- The Jaguars' top-tier defense is why Jacksonville is favored to win the AFC South, but the new-look Titans are an overlooked value play for betting this division.
Once a laughing stock, the AFC South is suddenly one of the best divisions in football. If Deshaun Watson and the defense are healthy, the Texans can match up with anyone on paper. The Jaguars should be able to ride an elite defense and enough offense back to the top half of the division. Tennessee has assembled an impressive group on defense, but it’s Marcus Mariota who will make or break its season. And while the Colts finally get Andrew Luck back in the lineup, they're an easy pick for fourth place—he’s not going to help the league’s least-talented defense tackle anyone.
Odds to win AFC South
Pick to win AFC South: Jacksonville
Best AFC South value: Tennessee +300
2018 Regular Season Wins Prop: OVER 8½ (-150) / UNDER 8½ (+125)
OFFENSE: Head coach Bill O’Brien overhauled his offense midseason to fit then-rookie QB Deshaun Watson’s strengths, and Watson answered with an electrifying five-game run leading up to his ACL tear. Houston relied on a lot of misdirection that may not be as effective after opponents have an offseason of film study. WR DeAndre Hopkins is football’s best at coming down with contested catches, though the rest of the Texans' skill-position players have been inconsistent.
DEFENSE: Injuries are partly to blame for Houston’s league-worst 27 PPG allowed. DE J.J. Watt and LB Whitney Mercilus, both of whom missed 11 games in 2017, are key to making Houston’s five-across-the-line pass-rush work. Their presence also frees up DE Jadeveon Clowney to avoid double teams and wreak havoc. The secondary is not built to hold up if the pass-rush isn’t getting home, though the addition of former Cardinals S Tyrann Mathieu may help a bit.
BOTTOM LINE: When fully healthy, Houston is absolutely a playoff contender. So much rides on the health and effectiveness of Watson, Watt and Mercilus, not to mention promising, injury-riddled CB Kevin Johnson. With a little luck, the Texans will compete for a division title. OVER 8½
2018 Regular Season Wins Prop: OVER 9 (-125) / UNDER 9 (+105)
OFFENSE: Coordinator Nathaniel Hackett worked wonders last season, implementing an old-school, run-heavy offense that was excellent in the red zone. Leonard Fournette is a rising star with a mounting injury history, though T.J. Yeldon is one of the league’s better No. 2 running backs. The offense will only be as effective as erratic QB Blake Bortles, who is coming off his best and most mistake-free season, and has a deep group of receivers to work with.
DEFENSE: The Jaguars have the league’s best passing defense, holding opponents to a league-low 68.5 QB Rating in 2017. Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye were easily the NFL’s best cornerback duo last season and Ramsey is arguably the best shutdown corner in the game right now. Defensive linemen Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, Malik Jackson and Dante Fowler combined for 42.5 sacks, though opposing tailbacks gave Jacksonville trouble at times.
BOTTOM LINE: The Jaguars had one of the NFL’s easiest schedules last year, but play seven games against playoff teams in 2018. As long as Bortles doesn’t significantly regress, Jacksonville should again ride its running game and star-studded defense to a playoff appearance. OVER 9
Regular Season Wins Prop: OVER 8 (+105) / UNDER 8 (-125)
OFFENSE: New coordinator Matt LaFleur is tasked with getting Marcus Mariota on track after a letdown 2017. LaFleur certainly has the pedigree, having worked under Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan (maybe the two best offensive minds in football) in recent years. The RB duo of Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis should have success behind a solid O-line, and that would allow Mariota to thrive as a play-action passer (like Jared Goff did with LaFleur last year).
DEFENSE: New coordinator Dean Pees, Baltimore’s DC for the past six seasons, inherits an improving unit. Anchored by monstrous DT Jurrell Casey, the Titans allowed just 3.6 yards per carry in 2017 (fourth-best mark in the NFL). The secondary is shaping up to be one of the best in football. Former Patriots CB Malcolm Butler joins the physical Logan Ryan and speedster Adoree’ Jackson, an impressive trio that frees up All-Pro safety Kevin Byard to make huge plays.
BOTTOM LINE: Though the AFC South was once a punchline, Houston and Jacksonville are quality teams to contend with as Tennessee looks to return to the playoffs. As good as the Titans defense is, Mariota seems to be regressing and is too much of an injury risk to bet the over. UNDER 8
Regular Season Wins Prop: OVER 6½ (-138) / UNDER 6½ (+115)
OFFENSE: New head coach Frank Reich’s most important task is to keep Andrew Luck healthy. Indy drafted guard Quenton Nelson sixth overall and signed former Chargers G Matt Slauson in an attempt to protect their only star player, though Luck’s receiving corps is extremely thin behind T.Y. Hilton. The expected improvement of the line should help the running game, which includes some promising young running backs in Marlon Mack and Jordan Wilkins.
DEFENSE: New coordinator Matt Eberflus will run a 4-3, zone-based defense that emphasizes athleticism. The problem is that he inherits arguably the worst defensive roster in recent NFL history. Aside from second-year safety Malik Hooker and competent DE Jabaal Sheard, there simply isn’t much to work with. The Colts ranked 30th in both yards and points allowed last year, and made no significant personnel additions in the offseason.
BOTTOM LINE: Indy is still a few years from competing as it rebuilds the roster that former GM Ryan Grigson so poorly constructed. Even if Luck plays a full 16 games (a big “if”), his passing-game weapons won’t produce enough scoring to offset an atrocious defensive unit. UNDER 6½