2018 NFL Preview

’18 NFL Division Preview: AFC South

The Jaguars are looking to springboard off some major (playoff) success in 2017 and will again feature an elite defense. The Texans are praying for good health. The Titans won a playoff game last season and are the division's wild card. The Colts, well, let's just declare this a three-team race.

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The Jaguars put a jolt into the football universe in 2017 when they upset the Steelers and pushed the evil Patriots to the brink, just missing out on a Super Bowl appearance. They will be an excellent team again behind that ferocious defense. And yes, Blake Bortles will be just fine. The Texans have Watt and Watson back to do some heavy lifting to keep pace at the top of the division. The Titans ended up 9-7 (and winning a playoff game) despite a very tough year for Marcus Mariota. They have a wide range of potential outcomes this season. Even with Andrew Luck healthy, the Colts are still stuck in rebuilding mode and will serve as the division and league’s punching bag.

jax1. Jacksonville Jaguars

2017 record: 10-6
2018 Projection:

The Jacksonville Jaguars, for the first time in over a decade, since the David Garrard Era (if that qualifies as an actual “era”), got a big ‘ol taste of real playoff success last season, pushing the evil Patriots to the brink and falling just shy of making an unexpected Super Bowl appearance. In 2018, they’re now completely rid of the “sexy sleeper” label cast upon them over the past two seasons, and are set to face real expectations as the toast of the division. All of this, and yet the indestructible Blake Bortles still stands in the pocket. Though not untouchable, the Jags are deep on both sides of the ball again this year. Though they lost a couple of veteran receivers in Allen Hurns (Cowboys) and Allen Robinson (Bears), they nabbed Andrew Norwell from the Panthers to keep the offensive line respectable. Leonard Fournette, off a stellar rookie season, will once again be the focal point of the offense. On the other side, this might be the best defensive unit in football, with loads of talent at every position. And if you need overwhelming evidence of such, I beg you to read this attention-grabbing GQ article featuring Jalen Ramsey calling out half of the league, which has had the Twitter universe blazing for the entire week.

Best case scenario: The team relies on it’s defense to carry them through some dominating performances throughout the season, while getting a gigantic season out of Fournette and just what they need out of Bortles and the passing game. They win the division and get through everyone in the AFC, making it all the way to the Super Bowl.

Worst case scenario: Bortles isn’t able to “manage” games as effectively as last year, Fournette runs into a sophomore slump or gets injured again and the defense’s output doesn’t match all the buzz that’s pumped them up heading into the season. The Texans and Titans outduel them for the division and last season appears to be an outlier.

Bottom line: The Jags will be elite again and based on the defense alone, they should win at least half their games. Although I can envision quality cases being made for the Texans or Titans to challenge for the division, I think the Jags are the most complete team. Another deep playoff run is to be expected unless a major meltdown (or poor health) takes place.

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hou2. Houston Texans

2017 record: 4-12
2018 Projection:

The Houston Texans are one of the most intriguing teams in the league this season for a variety of reasons, but primarily due to the fact that they had a promising ’17 season wiped out by injuries to several major pieces, including J.J. Watt and rookie quarterback sensation Deshaun Watson. Decimated, the team finished near the bottom of the entire league at 4-12. This season brings fresh hope that they can contend with the Jaguars for the AFC South division. With a clean bill of health, Watson will have an elite DeAndre Hopkins, an underrated Will Fuller and a viable Lamar Miller in the backfield, to try to keep pace with what should be an excellent defense. The return of Watt, combined with the growing dominance of Jadeveon Clowney, the steady coverage of Johnathan Joseph and the addition of the “Honeybadger” Tyrann Mathieu, should produce a Texans defense that resembles that of years past. The jump from 4 wins to 10 might seem excessive, but this team will also look quite different than the one that hobbled through the season in ’17. On top of that, based on opponents records, they have the easiest schedule in the league.

Best case scenario: The defense returns to elite status, Watson comes back even better and more dynamic than the flashes he showed in his rookie season and well, nobody gets hurt. The Texans out-muscle the Jags (and Titans) to claim the division and attempt to make some noise deep into the playoffs.

Worst case scenario: Injuries again. Or, opposing coaches had enough tape on Watson last year to keep him in check for most of the season. And aside from Watt and Clowney, the defense isn’t as deep as they appear to be on paper. With that, missing the playoffs would seem inevitable.

Bottom line: The Texans should be in the running to be the biggest comeback story of the season, though they could also be a mystery. Winning anywhere between 6 and 10 games won’t be a big shocker. The range is vast. I think they’ll keep pace with the Jags, but ultimately, will only contend for a wild card spot.

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ten3. Tennessee Titans

2017 record: 9-7
2018 Projection: 9-7

The Titans are one of the hardest teams in the entire league to project. Not only did they have one of those “shouldn’t they be better than this?” seasons in 2017, but they were also very active in the offseason, with moving parts at key positions. They welcome in former Patriots running back Dion Lewis (to replace the retired DeMarco Murray and pair with Derrick Henry) and Super Bowl “bench hero” cornerback Malcolm Butler. Both should have immediate impacts. While the offensive line, led by bookends Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin, expects to be top notch once again, the bigger question might actually be at quarterback, with Marcus Mariota coming off an extremely inconsistent season (15 GP, a very poor 13/15 TD/INT ratio, 55.1 QBR, 79.3 QB Rating). He’s still young, but whether he can bounce back will be a topic of conversation in the early part of the season. Those in the Titans organization surely wouldn’t have imagined having to show (even slight) concern about the quarterback position after Mariota’s incredible 2016 campaign, but… here we are, sort of.

Best case scenario: Mariota quickly regains his ’16 form and behind him, Henry, Lewis and an elite offensive line, the Titans have a spectacular ground attack the fuels the offense (and makes up for a very thin receiving corps). The defense plays respectable and they get the better of the Jags and Texans, and take big advantage of the head-to-head matchups. With an easy schedule (31st toughest), this case would prove to be playoff worthy (where they won in the opening round a year ago).

Worst case scenario: Mariota falls flat again without having an elite receiver to depend on and teams stack the box every game in efforts to thwart the running game (and making the offensive line rather irrelevant). The defense remains average and can’t slow opponents to the pace they need (as they won’t outscore many teams). Third place would be the likely landing spot in this scenario.

Bottom line: The Titans will end up somewhere in the middle of those two situations. I could see them finishing as low as 6-10, or as high as 10-6. Based primarily on the notion that they’ll win their home games against the two other division competitors, I’ll assign them a 9-7 finish, where they were last year. This year, however, it may not be enough to snatch a playoff spot.

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ind4. Indianapolis Colts

2017 record: 4-12
2018 Projection:

It should go without saying at this point, but this franchise’s success, as it has for the past six years, will depend almost entirely on the health of one Andrew Luck. After missing the 2017 season, it’s hard to believe that just three years ago, Luck threw for 40 touchdowns and over 4,700 yards. Now, all indications point to him looking back to “normal” after a solid training camp, so things are looking up for the Colts. However, his weaponry is pretty thin. After T.Y. Hilton, the receivers are almost unknown. The same applies to the running backs, as they start the season with Marlon Mack and Robert Turbin. The offensive line projects to be quite formidable (with the drafting of guard Quentin Nelson at #6 overall), so least Luck might stay upright more often than not. Defensively, this team is an absolute dumpster fire and will get lit up (pardon the pun) on a regular basis.

Best case scenario: Luck returns 110% healthy and turns his below average receivers into overachievers. The addition of the rookie Nelson opens up some holes for Mack and Turbin (doesn’t that sound frightening?) to run through. The defense doesn’t allow 30 points per game. The Colts pull out some wild wins within the division and they sniff the breadcrumbs on the playoff trail.

Worst case scenario: Luck gets hurt. Season over (again). Though, even with a healthy Luck, the alternative doesn’t seem to provide for much of a season.

Bottom line: With or without Luck, the Colts are pretty sad. They have big holes in every area of the roster. While they continue to build slowly through the draft, these are going to be some painful seasons, including 2018. As I look at the schedule, I only see four winnable games, and even that might be generous. I do hope we see a healthy Andrew Luck on the field for 16 games, but the win-loss record won’t be pretty.

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