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The AFC South May Get Good Again — But Not This Year

To go with our 2016 NFL predictions, FiveThirtyEight is previewing each division.

The AFC South has been the punching bag of our NFL preseason previews. In 2015, we called it “perhaps the most imbalanced division in football,” and in 2014, we wrote that the division “can’t be any worse than it was last year.” (We were correct: The division won 25 games total, up from 24 the year before.)

Going into 2016, the AFC South is still awful — awful enough that our Elo-based projections put the division’s best team — the Houston Texans — at just 8.3 wins for the season.1

fischerbaum-afcsouth2016-1

At least those strength of schedule ranks look good — these bad teams get to play each other twice.

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It wasn’t always so dire. Back in the late 2000s, Peyton Manning was still a Colt, the Tennessee Titans had a 13-win season, and even the Jacksonville Jaguars were pretty good. The AFC South was one of the best divisions in the NFL:

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Since 2010, Manning’s final season playing for Indianapolis, the division has taken a nosedive. But the AFC South can still be saved. The NFC West was the worst division in football for five straight seasons, from 2006 through 2010, but in 2013, it was on top and one of the best of all time. Can the AFC South manage the same kind of revival?

Houston Texans

Houston’s defense — led by the extremely talented and extremely corny J.J. Watt — allowed just 19.6 points per game last season, tied for 7th in the NFL (and just a hair behind the Carolina Panthers at 19.3). Unfortunately, four quarterbacks made starts for Houston’s offense. That’s never a good sign, but it’s especially bad when those four quarterbacks are as dispensable as these guys:

  • Brian Hoyer: Has played for New England, Arizona, Cleveland and Houston.
  • Ryan Mallett: New England, Houston, Baltimore.
  • T.J. Yates: Houston, Atlanta, Houston again.
  • Brandon Weeden: Cleveland, Dallas, Houston.

As a unit, these mediocre journeymen averaged just 6.6 yards per attempt, good for 29th in the NFL,2 while somehow still feeding DeAndre Hopkins enough (192 targets!) to have him finish third in NFL receiving yards. They were good enough for Houston to make the playoffs at 9-7, before being humiliated by the Kansas City Chiefs. The Texans will now put their offense in the hands of Brock Osweiler, a very tall man with seven career starts. He can’t be expected to dominate out of the gate, but some consistency would be nice. If he starts at least 13 games, he’ll be the first Houston QB to do so since 2012.

Indianapolis Colts

The mid-1990s San Antonio Spurs were masters of timing. After a solid stretch under David Robinson, San Antonio had a single terrible season at the perfect moment, capturing the consensus No. 1 draft pick. The Spurs then rode that pick — Tim Duncan — to a new era of even greater success.

Through 2014, the Colts looked (to the untrained eye) like they’d pulled off the same trick. Peyton Manning’s absence in 2011 meant the Colts were terrible enough to draft his replacement, Andrew Luck:

SPURS COLTS
SEASONS WIN % SEASONS WIN %
1989-96 (D. Robinson era) .667 1998-2010 (P. Manning era) .678
1996-97 .244 2011 .125
1997-2016 (T. Duncan era) .710 2012-14 (A. Luck era) .688
It once looked like the Colts were pulling a Spurs

Source: Pro-football-reference.com, Basketball-reference.com

And then they hit a wall in 2015. The Colts went 8-8, but were lucky to have done so well. Over the course of the season, their -75 point differential was worse than that of the Baltimore Ravens and Jaguars, who both went 5-11. The Colts have been propped up by their division, going 20-4 against the AFC South over the last four seasons and 21-19 against everyone else. The Colts’ roster is weak once you look past the QB, and it’s suddenly not so clear that Luck is the next big thing.

This offseason, the Colts added very little. It could still be enough to win the AFC South — we give them a 36 percent chance of doing that — but don’t expect much past that.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars have not had a lot of success recently. The last time they finished above .500 was in 2007, and the 2013 squad had a real shot at being the worst team in NFL history. At the Jaguars’ low point that season, Vegas set them as 28-point underdogs against the Denver Broncos.

But in the past couple of years, the Jaguars, while still definitely bad, have become kind of exciting. In 2013, they listed draftee Denard Robinson’s position as “offensive weapon,” which was stupid, but in a fun way! In 2014, they had their biggest comeback ever, and in 2015, two Jaguars reached 1,000 yards receiving (after none did in the previous nine seasons). Jacksonville’s defense is still a disaster (31st in points allowed in 2015), but this has become a non-depressing team that lost close, watchable games.

Add to all that one of the best draft classes in both 2015 and 2016, and the confidence of Jaguars fans may soon be rewarded:

Tennessee Titans

The Tennessee Titans had a big offseason, bolstering their offensive line by drafting tackle Jack Conklin (No. 8 overall) and signing center Ben Jones. They also added weapons in running back DeMarco Murray and wide receiver Rishard Matthews. They appear to be sort of going for it.

All these moves hinge on Marcus Mariota. The rookie QB had one hell of a first game in 2015 and a solid season overall. His 7.6 yards per attempt is the seventh-best mark for a rookie QB since 1970.

RANK PLAYER SEASON TEAM YARDS PER ATTEMPT
1 Ben Roethlisberger 2004 PIT 8.88
2 Robert Griffin 2012 WAS 8.14
3 Matt Ryan 2008 ATL 7.93
4 Russell Wilson 2012 SEA 7.93
5 Cam Newton 2011 CAR 7.84
6 Dennis Shaw 1970 BUF 7.81
7 Marcus Mariota 2015 TEN 7.62
8 Rodney Peete 1989 DET 7.58
9 Jameis Winston 2015 TB 7.56
10 Jim Kelly 1986 BUF 7.49
Best rookie QB seasons by yards per attempt, 1970-2015

Minimum eight starts

Source: pro-football-reference.com

There are a lot of great quarterbacks on that list, but a few flameouts as well. RGIII and Dennis Shaw never matched their rookie seasons, and Rodney Peete became a successful but unexceptional journeyman. The Titans are making a big bet that Mariota is the real deal. If he is, Tennessee could start contending sooner rather than later.


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Footnotes

  1. If you haven’t encountered them on our site before, Elo ratings are a measure of overall team strength that update after each game.

  2. They did throw 28 touchdowns and only 12 interceptions. Good work!

Reuben Fischer-Baum is a visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

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