2021 AFC South Preview

Trying to predict the future is sort of what my blog is all about. I have spent more time this year keeping up with the NFL action than any time before, whether it’s watching The Pat Mcafee Show, listening to the PFF Podcast, or just scanning Twitter for the day-to-day minutia.

I did this exercise last season — the one where I gave a few paragraphs to every team and tried to guess whether they would go over or under their projected win total. I enjoyed it, so I’m doing it again. Being a typical American and working five days a week makes me appreciate the time I have to myself, and I can’t help but spend the overwhelming majority of that time following the sports I love. Everything that follows is the culmination of how I have spent my February (since the Super Bowl) through June (a couple weeks before training camp starts), at least as it relates to my free time.

With that being said, I imagine it will be pretty easy to tell which teams I paid more attention to and which teams I didn’t have much to say about. I also imagine I’ll have a few instant regrets once I get done posting all the divisions, since that’s the nature of betting over/under props — theoretical coin flips — and since the NFL is so unpredictable. For purposes of this, two-plus months before the actual season starts, I consider it to be more of a snapshot of what I feel right this second. So take it all with a grain of salt.

Disclaimer: All over/under win totals are provided courtesy of Bovada.

Part I: NFC East

Part II: NFC North

Part III: NFC South

Part IV: NFC West

Part V: AFC East

Part VI: AFC North

Part VII: AFC South

Common opponents: AFC East (Bills, Dolphins, Jets, Patriots), NFC West (49ers, Cardinals, Rams, Seahawks)

My AFC South record last year: 3 wins (Jaguars, Texans, Titans), 1 loss (Colts)

1. Houston Texans

2020 record: 4-12
2021 over/under: 4.5 wins (per Vegas Insider)

18 months ago, the Houston Texans held a 24-0 lead… in the second quarter… of the Divisional Round… on the road… against the Kansas City Chiefs. Here is what what happened after:

  1. Over the remaining three quarters they got outscored 51-7 and lost, obviously;
  2. Last offseason they traded their best playmaker, DeAndre Hopkins, to the Cardinals;
  3. Four games into the 2020 season they fired their head coach and GM, Bill O’Brien;
  4. They finished the season 4-12;
  5. Almost directly after the year, QB DeShaun Watson let it be known he wanted to be traded;
  6. Shortly thereafter, allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced against Watson, and now he will likely spend the 2021 season on the commissioner’s exempt list (meaning he won’t play).

Long story short: there isn’t an organization in worse shape than the Texans right now, which is reflected by having the lowest projected win total in the league. To rub salt in their wounds they didn’t even have a first round draft pick this year — which would have been #3 overall — because two years ago they traded it to the Dolphins in the Laremy Tunsil deal.

In lieu of likely not having Watson for the duration of the season, they are now stuck with perennial backup Tyrod Taylor, a guy who isn’t gifted enough to put a talentless team on his back, but who is probably better than the Texans deserve right now. I won’t go out of my way to defend Deshaun Watson, but Houston was in a world of shit even before a couple dozen women came forward against him. They traded draft picks to win in the short term, and it’s because they traded those draft picks that the roster is in such bad shape.

One big thing: Forget about the 2021 season. The question now is how damaged will Deshaun Watson be as a trade commodity assuming he plays again in 2022? I can picture a few teams — the Eagles, Panthers, and Lions — drafting in the top-5 range next year. If Watson’s trade value is tarnished beyond repair, would the Texans be able to move him for a top-5 pick? Will those teams simply pass and take a lesser player without the baggage? I don’t think there’s any doubt that Deshaun is a top-5 QB in the NFL, but if Houston isn’t about to procure a top pick for him, or a collection of top picks, I can’t see how this team recovers any time soon. 4.5 wins is not a big number, but if I’m forced to bet I am taking the under.

2. Indianapolis Colts

2020 record: 11-5
2021 over (-105)/under (-125): 10 wins

The Colts got out ahead of the quarterback carousel and traded a conditional second round pick (that will likely turn into a first) to the Eagles for former #2 overall pick Carson Wentz. Wentz is coming off a dreadful 2020 season, but a lot of people believe it had more to do with organizational dysfunction than some obvious drop-off in his game.

Wentz’s addition to the Colts allows him to reunite with his original offensive coordinator with the Eagles — Frank Reich — who is on his 4th quarterback in as many years with the Colts. In 2018 he went 10-6 and made the AFC Divisional Round with Andrew Luck; in 2019 he went 7-9 with Jacoby Brissett in the year Luck retired a couple weeks before the season started; and last year he managed an 11-5 record with an aged (and now retired) Phillip Rivers.

Indianapolis has a solid all-around roster that has an outside chance to compete for the AFC Championship if Reich can rekindle the magic he had with Wentz in 2017. Really, I think, the only thing this team lacks are dynamic playmakers. Their receiving corp is highlighted by second-year receiver Michael Pittman Jr., veteran T.Y. Hilton and a smorgasbord of replacement-level players. Where this team figures to shine is in the running game, behind one of the best offensive lines in the league and second-year stud Jonathon Taylor. If they are to win as many games as those of us who are bullish assume, it will be run-first, play-action second.

One big thing: People are rightly going to be focused on Carson Wentz, but is the Colts defense good enough to contend for a championship? We see every year that zone-heavy defenses can shine during the regular season — particularly in a division featuring teams like the Texans and Jaguars — but when they go up against the league’s best, can they stop them? The Bills run a similar scheme and got absolutely housed by the Chiefs in the AFC Championship last year. I’m not doubting the regular season Colts, and I like them both to go over 10 wins and to win the AFC South, but are we talking about a team that’s going down on Wild Card Weekend, or are we perhaps looking at the next representative in the Super Bowl?

3. Jacksonville Jaguars

2020 record: 1-15
2021 over (-120)/under (-110): 6.5 wins

I don’t really know where to start with the Jaguars, which is why I don’t have a whole lot to say about them, but is this a team that’s going to be uplifted by the addition of Trevor Lawrence or hampered by new head coach Urban Meyer? I’m high on the former, and I’m low on the latter. I just don’t know which is going to win out as the season goes on.

There’s a reason why great college coaches rarely duplicate their success in the NFL. You can’t coach professional athletes the same way you coach a bunch of 18- and 19 year-olds who are playing football for free. There is going to be a learning curve there, and I’m not sure if signing former quarterback Tim Tebow sends the right message to the locker room.

One big thing: I suppose if Trevor Lawrence is as good as everyone thinks he is nothing else will matter. In his first year, however, the real question is will he a top-20 QB or will he be somewhere in the top-10? I really like his prospects for the future, but in year-one I’m betting on some real growing pains, and I expect the Jaguars to fall slightly below their modest 6.5-win expectation.

4. Tennessee Titans

2020 record: 11-5
2021 over (-125)/under (-105): 9.5 wins

Since switching from Marcus Mariota to Ryan Tannehill in 2019, the Titans have gone 18-6 in the regular season and averaged 29.7 points per game. If you slice up the stats a particular way then Tannehill ranks right up there with Patrick Mahomes in terms of efficiency and QBR, and while I think that comparison is a stretch I don’t think it can be argued that he is one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL.

I’m not totally in love with their offseason, but they did make two splashes. The first was taking Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley — the consensus highest upside CB in the draft — with their first round pick. The second, and the one that got all the headlines, was trading a 2022 2nd round pick for WR Julio Jones. Both of those additions give Tennessee one of the highest ceilings in the AFC.

But they also lost a lot of dudes. They replaced EDGE Jadeveon Clowney with former Steelers EDGE Bud Dupree. They replaced CB Malcom Butler with former Saints CB Janoris Jenkins. And they lost two receivers — former top-10 pick Corey Davis and slot guy Adam Humphries — which created the need to trade for Julio. None of these moves are crippling, but they creep in the wrong direction.

One big thing: How healthy can the Titans stay in 2021? If they can keep the core of Tannehill, running back Derrick Henry, and WRs A.J. Brown and Julio Jones upright, then this team has the potential to win the AFC South for the second straight year and maybe even make some noise in the playoffs. If, however, any one of that quartet misses significant time, then it will make them a helluva lot easier to game plan for and I seriously question the depth behind them. I will tentatively take the Titans over 9.5 wins, but if there are any cracks in the armor for more than a month it’s very possible this team will have to shut it down and retool for a more promising 2022.

AFC South Prediction

  1. Colts: 11-6
  2. Titans: 10-7
  3. Jaguars: 5-12
  4. Texans: 2-15

One thought on “2021 AFC South Preview

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