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AFC South Preview: Things Are Stranger Than Ever

The Titans try to keep riding high into 2020, while the Texans and Colts look to rebound from a season that went sour.

The strangest division in football has spent the last few months getting even stranger. The Texans traded their best player not named Deshaun Watson in the offseason’s most second-guessed deal. The Titans backed out of the Tom Brady sweepstakes to focus on building an offense around Derrick Henry and Ryan Tannehill. The Colts handed the reins of their young offense to a 38-year-old coming off a down season. And the once-promising Jaguars went from chasing a playoff spot to positioning themselves for the No. 1 pick in 2021 draft.

Every team, in some way, seems to be reeling from disappointment. Houston not only blew a 24-point playoff lead to the Chiefs but also a chance to host the AFC championship game. Tennessee, after upending the heavily favored Ravens, fell to Kansas City a week later, allowing coach Mike Vrabel to circumvent any discussion about severing a body part. (Go ahead, look it up.) In Jacksonville, any sense of optimism that remained after a stunning run to the 2017 AFC title game evaporated with so many top players heading for the exits. CB Jalen Ramsey forced a trade in the middle of last season, DE Yannick Ngakoue is trying to do the same this year, and CB A.J. Bouye was traded to Denver this offseason.

It is wild to consider that this division was a few plays from having its best two teams face off for the AFC title. And yet none of them, save Indianapolis, felt the need to markedly improve. Is anyone seriously slotting an AFC South team to make the Super Bowl ahead of the Chiefs, Patriots, Ravens or Steelers? Sure, Tennessee signed Tannehill to a four-year, $118 million extension this offseason, but does the idea of him at the helm—no matter how historically efficient he was during the 12 regular-season games he started in 2019—send shivers down opponents’ spines? Does a Watson-led offense inspire the same fear when he no longer has DeAndre Hopkins and his insane catch radius to target?

The Colts are the division’s most fascinating team this year. While they have all the foundational pieces to make a serious playoff push, the signing of Philip Rivers, after 16 seasons with the Chargers, could be either spectacularly good or irredeemably awful. Frank Reich is one of the best, most adaptable coaches in football, and he spent three years with Rivers in San Diego from 2013 to ’15. But can football smarts and a history of shared success stave off Rivers’s decline? At a time when mobility has become central to the quarterback position and the development of modern schemes, Rivers is one of the league’s remaining throwbacks. He is coming off his worst season, with 20 interceptions and only 23 touchdowns. But he is also only a year removed from ranking among the NFL’s three best passers, and at this point he has seen and diagnosed nearly every scheme by every defensive coordinator in football.

You can see what the Colts were thinking when they signed him. Imagine if Rivers regains his form of not-that-long-ago while paired with the budding skill position talent in Indianapolis? Then the strangest division in football may have a surprise for everyone.

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BEST-CASE SCENARIO: Rivers shows his old spark and performs like a sage game manager, finding young WRs Michael Pittman Jr. and Parris Campbell and giving the Colts an Eagles 2018 vibe, minus the mobility at quarterback. Marlon Mack and second-round rookie Jonathan Taylor from Wisconsin become one of the NFL’s top running back tandems.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: Rivers proves to be in the kind of decline that a good scheme cannot reverse, and the offense remains a neutral threat at best while some prime talent goes to waste. The investment in DT DeForest Buckner reaps little. Indianapolis looks back with regret at the spring of 2020, when so many other, younger QBs were on the market.

BEST-CASE SCENARIO: Offensive coordinator Arthur Smith works wonders once again. Wide receiver A.J. Brown remains white-hot, while Henry continues to punish opponents and Tannehill builds upon his breakout season, earning every dollar of his new contract. Smith is on the wish list of every team needing a coach.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: The toll of last year’s heavy workload shows on Henry, whose terribly timed breakdown arrives after the Titans gave him a four-year, $50 million contract extension with $25.5 million guaranteed in July. To spark their run game, the Titans turn to third-rounder Darrynton Evans (Appalachian State), who isn’t ready for a feature role.

BEST-CASE SCENARIO: The Hopkins trade, like the Jadeveon Clowney deal of 2019, proves to be not as disastrous as the critics thought; the combination of Will Fuller plus newly acquired WRs Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb keeps the passing game clicking. RB David Johnson, picked up from the Cardinals as part of the Hopkins deal, regains his All-Pro form of 2016.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: As Hopkins thrives in Arizona, the Texans stumble, and Watson grows unhappy. It doesn’t help that the young players on the offensive line don’t show the needed development. The internal divisions deepen in Houston. The disappointing finish doesn’t sink coach Bill O’Brien, but as general manager he has to make fixes—quickly.

BEST-CASE SCENARIO: Gardner Minshew develops into a reliable quarterback, and WR Laviska Shenault proves to be a second-round bargain. Despite only a middling record, the Jaguars emerge from the season feeling good enough about their foundation to spend lavishly on free agents in 2021 and make a run at the division next year.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: RB Leonard Fournette doesn’t rally in his contract year, marking another disappointing result from a former first-round pick. After Ramsey stormed his way off the roster during last season, Ngakoue replicates the routine. Coach Doug Marrone can’t pull the locker room together and the franchise plunges into turmoil.