NFL

6 Most Important Things About the AFC South

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Before the season, many believed the AFC South would be a much improved division which could even see teams like the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans be playoff and even Super Bowl contenders.

Instead, the division is in a heated battle with the NFC East to see which is the worst in football, and whether either of them will have a division winner with a .500 record, or worse. With three games remaining in the season, the Colts and Texans are tied atop the division at 6-7 (Indianapolis holds tie breaker) with the Jacksonville Jaguars just a game behind at 5-8.

Someone is going to have to win this division and represent the South in the AFC playoffs, but a look around the division makes it clear that every team has some major holes to fill before anyone is labeled a Super Bowl contender again, regardless of what many of us may have believed entering the year.

After Marcus Mariota, the Titans rookies are off to a slow start:

The Tennessee Titans had the second pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, but many believed they had the least talented team in the NFL a season ago. The 2014 Titans really lacked playmakers, and didn’t offer many reasons to watch, so Tennessee used the draft to add depth and talent offensively.

The Titans attacked those shortcomings on offense early and often in the draft, and it looked like they had the makings of a strong young nucleus on offense. However, while second-overall pick Marcus Mariota is part of the Rookie of the Year discussion, much of Tennessee’s 2015 class is off to a slow start.

While it was expected that the very raw, but very athletic Dorial Green-Beckham would be a bit of a project, his Calvin Johnson like athleticism made many assume that he’d find a way to be a weapon right out of the gate. While the Titans’ rookie receiver has flashed, including a five-reception, 119-yard performance which included a touchdown against the Jaguars, he’s averaging fewer than two receptions per game, pulling in just 24 passes during the Titans’ 3-10 season.

The Titans were also hoping to get some tough running out of Minnesota Golden Gophers rookie running back David Cobb, but the back spent most of the season on the IR (designated to return), and has only received 22 carries since his return.

Cobb is a talented young back who could still end up being a big part of this offense in the long run, but his rookie season is basically a wash as he enters Week 15 without having scored his first career touchdown.

Tennessee’s third-round pick Jeremiah Poutasi started the season as the team’s starting right tackle, but is now listed as the back-up left guard after being replaced on the right side by veteran Byron Bell.

Each of these young men have plenty of time to reward the Titans’ for their faith in selecting them to turn around a unit that’s been bad for a long time, but for now, the class that will always be defined by the selection of Mariota has been disappointing after the first-round quarterback.

The Colts are still dangerous:

It might sound absolutely mad considering the season that Andrew Luck has had, or hasn’t had for that matter. It might sound completely nuts considering the season that the Indianapolis Colts have had. It probably sounds unthinkable after the AFC South co-leader lost to the Jaguars 51-16 Sunday, but Indianapolis could still shock the football world if they can win the division and make the playoffs.

The AFC is absolutely wide open, and if the Colts can get healthy at the right time, they could sneak up and beat anyone in the conference come January.

For all of the Colts’ downs this season, they were able to get up to beat the Denver Broncos 27-24, and to hang within a touchdown of the New England Patriots, and a field goal of the Carolina Panthers.

Of course, this is the same team that has lost its last two games by a combined score of 96-26.

As the Colts look at the landscape of the AFC, they have to believe they’ve got a shot in a conference where every one of the top contenders are dealing with major injury issues. The Patriots have injuries everywhere, the Broncos are unsure what to expect from Peyton Manning, and the Cincinnati Bengals just lost Andy Dalton. While their schedule is loaded with evidence that says why not the Colts, that won’t stop them from asking themselves, “why not us?”

The Jaguars offense is on fire:

If you’re a football fan, or just know enough of them, it’s likely that at some point this season someone has looked at you and said, “Man, Blake Bortles is turning into a heck of a fantasy quarterback!”

Well, Bortles isn’t just turning into a heck of a fantasy quarterback, he’s turning into a pretty good NFL quarterback as well, and the Jaguars recent offensive production is evidence that the Jaguars second-year quarterback and his weapons are really hitting their stride.

Jacksonville’s offense started the season very slowly, scoring just 59 points (or eight fewer than last Sunday) over the team’s first four games as the Jaguars got off to a 1-3 start.

Since the team’s 16-13 Week 4 loss in Indianapolis, the offense has caught fire. Since Week 5, the Jaguars have the second highest scoring team in the NFL, averaging 29.3 points per game.

While plenty of the credit has to go to Bortles and his chemistry with his young receivers like Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, the offense caught fire the same week tight end Julius Thomas returned from injury. Thomas’ return has opened things up for the Jaguars offense, and his presence in the middle makes everyone more difficult to cover.

Bortles spoke to the media Wednesday, and talked to reporters about the building chemistry between him and his new tight end.

“He does a really good job,” Bortles sad. “A lot credit to him. Throughout practice and throughout the week. You know coming and watching film with myself and Chad. Talking and asking about things, and where do I want him to be, or what do I think about this.  During practice in periods where we’re off or it’s a defensive period or whatever, saying hey, let’s go work on some red zone stuff.”

Bortles talked about where the offense is going and was asked about the advantages of growing in an offense with a young nucleus of guys like T.J. Yeldon and Robinson.

“I think it’s huge, the second-year quarterback said. “I think to have the same guys in a system for a long period of time. I think the arrows going to continue to go up and guys are going to continue to grow and get better, more comfortable and confident, eventually to the point to as a player and as an offensive unit we kind of own the system.”

Whether or not Bortles feels that the offense owns the system yet or not, they’re becoming one of the better units in the league, and if Gus Bradley can get that defense turned around, Jacksonville will be dangerous before long.

Texans owner Bob McNair wants team to draft a quarterback:

The Houston Texans have never been much better than average at the quarterback position, and apparently owner Bob McNair has seen enough.

Just a handful of months ago, McNair told the Houston Chronicle that the team could get by at quarterback with names like Ryan Mallett or Brian Hoyer, because as he acknowledged finding a special quarterback is very difficult.

“If you look around, there are very few really super quarterbacks,” McNair explained. “There are just very few. If you’re lucky enough to have one, lucky enough that one of these Andrew Luck’s is available when you have the top pick, then that’s just a matter of luck. You can’t attribute that to anything else. That quarterback who is a super quarterback can help cover up other deficiencies you have. If you don’t have that super quarterback, then you’ve got to really be good in the other areas in order to win. And that’s where we are. We think we’ve got good quarterback candidates and guys that can go out and perform. And it remains to be seen how good they can be and hopefully they’re just going to keep getting better and better.”

McNair doubled down, almost trying to justify to himself that a top-tier quarterback just isn’t necessary.

“Of course, (Ryan) Fitzpatrick had probably his best year under Coach O’Brien. Coach really gets it all out of the quarterbacks. It really is a good environment for quarterbacks. We’ll try to make it up by having one of the best defenses, so we’ll keep other teams from scoring many points. And we’ll be able to run the ball and hopefully control the clock. And we’ll continue to get better on special teams. So if we can do those three things, all we need is consistent play out of our quarterbacks – they don’t have to be superheroes. And if they don’t turn the ball over and just go out and execute the game plan, we think we’ll win.

“This is a winning philosophy and other teams have won with this philosophy and we think we can win that way, too. Now, would we like to have that super quarterback? Absolutely. And if we have the opportunity to get that person or develop that person, that’s what we’ll do. Maybe Mallett or maybe Hoyer will blossom or be that person for us. It remains to be seen.”

After another season of sub-par quarterback play in Houston, it seems the Texans owner has changed course, and now finds it very important to land the guy at the quarterback position. When asked if he’d like to see the team draft a quarterback this season, McNair didn’t hold back.

“Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Yes,” McNair responded. The answer is yes.

“In the past few years, we’ve used most of our high picks on defense,” McNair pointed out. “It’s time we beefed up our offense.”

The Texans have stocked up on defensive players in recent drafts, and it looks like if those pulling the strings want to continue pulling those strings, they may want to start evaluating the signal callers in the upcoming draft a little more diligently.

Chuck Pagano is getting fired:

You’re probably wondering how you’re reading a single article that’s stating the Colts could sneak up on someone in the playoffs, and that their head coach will be fired, but both of those things are true.

Why?

Because the Colts weren’t supposed to play spoilers. Indianapolis was considered by many to be one of the best teams in the AFC and a team that would contend for the AFC crown. This team brought in veteran free agents like Andre Johnson, Frank Gore and Trent Cole because those were players that were supposed to help this team get over the top after being blown out in the AFC Championship game last season.

Instead, the Colts have taken an enormous step backwards this year, and despite being a team that could still win the division and could even surprise someone in the playoffs, it’s highly unlikely this team sniffs the AFC Championship game and that’s a hurdle the team would likely need to reach and climb over to save Pagano’s gig.

You could try to argue that Luck’s injuries have put the Colts behind the eight ball, but the team seemed to perform as well with Matt Hasselbeck as it did when Luck was healthy, and much of Luck’s poor play and misfortune can be attributed to the offensive line.

Luck, like many criticized quarterbacks before him, is very much the victim of the poor play around him. Not that the Colts’ quarterback is completely without blame, but from Tom Brady early last season, to Aaron Rodgers for a stretch this season, to Philip Rivers, and the Manning brothers, we’ve seen very good quarterbacks look very average when the players around them aren’t doing their jobs.

Regardless of where the issues lie in Indianapolis, they will always come down at the feet of the head coach, and Pagano doesn’t have a great argument for keeping his job. This was supposed to be the year the Colts took the next step, but unfortunately for everyone in Indianapolis, that step taken was backwards.

The division will be down again in 2016:

We’d love to wrap this article up with some Christmas cheer, but the reality is that these four teams will be in a very similar situation a year from today. While the Jaguars and Titans are on their way up, they’re still a couple of years away from seeing their young talent turn them into true contenders, and it’s unlikely that Indianapolis or Houston can correct their issues in time to make 2016 too much different.

While the Colts will still have Luck, and an impressive array of talent around him, the team will be starting over with a new head coach, and we all know how incredibly difficult winning right away can be for a coach trying to turn around a bad situation.

In Houston, the story will once again remain the same. Whether McNair gets his wish and the Texans draft their quarterback of the future or not, the team will still be too inexperienced or thin at the positon to strike fear into anyone.

The Jaguars offense has shown in recent weeks that it’s on the verge of turning into a dominant unit, but the question will be whether Jacksonville can do enough with the defense to allow Bortles and the offense to win without having to score 40 points per game.

Lastly, the Titans are the Jaguars of 2014. If the Jaguars are a year or two away, Tennessee is three or four years away. Like Indianapolis, the Titans will be hiring a new head coach this offseason, but they’re a lot further away than the Colts, and there will be a lot more work for their new head coach to do.

In the end, the AFC South is a division without a dominant football team, and that won’t likely change in 2016.


About Pat Donovan

Pat Donovan

Pat Donovan has covered the NFL for almost a decade and is a host and producer for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers radio flagship 620WDAE/95.3FM. Pat covers the NFC South and NFC East for Football Insiders. Follow him on Twitter, @PatDonovanNFL.