Complete AFC South Preview
Here is a look at what you can expect from the Titans, Colts, Jags and Texans this season…
Years of high draft picks and free-agent spending paid off with a 10-6 record. Now it is all about taking the next step — if they get a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter of the conference title game, the Jaguars believe they are better equipped to finish off the win. The keys will be keeping RB Leonard Fournette healthy, getting more big plays out of the passing game, continuing last year’s dominant pass rush and improving against the run. Do that and the Jaguars should be considered a Super Bowl contender.
The AFC South is a winnable division — with Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck and Houston’s Deshaun Watson both returning from injury and Jacksonville staying the course with Blake Bortles. Anything short of a return to the playoffs will be considered a failure. GM Jon Robinson has built a talented roster with no glaring weaknesses. This season is a referendum on QB Marcus Mariota, who is only signed through 2019. If he is indeed a franchise-caliber QB, Tennessee will establish itself as a legitimate contender this season.
If QB Deshaun Watson can stay healthy, the Texans are capable of winning any game. His three losses as a starter were one-score games, including three-point defeats at New England and Seattle. Improvement in the offensive line is paramount and not just for Watsons’ benefit. The running game needs to become more productive and consistent. The defense could have three new starters in a secondary that should benefit from a more effective pass rush. If the Texans aren’t hammered by injuries again, they should be good enough on both sides of the ball to get back into the mix for a spot in the postseason.
The AFC South isn’t a cupcake division as in years past. Tennessee won a playoff game last year, and the Jaguars reached the AFC title game. Houston has won the division four times since 2011. That leaves the Colts with an arduous climb just to be competitive, especially with a schedule that has them on the road for four of the first six games, including away games at Super Bowl finalists Philadelphia and New England.
As GM Chris Ballard learned last year, there’s only so much that can be accomplished in one year with so many holes to fill. A healthy Andrew Luck at quarterback gives the Colts a shot at being respectable, but the run game is still an uncertainty and the defense is still lacking playmakers, even if the newcomers prove capable of making immediate contributions.
If the Colts show the expected modest improvement, 8-8 is probably the ceiling with 6-10 more likely. The fan base — which was spoiled during a run in which the Colts made the playoffs 14 times in 16 seasons from 1999-2014 — probably won’t be satisfied unless this team makes the postseason. But that remains a long shot in the short term.