AFC South prediction: The fate of the division rests on the arm of Philip Rivers or the legs of Derrick Henry


For the last three seasons, the AFC South has sent two teams to the playoffs. This division has been a tough one, and the regular-season finale has usually been decisive when it has come to playoff positioning. The last five division titles have been won by the Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars, but that’s a trend that will likely end in 2020.

The Jaguars appear to be in a tailspin. It began with Jalen Ramsey’s exit and the NFLPA warning players of signing with the Jaguars, and ended with a fire sale on the defensive side of the ball — one that may not quite be over. As for the Texans, head coach Bill O’Brien was promoted to general manager this offseason, and quickly made a trade that had the city up in arms. In return for their best player, they received virtually nothing — and the story quickly drifted off of the field into the locker room, where O’Brien made some controversial remarks to his now former star player.

As for the other two teams — the Tennessee Titans and the Indianapolis Colts — they appear to be on the upswing. The former made it all the way to the AFC Championship game thanks to their league-leading rusher and 2019 Associated Press Comeback Player of the Year, while the latter is bringing a new quarterback to town to attempt a Super Bowl push with a talented roster. 

With all of this in mind, let’s take a look at how the AFC South will look entering 2020, and make some way-too-early predictions for how the division will play out this season. 

4. Jacksonville Jaguars

While the Jaguars have a young talent under center in Gardner Minshew and a great running back in Leonard Fournette, this team is entering a rebuild. It doesn’t seem long ago the Jaguars were one game — scratch that — one quarter from making a Super Bowl appearance, but now almost all of those members of that stout defense are gone. The next to leave town will probably be pass-rusher Yannick Ngakoue, who despite receiving the franchise tag, has informed the Jaguars he would like to play elsewhere. Jacksonville’s defense fell from No. 6 to No. 29 DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) just in the last year, and I think they could finish even lower in 2020. Sure, they made some additions already like Joe Schobert, Darqueze Dennard and Rodney Gunter, but it appears as though this team is going to have a tough season and once again fail to make the playoffs. 

3. Houston Texans

The Texans have already re-signed players like Darren Fells, Brandon Dunn, Bradley Roby and Vernon Hargreaves, but this offseason is going to be remembered as the one they let DeAndre Hopkins go. O’Brien made the decision to trade arguably the best wide receiver in the game to the Arizona Cardinals for running back David Johnson, a second-round pick and what was essentially a swap of fourth-round picks. To repeat, the Texans traded one of their best players for a running back who brings injury concerns and a massive contract to Houston, and a second-round pick. It came out that Hopkins wanted a change of scenery and a new deal, which is fine. Breakups happen in the NFL. It’s just a team’s responsibility to get fair value in return for said player. Even a couple days after the trade was agreed to, a story came out about a wild locker room dispute that made O’Brien look even worse

I say all of this to make the point that this is only the latest blunder the Texans have made. My colleague Sean Wagner-McGough took the time to really flesh out the many mistakes Houston has made just over the last year, and it’s why I think the Texans will take a step backwards this season. Giving up your main offensive weapon and trying to replace him with Randall Cobb is going to hurt you. While Deshaun Watson is a rising star and the Texans have some good pieces on defense, eventually all of these head-scratching moves are going to catch up with you. They have made the playoffs four out of the last five years, but they will miss the postseason in 2020. 

2. Indianapolis Colts

To be frank, how far the Colts can go in 2020 may completely rely on Philip Rivers. The Colts made the decision to move on from Jacoby Brissett and pay the long-time Chargers signal caller $25 million for one year. In his final season with the Chargers, it appeared Rivers was was on his way out the league — fast. While he finished fourth in the NFL in passing yards with 4,615, he finished third in the NFL with 20 interceptions and had an 88.5 passer rating. His touchdown percentage of 3.9 was his lowest since becoming the Chargers starting quarterback in 2006, and his adjusted net yards gained per pass attempt (7.1) was his lowest since 2012. Frank Reich is trusting that Rivers still has some tread left on the tires. Additionally, it needs to be said that Brissett really didn’t get a fair chance to lead this team. The entire Colts roster was devastated by injuries last season. Just looking at the wideouts — T.Y. Hilton, Parris Campbell, Devin Funchess, Chester Rogers and Daurice Fountain all missed significant time with injuries. If this were a video game and injuries were turned “off” last season, the Colts would have been a pretty good team. If Rivers can bring a spark to Indy and the roster can remain relatively healthy, you might be surprised by the Colts in 2020.

  1. Tennessee Titans

From pretender to contender, the Titans experienced a major rebirth in 2019. Derrick Henry led the league in rushing yards and quite literally carried the Titans to the AFC Championship game while Ryan Tannehill reinvented himself as a franchise quarterback. The Titans recognized these two players were the reason they made it to the precipice of the Super Bowl, and locked up both for 2020. Tannehill signed a four-year, $118 million contract extension while the Titans used the franchise tag on Henry. The Titans did lose starting right tackle Jack Conklin to the Cleveland Browns, but they quickly re-signed swing tackle Dennis Kelly are are going to give him a chance to start on the right side. As far as the defensive side of the ball goes, the Titans improved from No. 16 to No. 9 in DVOA, and I think they could exceed expectations again next year. Tennessee had a hard time getting to the quarterback in 2019, and the Titans aimed to fix that by agreeing to terms with former Atlanta Falcons pass-rusher Vic Beasley this week. It appears they finally have someone with potential to play opposite of Harold Landry — who recorded a career-high nine sacks last year and is expected to take another step forward in 2020. If they can add some pieces to the secondary, this team should win the division and could make another deep postseason run.

There is one potential problem the Titans may run into that could halt their progress — and that’s if Henry orchestrates a holdout. The 26-year-old rushed for 1,540 yards and 16 touchdowns last year. He did everything he possibly could to earn a long-term, lucrative extension, but the Titans understood it’s not wise to give that money over to running backs. Without Henry, the Titans’ postseason hopes are in serious jeopardy. So, Nashville will hold its breath. 





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