The AFC South is the most unbalanced division in football. Three of the four teams have something to prove this season. Below is our preview of the division. As with all things unprovable, we are 100% correct all the time and should not be questioned.
Expected record: 5-11
Let’s be clear, 5 games is kind. The Jaguars just aren’t there yet. They have a tough schedule because most of professional football can cobble together a better team than the Jags. I like Bortles’s development thusfar, but question marks in the backfield and at receiver remain. Even if the Jags have a breakout year, they’re staring down the barrel of .500. I’m spotting the Jags the Bucs, one game against the Texans and Titans, the Bills, and the Jets. I expect the Jaguars to lose their last 6 games. This is not a playoff team, not by a wide margin. The Jaguars have talent, and they’re young, but a woeful offensive line and a patchwork defensive secondary will play hell with their chances of staying in games against more developed opponents.
Key Matchups: October 4th at the Colts; October 18th hosting the Texans; November 19th hosting the Titans (TNF)
The Jaguars are in one of the worst divisions in the NFL. Two of these three divisional games immediately precede the Jaguars BYE week. Additionally, these games will serve as a barometer for the rest of the season since the NFL postseason picture plays heavily to division play with less focus on record overall. The Jaguars will have to try to steal one in Indy and beat the Texans and Titans both at home. Beating Luck and the Colts in Indy will provide the Jags with a nice shot in the arm going into October. Additionally, the Texans and Titans both are not great, if the Jags can hold serve at home, it will sustain them awhile until the end of the season when they see all of these teams again. Winning two is iffy, winning all three is unrealistic. But, for a team that is likely to finish low on wins, divisional wins are even more important.
Other Key Matchups: September 20th hosting the Dolphins; October 11th hosting the Buccaneers
These games are early enough in the season to matter. Additionally, they are against teams expected to be lousy. Yes, the Bucs drafted Jameis Winston, and yes, Tannehill is coming into his own in Miami, however the teams just aren’t good. They stink. In order for the Jags to show any semblance of progress as a team, they have to win at least one, if not both of these games. I don’t court too much optimism with the prospect of beating Miami, but Tampa Bay should be a very winnable game. The Jaguars are a major question mark, and honestly, it’s about time that Caldwell and Bradley’s team started paying fans dividends. Winning the state of Florida will be a step forward.
Impact Players: Blake Bortles (QB); TJ Yeldon (RB); Allen Robinson (WR); Marqise Lee (WR)
Since I couldn’t put “ALL” for impact players, I chose the point-scoring portion of the team. Although the Jaguars line needs as much help as the team can muster, they’re going to be little better than turnstiles. Bortles will need to continue to sharpen as a pocket passer, but he will need to be elusive and strong as well since he will not have the protection or time he needs. TJ Yeldon has just received the nod to start for the Jaguars. The Alabama standout was a threat carrying the mail and catching passes out of the backfield in college. Look for him to be deployed as a safety valve for Bortles in the form of arrow/banana routes or swing passes out of the Ace formation. Robinson and Lee need to continue to establish themselves as serious pass catchers and deep threats. Both are explosive and excellent route runners; there’s no reason they shouldn’t get plenty of targets.
Expected Record: 9-7
The Titans have it pretty good this year. They are in a lousy division and are not a horrendous team, well not as horrendous now that they have Super Mario as their quarterback. I expect the Titans to drop both games to the Colts and split with the Jags and Texans. The non-divisional schedule is the second easiest in football-since it is determined by draft order. They should beat both the Browns and the Bucs, the Bills, the Dolphins, and the Raiders. I’m also giving them close wins over the Panthers and the Jets. This is a fluid prediction as it is completely possible that they will sweep both the Jags and the Texans. The Titans could get to double digit wins, but I’m not prepared to make that prediction because it just sounds so ridiculous to me.
Key Matchup: September 13th at the Buccaneers
This game is major. It pits the top two draft picks in the 2015 NFL draft against each other as the starters. Neither team is particularly good, but it gives both teams an opportunity to bank some confidence going into the rest of the season. If Mariota and the Titans beat the number one overall pick and his Bucs, they will have the team and the fans feel much better about the franchise and its direction. And with football in Tennessee, there’s no such thing as plenty of goodwill.
Key Matchup: September 27th hosting the Colts
This game marks the opening of divisional play for the Titans. Additionally, this is the Titans home opener, and they have a high likelihood of rolling into that game 2-0. Luck’s Colts will provide the first true and major test of every facet of the Titans team. This will also be the first true test for Mariota in terms of quarterback matchups. The Titans are eager to see how he measures up against a QB who will likely challenge for the league MVP this season. I don’t expect the Titans to win, but if they do, they will be in a very interesting position in the AFC South, the driver’s seat.
Impact Player: Marcus Mariota (QB)
The first round draft picks always have great expectations, however, thanks to Andrew Luck’s immediate success, these expectations have ballooned. Mariota is being viewed by many Titans fans as the savior of the franchise. Tennessee has all but hitched their wagon to him. Additionally, Mariota thrived in Oregon’s system in college, and he has the added pressure of growing into a pro style quarterback and proving that he’s not just a “System Guy.” Mariota has a mediocre supporting cast, and the stakes are high. His success or failure will determine the path of the Titans this season.
Expected Record: 7-9
Honestly, I’m not really high on the Texans at all considering all their questions on the offensive side of the ball. I think they, like the Jags and the Titans, get swept by the Colts. They aren’t good enough to give them better than 50/50 on the other teams in the division. If they manage to lose to Tampa Bay and Jacksonville in September and October, then I don’t see the Texans winning a game until November. But, in November and December, they get some reprieve plus the prospect of Foster returning. I think they’ll win 6 games after November 1st. But, it’ll be tough sledding for the Texans in the opening half.
Key Matchup Week: October 4th at the Falcons; October 8th hosting Indianapolis
These two games jump at me for two separate reasons. The matchup against the Falcons is big because Atlanta has all the pieces to be talented, they just haven’t cobbled it together of late. If the Texans get dealt an Atlanta team that is still trying to figure it out, this could be a statement game that allows them to open it up and see what happens. If Atlanta has things figured out by then, this could really kill the Texans confidence. That would be particularly hazardous because the Texans have to turn around and play the best team in their division on short rest. You cannot prep for the Colts in 4 days, so the Texans have to hope that the Colts game plan will work on the Falcons. It won’t, but you can hope.
Key Matchup: October 18th at the Jaguars
This is their first game after the ringer week listed above. Additionally, it will be a game off long rest, which does not bode well for Jacksonville. However, going into Everbank and getting a win on the road will help salvage what is a fairly brutal first half. As it is likely that the Texans will drop both games the week before, winning a divisional game will be very welcome.
Impact Players: Arian Foster (RB); JJ Watt (ATH)
Foster is injured. Before you say, “how the hell can an injured player be an impact player?!” consider this: Foster believes he can make it back from his injury in time to impact this season. If that’s true, the Texans will suddenly gain an edge in a lot of their remaining games simply by having Foster in the lineup. If the Texans can tread water for the first half, Foster’s return will give them a huge advantage in their second-half push. JJ Watt is a beast, and the Texans are looking to deploy him on both sides of the ball. His presence as a dominant defensive destruction machine and an x-factor on offense will give the Texans adaptability in an area they seem otherwise stagnant.
Expected Record: 13-3
I fully expect the Colts to go undefeated in their division. If they don’t, they screwed up-or it’s a game in January that does not matter because the team is already in the playoffs. Looking at the schedule, I don’t see any games that won’t be winnable by the Colts. They’ll probably beat the Bills, Jets, Panthers, Broncos, Falcons, Bucs, Steelers, and Dolphins. Add that to their 6 division wins, and you’re at 14. I’m going to say they stumble along the way and lose one of those games in stupid fashion. But, Andrew Luck is my pick to win the MVP this year. A 13-3 Colts team will assure that.
Key Matchup: October 8th at the Texans; This will be a very winnable game for the Colts, however, it is on a Thursday off short rest. However, the team leading them into this game is the Jags, a team I fully expect the Colts to manhandle. Still, short rest is short rest and that game will be hard to prepare for. This has the makings of an early trap game for Indy, but with a QB like Luck, they should be up for the challenge.
Key Matchup: October 18th hosting the Patriots
Luck versus Brady on Sunday Night Football. This game has the makings of an instant classic. This will be the hardest game the Colts have this season, and may be a preview of the AFC Championship game. This is an opportunity for Luck to flex his muscles at home and beat Brady and Co. In addition to the pressure of having a legacy, the Colts will also have to worry about this game’s importance in December. The NFL breaks ties using head to head for determining home field advantage in the playoffs. And, make no mistake, ain’t nobody want to go to Massachusetts in January to try and beat the Pats at home. Maybe the tiebreak won’t matter, but why leave that up to chance?
Impact Players: Andre Johnson (WR); Frank Gore (RB)
Obviously Andrew Luck is an impact player, but there are less questions about him than there are about these two. Andre Johnson replaces Reggie Wayne as the number one receiver for the Colts this season. He’s new to the offense, so we will have to see how well he adapts to it. He’s also old, and old people don’t run as fast. He could still run 100 yards faster than I could run 40, but that really shouldn’t be how we measure NFL receivers. Frank Gore is also new to the offense and old. He’s tough as nails and threat as a receiving back, but Indy has no idea what the signed up for until they see him play. Both players fit well in the scheme, but how they play directly impacts Andrew Luck’s options. We shall see, but I expect them both to thrive.