Every team in the AFC South is tied with a 2-2 record.
It’s an odd and kind of comical feat, but fitting for a division that has spent most of its existence being one of the NFL’s least impressive groups. In the 17 years since realignment killed the AFC Central in 2002, no division has been to the Super Bowl fewer times than the AFC South. Its two AFC Championship wins came via the Peyton Manning-led Colts.
Only the NFC West — a division that currently has three three-win teams — has a worse record since 2002 (through Week 4):
- AFC East: 576-527-0 (0.522)
- NFC East: 564-538-2 (0.512)
- NFC South: 563-539-2 (0.511)
- AFC North: 550-548-6 (0.501)
- AFC West: 552-552-0 (0.500)
- NFC North: 543-556-5 (0.494)
- AFC South: 542-562-0 (0.491)
- NFC West: 515-583-5 (0.469)
So far, 2019 has been another lackluster season for the AFC South.
The Texans are still struggling to protect Deshaun Watson, the Titans are wildly inconsistent, the Colts lost quarterback Andrew Luck to an abrupt retirement, and the Jaguars are dealing with a trade demand from their best player, Jalen Ramsey.
With all four teams at .500, which team is best positioned to succeed in the final 13 weeks of the year and come out on top? Let’s break it down:
The (slight) favorite: Houston Texans
The offense has an ascending star in Watson and arguably the NFL’s best receiver in DeAndre Hopkins. The defense has an aging but still effective J.J. Watt, and it’s getting a resurgent season out of defensive end Whitney Mercilus.
On paper, the Texans should be great — especially after trading for left tackle Laremy Tunsil to help protect Watson.
Underachievement has been the hallmark of the Bill O’Brien era, though. His coaching tenure started with three consecutive 9-7 seasons, but the most frustrating year under O’Brien was the 11-5 campaign in 2018 that ended with a 21-7 loss to the Colts in the Wild Card Round. It was an underwhelming conclusion for a team that was 11th in points scored and fourth in points allowed.
Houston’s biggest issue was the offensive line, so it spent two of its top three draft picks on tackles and traded two first-round picks for Tunsil. But four weeks into 2019, Watson has been sacked 18 times — only two fewer than the league leader, Kyler Murray.
Still, the Texans are the team most likely to come out on top.
They already have a win over the Jaguars and have the talent to get through early speed bumps. The Texans did exactly that last year, battling back from an 0-3 start to win their next nine games. As long as integral players like Watson, Hopkins, Watt, and Mercilus stay healthy, Houston is the team to beat.
The not quite there yet: Indianapolis Colts
Hype for the Colts looked entirely justified after they won nine of their last 10 regular season games in 2018. Their rebuild looked way ahead of schedule, especially because they had plenty of draft picks and cap space to add to an already talented roster.
Instead, Indianapolis’ offseason was a modest one. Pass rusher Justin Houston and wide receiver Devin Funchess were the splashiest additions and neither has made a significant impact yet.
It didn’t help either that the preseason ended with Andrew Luck’s shocking retirement. Luckily for Indianapolis, his replacement, Jacoby Brissett, has been excellent. Brissett is miles better than he was in 2017, thanks largely to the Colts’ much improved offensive line. He has an NFL-best 10 touchdown passes and a 102.1 passer rating.
The problem for Indianapolis has been on the other side of the ball. Opponents are averaging 5.5 yards per rushing attempt against the Colts’ defense, the second-worst mark in the NFL. Quarterbacks have a 113.0 passer rating against the Indianapolis secondary and the Colts are tied with the Dolphins for the worst red zone defense.
If the Colts can’t beat the Chiefs in their next game, they’ll have a 2-3 hole to dig out of after a Week 6 bye. Indianapolis found its rhythm in the back half of the 2018 schedule and will need to do the same if it hopes for another trip to the postseason.
The melodrama: Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars struggled to defend the pass when Jalen Ramsey sat out against the Broncos in Week 4 with a back injury. If Ramsey had his way, the Jaguars would be without him all season.
The star cornerback asked for a trade after Week 2 and hasn’t been backed down from that request. On the other hand, Jacksonville doesn’t want to trade a player who is vitally important to its defensive success. That impasse means the soap opera could be an ongoing narrative all year — even if Doug Marrone has handled the situation as well as possible.
Not all the dramatics in Jacksonville are bad, though.
While Ramsey could have been a source of frustration for a spiraling team, the Jaguars found their rescuer in rookie quarterback Gardner Minshew. The sixth-round pick took over in Week 1 when Nick Foles broke his collarbone. In his stead, he’s thrown seven touchdowns with one interception.
His personality perfectly matches the team and his moxie was on full display when he led the Jaguars to a come-from-behind win over the Broncos.
THE MINSHEW MAGIC IS REAL.— NFL (@NFL) September 29, 2019
He avoids the sack multiple times and throws for the TD! @GardnerMinshew5 #JAXvsDEN #DUUUVAL
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Watch free on mobile: https://t.co/lm0vvtP8ei pic.twitter.com/WeJVm6WQaI
Minshew’s performance was buoyed by 225 rushing yards from Leonard Fournette, who didn’t do much in the first three games of the year — or all of last season. His breakthrough against the Broncos was his first game with at least 100 rushing yards since Week 14 of the 2017 season.
If Minshew can keep playing well, Fournette finds some consistency, and the defense can navigate the Ramsey saga, the Jaguars could easily wind up on top in the AFC South. Those are three big questions, however.
At the very least, the Jaguars are a show worth watching.
The roller coaster ride: Tennessee Titans
The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde act in Tennessee isn’t surprising. The Titans have been doing it for years. Just last season, they blew out the Cowboys and Patriots by 14 and 24 points, respectively, in back-to-back weeks. Then the Titans lost to the Colts by 28 and the Texans by 17 in their next two games.
Marcus Mariota can be as brilliant as any quarterback in the NFL one week and offensively inept the next. Derrick Henry had 84 rushing yards and 75 receiving yards in Week 1, but was held to 46 yards from scrimmage on 18 touches in Week 3.
The positive is that the defense was strong all September and still hasn’t allowed more than 20 points in a game this season.
If the Titans’ offense can match that consistency even a little bit, maybe they could make a run at first place. Losing each of their first two divisional games makes their climb the most difficult of the four, though.