LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Since its inception in 2002, the AFC South has not exactly earned a reputation as a tough division.
Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts ruled the first nine seasons, winning seven division titles and making the playoffs nine times while the other three teams combined to reach the playoffs just six times.
Things have been a little more equal over the past seven seasons, but even so, the division has still been regarded as one of the weakest in the NFL, especially since there have been two teams that finished with five or fewer victories five times. It appears, however, that things are on the verge of flipping.
With two playoff teams this season, including one which reached the AFC Championship Game, numerous key injured players expected to return, and the addition of one of the game’s brightest offensive minds, the AFC South could be one of the toughest divisions in football in 2018.
It’s certainly going to be the most interesting.
“It’s crazy how nobody wanted to play in the AFC South a couple years ago,” Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Telvin Smith said. “Now it seems like it’ll be one of the premier [divisions] in the league.”
The Jaguars were one of the NFL’s biggest surprises in 2017. After finishing with double-digit losses for six consecutive seasons, executive Tom Coughlin and head coach Doug Marrone changed the culture around the moribund franchise. That, plus the additions of defensive end Calais Campbell, cornerback A.J. Bouye and safety Barry Church helped the Jaguars become one of the league’s top defenses, resulting in the team’s first division title since 1999.
With 11 of the top 13 players on defense expected back, the expected signing (or franchise tag) of receiver Allen Robinson and the addition of help along the offensive line and at receiver, the Jaguars are likely going to be the favorite to repeat as division champs -- even if Blake Bortles, the league’s favorite punching bag, returns as the starting quarterback.
Maybe even one of the favorites to reach the Super Bowl, Jackson said.
“That’s a big jump, but I feel like we’re going to put ourselves in the right position to be an immediate contender next year,” Jackson said. “I think with the defensive product that we put out there, the offensive product we put out there and special teams, if we do anything less than what we did this year, it’d be a huge disappointment. I know we’re going to be consistent and I can promise you that.”
The Tennessee Titans also made the playoffs -- as well as beating the Jaguars twice -- despite an offense that averaged 314.0 yards and 20.9 points per game. Four of the Titans’ seven losses in the regular season were by six or fewer points, including three in a row in December.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota dealt with hamstring and leg injuries throughout the season and finished with 13 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions, but helped the Titans rally from a 21-3 deficit in Kansas City to beat the Chiefs in a wild-card game.
Still, 2017 was Mariota’s worst season -- he threw 26 touchdown passes and only nine interceptions in 2016 -- but he wasn’t helped by the fact that first-round pick Corey Davis missed five games early in the season with a hamstring injury and ended up with 34 catches for 375 yards in 11 games (just 3.1 catches per game).
Tight end Delanie Walker led the Titans in catches and receiving yards for the third time in the past four seasons and is second in receptions and third in receiving yards among NFL tight ends over the past four seasons. He remains one of the top tight ends in football entering the final season of a two-year contract extension.
Jurrell Casey is one of the league’s best defensive tackles (at least 5.0 sacks in each of the past four seasons after a career-high 10.5 in 2013) and he’s eager to get involved in the system that new head coach Mike Vrabel and new defensive coordinator Dean Pees will be installing.
Vrabel is a former NFL linebacker who spent the 2017 season as Houston’s defensive coordinator. Pees was Baltimore’s defensive coordinator from 2012-17, and the Ravens won the Super Bowl in his first season in the role. The Ravens finished first and fourth in takeaways the past two seasons.
Walker believes a healthy Mariota and the coaching changes make the Titans a dangerous team in 2018.
“We’re going to be the dogs in that division,” Walker said. “We’re going to be the dogs running the division. The Colts may be the underdogs this year, which is crazy to think, I know. It’s insane. I’m just happy that our division is becoming back what it’s known for.”
Houston and Indianapolis both finished 4-12 in 2017 for essentially the same reason: injuries to key players.
For the Texans, it was defensive end J.J. Watt (broken leg), linebacker Whitney Mercilus (pectoral), and quarterback Deshaun Watson (torn ACL). All are expected back by the start of 2018 and that should make the Texans significantly better.
Especially the return of Watson. The 12th overall pick was on his way to winning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors before tearing his ACL in practice on Nov. 2. Watson threw for 1,699 yards and 19 touchdowns with eight interceptions and ran for 269 yards and two touchdowns.
Over a full season that correlates to 3,883 yards passing, 43 touchdown passes, 18 interceptions, 615 yards rushing and five rushing touchdowns. If he can even come close to approaching those numbers the Texans would be one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the NFL in 2018.
Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck said in December he expects to take part in the Colts’ offseason workouts that begin in April, which would put him on track for training camp barring any setbacks to his surgically-repaired right shoulder.
That should instantly make the Colts a playoff contender again. They were 33-15 and made the playoffs in each of his first three seasons when he was healthy but just 10-12 over the past two seasons when he either played hurt or didn't play at all.
Luck also will be working with someone considered to be one of the top offensive minds in the game in Josh McDaniels, who is expected to be named the Colts' head coach after Super Bowl LII this Sunday. McDaniels has spent the past six seasons as New England’s offensive coordinator, where he coached current Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett for one season.
If everything plays out smoothly in the offseason, the AFC South will be one of the most competitive divisions in the league. Sending three teams to the playoffs wouldn’t be out of the question.
“We’re growing up and being that division that teams don’t want to play,” Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton said. “Jacksonville’s doing a great job. Tennessee’s still there -- they’re a tough team. Houston, once they get their quarterback back, and us. We get our quarterback back, we should be scary. The division is pretty strong.”
Casey said he understands if people don’t want to see that right now. But it will become evident pretty quickly next fall.
“A lot of people sleep on us in the AFC South,” Casey said. “They think when they play against one of us it’s an easy win all the time. The AFC South will be changing the identity. We’re winning teams and teams now know when they play against the AFC South it’s going to be a fight.
“It’s going to be a dogfight.”