All four of the teams in the AFC South could make the case as the team to beat in the division. Yes — who would have thought that Jacksonville or Tennessee would be a part of this conversation? The door to the division crown has been left open. The AFC South has turned into one of the more fascinating divisions in football.
Don’t expect new quarterback Brock Osweiler to make Houston noticeably better than Brian Hoyer’s 2015 Texans.
Osweiler put together a very nice 2015 season in place of the injured, and struggling, Peyton Manning. But let’s hold off proclaiming him the next hall-of-fame quarterback. The sample size is very small — started 8 games last year while throwing for 10 touchdowns, 6 interceptions, and averaging 245 yards in those games.
The former Sun Devil steps into a Houston Texan team that for years has been carried by it’s stingy defense, led by All-Pro DE J.J. Watt. Osweiler will have Lamar Miller in the backfield with him and one of the league’s premier wide receivers out on the edge in DeAndre Hopkins. All signs point to immediate success for Osweiler. However before we get carried away, let’s remember that we know just as much about Osweiler as we knew about Brian Hoyer when he signed on to quarterback the Texan offense a couple years ago.
Houston has to play fellow 2015 division champions — Broncos, Patriots, and Bengals. Not to mention I already mentioned how the AFC South has righted itself — the Titans and Jags are no longer walkovers. And with Andrew Luck healthy, the Colts will be expected to compete for the top spot in the division — maybe the conference.
Bill O’Brien’s club should be a stronger team at the end of the season than the 2015 version. But it won’t be quick and it won’t be obvious for most of the season. Osweiler has a lot to prove; if he can, this team has a very high ceiling. But their potential may not be reached for another year or two down the road.
With Andrew Luck healthy, the Colts will win the AFC South and compete for the conference title in January.
The NFL is like that — one player can change an entire franchise’s fortunes. In 2015, Andrew Luck’s injury changed the Colts fortunes in a negative way — this year his return has many thinking the Colts will resume their spot among the conference’s best teams.
With Matthew Hasselback leading the offense for most of 2015, the Colts still managed 7 wins and were in the hunt for the division right down to the wire. Luck’s return has the potential of making a 7-9 team, an 11-win team.
Expect Luck to throw for over 4,500 yards and somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 to 40 TDs. If the Indy defense can get off the field when they need to and give their stud QB extra opportunities with the ball in his hands, the Colts should be a very formidable team in 2016.
Blake Bortles will not need to throw for 35 TDs, as Jacksonville’s defense will lead this team into wildcard contention.
Blake Bortles had one of the best 2015 seasons that no one really remembers. His 35 touchdowns was only one behind NFL leader Tom Brady’s 36; he threw for over 4,400 yards; and ranked in the top-10 in almost every major passing category. HIs 18 interceptions were the worst in the league, but I expect that number to come down considerably this season. The main reason? Head Coach Gus Bradley has assembled a mean, fast, ball-hawking defense that should take a lot of pressure off of Bortles and the offense.
Don’t forget that Bradley came from Seattle when he took the job as head coach of the Jaguars. He helped put together the Legion of Doom and had a major hand in Seattle’s vicious pass rush. Jacksonville is not anywhere near that Seattle team — let’s not misunderstand each other. However, the Jags are chalk full of high defensive draft picks — linebacker Myles Jack and DB Jalen Ramsey, fast edge rushers, and talented young defenders who are buying into Bradley’s system. Offseason additions like Prince Amukamara at cornerback and Tashaun Gipson at free safety have this secondary looking much more capable of defending against the pass in 2016.
DeMarco Murray will lead the AFC in rushing.
If Marcus Mariota had a couple more weapons at wide receiver — like a reliable slot guy and another big deep threat, I’d feel like predicting a playoff berth for this team wouldn’t be all that crazy. As it stands though, I think the Titans are going to be much improved in 2016, but they will not threaten for the playoffs. But Mariota should have another very good year — made even better by the addition of running back DeMarco Murray.
Tennessee improved their offensive line in the offseason which will provide Mariota more time in the pocket and will give Murray a solid blocking front that I expect will spring him to the top of the conference in rushing. Head Coach Mike Mularkey knows the importance of being able to run the football — look for him to feature Mariota, himself, many times a game running the ball in addition to Murray. Establishing a solid, respected rush attack will make Mariota better and will make the offense more efficient. Murray is just the guy to tote the rock in Mularkey’s offense.
Dallas nearly ran Murray’s legs off in 2014. But thankfully for Tennessee, Chip Kelly really never figured out how to properly use Murray last season in Philadelphia. So the workhorse back should be coming into 2016 feeling pretty rested.
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