It’s easy to pick on the AFC South, a division in which the quality of play has been on a steady decline for years. For the second consecutive season, no team in the division has a winning record after 12 games. Since the NFL realigned divisions in 2002, this is only the sixth time1 that a division has had no winning teams this late in the season; this year’s AFC South joins the 2015 NFC East, last year’s AFC South, the 2014 NFC South, the 2010 NFC West and the 2004 NFC West. But despite a well-earned reputation for mediocrity, the NFL’s most-maligned division may not be as hopeless as you think.
We know the Jaguars are bad. Jacksonville is 2-10, with one of the worst offenses in the NFL: It has scored just 127 points in the first three quarters of games this year, tied with the Rams for the lowest total in the NFL. (In the fourth quarter, Jacksonville has scored 97 points, seventh-most in the NFL, but many of those points were meaningless.2) The team has lost seven consecutive games, and quarterback Blake Bortles has the most interceptions in the NFL after leading the league in that metric during the 2015 season.
But the other AFC South teams are all 6-6, and overall, the division is 13-21 in non-division games. That’s not great, but there are two other NFL divisions that have done even worse:
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To be sure, there is low-hanging fruit if you want to focus on the negatives: The Houston Texans have a terrible passing game,3 while the Indianapolis Colts’ defense ranks 30th in Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average ratings.4 On paper, the Tennessee Titans appear to be the best of the bunch (or, at least, have no obvious weaknesses as severe as Houston’s or Indianapolis’s), but Tennessee can’t quite seem to get over the hump. The Titans are 0-3 against the Colts and Texans and have lost every game this year when a win would have given them a winning record.
The AFC South has been hammered by the AFC West this season, posting a pitiful 2-11 record against teams in that division. Otherwise, though, AFC South teams have a winning record, going 8-6 against the NFC North and 3-4 against teams in all other divisions. So let’s focus on the good.
For all their warts, the Texans have beaten two division leaders: the Kansas City Chiefs and the Detroit Lions. When Houston plays well, it’s usually on the back of its defense, which still has some star power even with all-world defensive end J.J. Watt on injured reserve. Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus each have 12 tackles for losses this year, making them tied for eighth in the league with two other players. And cornerback A.J. Bouye ranks as the third-best cover corner in the NFL this season, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), making him one of the best values in the NFL. Houston is 6-1 this season when scoring at least 14 points: If the offense can be mediocre, the defense is usually good enough to carry the team.
Tennessee has turned into one of the most fun teams in football. After an uneven first month, second-year quarterback Marcus Mariota has been incredible. I looked at stats for each quarterback starting with his team’s fifth game and ending with the 12th. Over that span, Mariota led the NFL in both passer rating (117.7)5 and touchdown passes (21), while throwing just three interceptions. The Titans led the NFL in scoring in that same period, finishing with 8 more points than the New England Patriots have scored since Tom Brady’s return. For the season so far, DeMarco Murray is second in the NFL in rushing, and the Titans rank third in both rushing yards and yards per carry. Tennessee’s offense will be tested in their next two games, against the Denver Broncos and Chiefs: If the Titans win, the AFC South may be sending the hottest offense in the league to the playoffs.
Quarterback Andrew Luck gets all the attention, but this year, wide receiver T.Y. Hilton has been the straw that stirs the drink. The Colts are 6-0 when Hilton has at least 80 yards and 0-6 when he falls short of that mark. Hilton is second in the NFL in both receiving yards and 20+ yard receptions, and is coming off a nine-catch, 146-yard gem against the Jets. The Colts are on a three-game winning streak in games started by Luck6 as they head into Sunday’s showdown with the Texans. The Colts’ roster beyond Luck and Hilton isn’t impressive, but the duo has the talent to follow the blueprint laid by Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald during the 2008 Cardinals’ scorched earth run to the Super Bowl. Hilton has averaged just over 100 receiving yards per game in his playoff career.
The AFC South has long been a punching bag for sportswriters, and the 2016 season hasn’t seen the division punch back. But if you look closely, there are reasons to believe that any of the three teams tied atop the division could get hot and make some noise in the playoffs.
Check out our latest NFL predictions.