and make an improvement from last year's 2-14 debacle, but inexperienced and inconsistent enough to finish no better than third in this division.
4) Jacksonville Jaguars
2015 Prediction: 5-11
2014 Record: 3-13, 3rd Place
Confidence in Pick: 75%
How they win the division:
A miracle - The good news for Jaguars fans is they are in the AFC South. If they were in any other division (with the exception of maybe the NFC South), they would have zero chance. However, if Blake Bortles were to make a huge leap in his sophomore season and there were some significant injuries in the division (i.e Luck and/or Watt), along with dumb luck, then maybe, just maybe the Jaguars could make a play for the division.
Why they won't win the division:
Blake Bortles -I didn't like the pick of Bortles in 2014 and after a rookie campaign of 58.9% completion percentage, 2,908 yards, 11 touchdowns, 17 interceptions, 4 fumbles and a QBR of 25.2, it is safe to say I am still not sold on him. If Bortles doesn't make a huge improvement in his second season, I believe this organization has to legitimately look themselves in the mirror and decide if Bortles is the guy or if they need to start looking for other options at the quarterback position.
Lack of Dynamic/Proven Play-Makers - Bortles poor rookie numbers are not solely his fault, he didn't exactly have a lot of play-makers surrounding him. However, it isn't much better in 2015. The rookie TJ Yeldon should be an improvement from converted quarterback Dennard Robinson and while the signing of Julius Thomas is an improvement at the tight end position, Thomas is the product of Peyton Manning, just like so many tight ends before him. Manning has made as many tight ends a lot of money - just as he has done for offensive coordinators - but look at the track records once the tight ends leave Manning. It isn't impressive. The Jaguars have some decent young talent at the wide receiver position, but lack a real No. 1 receiver for Bortles. Either way, in most games the Jaguars play, their opponent will have the advantage when it comes to skill position players.
Franchise - After being awarded an expansion team to begin play in 1995, the Jaguars made the playoffs four of their first five seasons, including two AFC Conference Championship appearances, the last of which came in 1999. In the last 15 seasons, the Jaguars have just three winning seasons, two playoff appearances and one playoff win. In fact, since 2007, the Jaguars have had zero winning seasons and compiled a 34-78 record (.304). While the Jaguars new owner has only owned the team since 2012 and appears to care about the team's success, it has not shown on the field. Since being sold from Wayne Weaver in late 2011 to Shahid Khan, the Jaguars have never won more than four games and have a combined record of 9-39 (.188).
I do believe the Jaguars are improving both as a team and as an organization, but they are still a team lacking elite players. This team is at best a 4-6 win team.
Final division analysis:
At the moment, there is only one playoff worthy team in this division (Colts) and only two teams with legitimate NFL starting caliber quarterbacks (Luck and Mariota). One day Mariota may be able to lead his Titans to compete with the Colts, but I don't see it happening this year. The Texans are limited from competing because of their quarterback and the Jaguars are limited because of their roster. In the end, I see the AFC South as a one horse race and the Colts should have no problem winning the division again.