NFL

The AFC South Is On The Rise

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When the NFL realigned it’s divisions in 2002, the AFC South was known as “the leftover division.”  The Indianapolis Colts were the odd man out from the former AFC East, the expansion Houston Texans needed a home, the Tennessee Titans moved from Houston six years earlier and the Jacksonville Jaguars were another former expansion franchise who didn’t fit in geographically in the then AFC Central (which became the AFC North).

The division has had moderate success, with Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy’s Colts claiming the only Super Bowl title in Super Bowl XLI, a decade ago.  The Colts have dominated the division, posting a 12-11 playoff record, while the Jaguars are 1-2, Texans 2-3, and Titans 2-4 in the postseason since the division’s inception 14 years ago.

In 2015, the AFC South was mostly a laughing stock as the Houston Texans captured the division with a 9-7 record and no legitimate answer at quarterback.  They were embarrassed against the Kansas City Chiefs at home in their lone playoff game, 30-0.

Although the division has had more bottom-feeders than legitimate contenders in recent seasons, there is plenty of reason to believe the days of the South being the NFL’s doormat are quickly coming to an end.

The emergence of the division begins with the quarterback position, as every team finally has some hope. The Colts have what many consider the best young quarterback in the game in Andrew Luck.  The Jaguars are led by Blake Bortles, who had 37 touchdowns last season.  The Titans have Marcus Mariota, who had a very solid rookie year in 2015 and is poised for break out even more as he further figures out the NFL game.  The Texans just signed Brock Osweiler away from the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos, as he was a hot commodity in the offseason.

Three of the four teams in the division found their quarterbacks high in the draft, as Andrew Luck was the first-overall pick in 2012, Blake Bortles was the third-overall pick in 2014, and Marcus Mariota was selected second-overall last year.

Houston believed in former second-round pick Brock Osweiler enough to give him a four-year, $72 million contract.

“We felt like he was a guy that everything that he brought to the table from his command at the line of scrimmage to his skillset as a passer,” Texans head coach Bill O’Brien said Tuesday at the NFL owners meetings. “For a big guy – I’m sure you guys know his history, he played basketball – he’s a very, very good athlete. We think he’s a great fit for our offense.”

Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley was part of a divisional transformation as a member of the Seattle Seahawks.  The NFC West was a laughing stock, right up until it wasn’t.  They’ve had multiple contenders for several years now.

“I’ve been a part of that being out in Seattle,” Bradley recounted. “The NFC West was a division that everybody was commenting on and then it came out to be one of the strongest. A lot of the same traits. The quarterback situation now with each team having a guy that they have a lot of faith in, and then you’re starting to see one side of the ball for each one of these teams really pick it up.”

The division has some explosive offenses, and a dominant defense in Houston.  Both the Jaguars and Texans used free agency to strengthen their weak side of the football.

“For us, offensively,” Bradley explained. “Houston, defensively. Tennessee, their defense was doing some good things. In Indy, obviously with a guy like Andrew Luck, their offense. I think you’re going to start to see these teams build complete teams where they have strength on offense and defense. With a team like Houston, they’re strong defensively and now they’ve got a quarterback building that offense with a guy like Lamar Miller and Hopkins on the perimeter. So I think you’re really going to start seeing this division really take a step.”

As Bradley mentioned, the Texans signed free agent running back Lamar Miller as well as Osweiler.  They are hoping that the pair can take their offense to respectability to go along with the league’s third-ranked defense from last year.

Jacksonville had the most money to spend out of anyone in free agency and spend they did.  They inked former Broncos defensive end Malik Jackson, former Browns safety Tashaun Gipson and former Giants cornerback Prince Amukamara to boost the defense.  Then they landed former Jets running back Chris Ivory and former Steelers left tackle Kelvin Beachum to upgrade an already explosive offense that boasts Bortles along with Pro Bowl wide receiver Allen Robinson and former Pro Bowl tight end Julius Thomas.

The Colts had their free agent spending spree before last season, and they are expected to contend with a healthy Luck.  They managed to finish .500 last year despite their franchise quarterback missing half the season.

Tennessee might be another year away from being a real contender as they finished with the league’s worst record last year.  Still, they will have a chance to rebuild a bad roster with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, as well as a very high selection in each proceeding round.  If Marcus Mariota takes a similar step as Bortles did in Jacksonville last year, the Titans could be a dangerous team.

“The mobility factor is rare, his ability to extend plays,’’ Los Angeles Rams head coach Jeff Fisher said of Mariota. “But also his ability to win with his arm. He is smart, he processes. It will be a big step for him from Year 1 to Year 2, and I think fans can look forward to that.”

As we know, spending a great amount in free agency doesn’t guarantee you much in terms of wins.  We’ve seen Miami, Cleveland, Washington and even Indianapolis bust out over the years after major spending sprees.

“Yes, you can have gratification but we haven’t won a game yet,” Jaguars owner Shad Khan said after being asked about all of the media praise for the team’s offseason. “All the signs are obviously pointing in the right direction. It should give us the confidence but definitely a cause for optimism.”

The AFC South hasn’t accomplished much of anything as of yet, but it appears that 2016 will be the year that the division goes from laughing stock to legitimate contender.


About Charlie Bernstein

Charlie Bernstein

Charlie Bernstein is the managing football editor for Football Insiders and has covered the NFL for over a decade.  Charlie has hosted drive time radio for NBC and ESPN affiliates in different markets around the country, along with being an NFL correspondent for ESPN Radio and WFAN.  He has been featured on the NFL Network as well as Sirius/XM NFL Radio and has been published on Fox Sports, Sports Illustrated, ESPN as well as numerous other publications.