The AFC South has proven itself to be one of the more unpredictable divisions in the NFL. Last year, it was supposed to be the Texans’ in a cakewalk, but the Colts made it competitive for most of the season, becoming the feel-good story of the season. Houston is, once again, the mighty favorite, but with the rapid ascension of Indianapolis, as well as an improved roster in Tennessee, it may be a tight race once more:
1. HOUSTON TEXANS (12-4; lost in Divisional Round to New England, 41-28)
It took a few years longer than expected, but the Texans are now, officially, a consistent playoff team. They are reliably solid on both offense and defense, and are playing in a division where they are clearly the best team. However, they can’t seem to beat anybody that isn’t the Bengals in the playoffs, and their AFC South brethren won’t be lesser opponents for long. The Texans went for quality over quantity in the offseason, signing future Hall of Famer Ed Reed (who is still recovering from hip surgery) and drafting WR DeAndre Hopkins and S D.J. Swearinger, both of whom could end up being key contributors from Week One. On paper, there are no glaring weaknesses; even relative newcomers to the starting lineup, like LB Whitney Mercilus, have proven themselves capable in limited playing time and been surrounded by talent in Houston. They are surefire championship contenders, but the patience in Texas may be starting to wear thin.
2. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (11-5; lost in Wild Card Round to Baltimore, 24-9)
To say that the 2012 Colts overachieved is an understatement. Their expected record, based on their stats, was right around 7-9. They were outscored by their opponents by 30 points on the year. They only beat three playoff teams, and one of those wins, against the Texans, was in Week 17 with Houston resting starters. A regression seems inevitable for 2013, but that doesn’t make Indy’s future any less bright. They have a legitimate franchise quarterback in Andrew Luck, who will benefit from a revamped offensive line and the addition of RB Ahmad Bradshaw. The losses of offensive threats Donnie Avery and Austin Collie will hurt, though, and the defense, ranked 26th last season and hasn’t gotten enough help on the personnel side to improve. They will struggle, but give teams trouble all season.
3. TENNESSEE TITANS (6-10; missed playoffs)
Were it not for a litany of questions about Jake Locker’s fitness for an NFL starting quarterback job, Tennessee may be in the discussion of potential playoff surprises. Their offensive line improvements may be the biggest upgrade of a position on any team in the NFL, bringing in Andy Levitre and rookie Chance Warmack, immediately making Chris Johnson a world-class threat from the backfield once more. They improved the defense as well, and can only improve upon a league-worst 471 points allowed. A lot of those defensive troubles resulted directly from offensive ineptitude, and Locker was to blame for a good amount of it. If he can cut back on turnovers and become the player he was billed as out of college, the Titans have a chance. If not, they’ll go nowhere fast.
4. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (2-14; missed playoffs)
Make no mistake: the Jaguars were a terrible team last year, and will not be much better, if at all better, this year. They are in full rebuilding mode, with a long list of questions about their future. Is Blaine Gabbert the answer at quarterback? Can the pass rush get even a small amount of pressure on opposing passers? Will Maurice Jones-Drew stay healthy? If Jacksonville can answer these questions as the year goes on, and can give their newcomers and rookies some decent playing time, it will be a step in the right direction. With a new coaching staff and a promising draft class, the Jaguars are making small steps in the right direction, but don’t expect any surprises.
FINAL STANDINGS PREDICTION:
1. HOUSTON TEXANS: 12-4
2. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: 9-7
3. TENNESSEE TITANS: 7-9
4. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: 4-12