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AFC South: 2015 NFL Divisional Preview

In terms of sheer talent, the AFC South may be the most disproportionate among all NFL divisions. On one hand, we have the Colts, who have won 9 divisions and earned 12 total playoff berths in the division’s 13-year existence, and on the other we have 3 teams who have become nothing more than filler for the rest of the league. This was again evident in 2014, when the Colts won 11 games by themselves, while the rest of the South won a combined 14. Things don’t look to be much different for 2015, with Indianapolis being a prohibitive favorite to repeat.

With only a barrage of bad luck serving as a potential roadblock for the Colts’ division title, the focus is then left on the other three squads, who have plenty to play for, at least for the future of their franchises. The Titans will start a rookie collegiate star, while the Jaguars will give the ball to a sophomore, and the Texans have JJ Watt but little else around him. Can any of these teams become a sleeper contender? But most importantly, how can you profit from this batch of lackluster squads?

Standings predictions are carried from worst to best, and include over/under picks using the latest odds posted by Bovada Online.

Tennessee Titans
Odds to Win Division: +1600
Over/Under Wins: 5.5

From 2009 to 2013, the Titans were one of the blandest teams in the league. Even as they never topped 9 wins, they also didn’t fall below 6, putting them in a very boring spot. However, all things fell apart in 2014, with Tennessee dropping to 2-14 and landing the #2 overall pick in the Draft. There’s just no way to mask just how bad the Titans were, with 9 losses coming by at least 14 points, the 29th-ranked offense, and the 27th defense, and a huge hole at quarterback.

The first and obvious order of business was to take one of the draft’s elite QB’s, which turned out to be the Oregon alum Marcus Mariota. We all know how Coach Ken Whisenhunt has been able to get the most of talented quarterbacks, and the hope for the Tennessee franchise is that Mariota can develop into a star and become the best QB for the Titans since Steve McNair. Even as that may come to be, it certainly won’t happen in 2015, when the Titans are full of gaping holes in their roster and Mariota is barely learning how to be a pro. The secondary is looking ahead at another disaster season, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Tennessee as the worst defense in the NFL by year’s end.

Even with a soft schedule (just like the rest of the South), the Titans are probably well served with marginal gains from last season and the first glimpses of Mariota. He will be given a long leash and has the potential to make the Titans exciting, which is more than what they’ve been for a long time. I see an encouraging 4-12 season for the Titans, so take the Under.

Jacksonville Jaguars
Odds to Win Division: +1600
Over/Under Wins: 5.5

Just a year ago, the Jaguars were in a very similar spot to what the Titans are facing now. After years of losing and irrelevance, the franchise was handed a potential impact QB out of the draft and needed a year to see what they had. Year 1 of the Blake Bortles era was not pretty, with Jacksonville going 3-13 to make their win total over the last 4 years a shocking 14. And yet, the Jaguars enter 2015 with a slight touch of optimism and new weapons to surround Bortles.

As part of their new effort to rebuild slowly, the Jaguars boast a nice number of young skill-position players that can continue to develop. Aside from Bortles’ obvious need to continue his understanding of the NFL, the Jaguars have a pair of Allens (Hurns and Robinson) serving as deep threats in the passing game, while TJ Yeldon can become one of the best young running backs in the NFL. The problem for Jacksonville is that their defense doesn’t seem in line with what they are trying to accomplish on offense. After finishing 26th in overall defense, the franchise was smart to go for defensive wiz Dante Fowler Jr. in the Draft, only to see him injure his knee in the offseason and having to miss his rookie year. What was a thin unit has now been left even worse, though the team is probably more concerned on what it is building on the offensive side of the ball.

While the Jaguars are still well away from contention, 2015 can serve as the building block for better things to come. Also having a middling slate of opponents, I see the Jags surpassing 5 wins for the first time since 2010, albeit by a small margin. At this point, even 6-10 would be a welcome result for Jacksonville. Bet the Over, and be aware to track both Allen wide receivers for fantasy purposes.

Houston Texans
Odds to Win Division: +425
Over/Under Wins: 8.5

The Texans have to be considered one of the most enigmatic teams heading into 2015. On one hand, they have JJ Watt, which automatically places their defense in the upper echelon in the league. He will also now be joined full-time by Jadeveon Clowney and new acquisition Vince Wilfork, making Houston’s line of the most feared in the NFL. On the other hand, the team plans to give the QB job to Brian Hoyer, while Arian Foster is injured to start the season and his availability is a mystery going forward. Can a team win consistently with such a chasm between its defense and offense?

The concern for the Texans is that there just doesn’t seem to be a way in which their quarterback situation gets any better. Hoyer’s replacement, Ryan Mallett, has all of 79 pass attempts in his pro career, and that won’t be helped by the team’s lack of impact receivers outside of DeAndre Hopkins, who seems doomed to suffer just like Andre Johnson did in his final Houston years. The Texans can be competitive by virtue of Watt’s feats of strength, but their secondary is not up to par with the front seven, and Houston doesn’t seem to have the talent to overcome long deficits or play in any kind of shoot-out.

Houston does benefit from playing one of the three easiest projected schedules in the NFL, so there is a chance that they can contend for a wild card spot by beating up on bad teams. However, having to rely on Hoyer at quarterback is probably too much to overcome. After winning 9 games in 2014, the drop-off shouldn’t be too steep, but the Texans are probably nothing better than a .500 team until they get a real QB. Stick with the Under.

Indianapolis Colts
Odds to Win Division: -400
Over/Under Wins: 11

After three straight 11-5 finishes, it makes sense that the Colts’ over/under number is set at 11, but everything points out to Indianapolis being a tad better than its 2012-14 predecessors. For starters, their point differential suggested a 10-win team in 2014, and even after reaching the AFC Championship game, the subsequent dismantling by the Patriots was a good sign that the Colts were good, but still a step below a Super Bowl team.

In his three seasons in the NFL, Andrew Luck has grown progressively better, with improving passer ratings year after year and a flare for the dramatic. Even as he has lost his favorite target in Reggie Wayne, the Colts added Andre Johnson from Houston; even at age 34, the former Pro Bowler could be rejuvenated by having an elite QB throwing to him. The Colts also added running back Frank Gore to anchor what had previously been a disastrous situation through the ground. This kind of veteran leadership should be able to propel Indianapolis to new heights, and that’s not even counting what Luck can do (remember he is still only 25).

In his 3 seasons in the NFL, Luck has gone a combined 16-2 versus divisional foes, including an impressive 12-0 over the last two years. With that kind of built-in advantage, the Colts boast the second-easiest schedule in the league, which seems unfair for a team that is ready to contend for the Super Bowl. The regular season should be a formality en route towards another division title, as the Colts have bigger plans on their mind. A 12-4 or 13-3 season is well within reach. Indianapolis and the Over are the best bet in the South.

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