AFC South Division Betting Preview
Predictions for the AFC South, where three teams have a legitimate shot to win the division. The Tennessee Titans made it to the AFC Championship game last year, but with the addition of Philip Rivers, the Indianapolis Colts are the current favorite to win the division. Read through my break down of each team in the division and check out an NFL futures pick for the AFC South winner from yours truly.
Odds to Win AFC South
Below are each of the four teams betting odds to win the AFC South Division. These odds are courtesy of BetOnline.
Indianapolis Colts (+150)
Indianapolis qualified for the playoffs two years ago with a 10-6 record. They even won an AFC Wildcard Round game at Houston 21-7 before being eliminated by Kansas City. As a result, expectations were plentiful heading into last season. That is until star quarterback Andrew Luck shockingly retired. That left the Colts with not much choice but to go with backup signal caller Jacoby Brissett as their starter. Brissett performed poorly and was eventually replaced by veteran journeyman Brian Hoyer. Indianapolis ended up with a 7-9 record and third place finish in the AFC South Division.
Philip Rivers Signing Creates Buzz
The Colts made a huge splash in free agency by signing longtime Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers to a one year $25 million deal. Indianapolis is hoping the 38-year-old can bounce back from last year's terrible season which saw him throw an alarming 20 interceptions. On an encouraging note, Rivers did manage to throw for 4615 yards which was his highest since the 2015-2016 season when he amassed a career best 4792 passing yards. Rivers is extremely durable, and that is evidenced by him starting every game the Chargers played since 2006.
Powerful Offensive Line
The Colts strength lies within their offensive line. Even despite enduring a losing record last season that unit continued to play exceptionally. They have now been an elite group for each of the past two seasons and they remain virtually intact. There is a lot to be said for continuity along the offensive front and especially so for a group this talented.
Solid at Skilled Positions
The Colts running backs may not be household names, but they are a formidable group led by starter Marlon Mack. Indy has two wide receivers that can stretch the field vertically in veteran T.Y. Hilton and last year’s second round draft pick Parris Campbell out of Ohio State. I look for Indianapolis to add to their wide receiver room in the upcoming 2020 NFL Draft. The Colts also possess a quality tight end in Jack Doyle who accounted for 43 receptions and 4 touchdowns last season while often sharing time with the since departed Eric Ebron. Indianapolis is hoping the soon to be 30-year-old Doyle returns to his form from three seasons ago when he hauled in 80 catches for 690 yards.
Key Additions on Defense
The Indianapolis defense ranked #16 in total yards allowed last season. They were an impressive #7 against the run at 97.9 yards per game. However, their pass defense left a lot to be desired. Indianapolis allowed 248.9 passing yards per game which was 10th worst in the NFL.
Indianapolis upgraded their defense by trading away their 2020 first round draft pick for former San Francisco 49ers defensive end DeForest Buckner. The 49ers 2016 first round draft choice has collected a combined 19.5 sacks the last 2 seasons. Buckner has remained relatively healthy throughout his 4-year career while starting in 63 of a possible 64 regular season games.
Indianapolis also signed veteran cornerback Xavier Rhodes who was a cap casualty in Minnesota. Rhodes was Minnesota’s 1st round draft pick in 2013 and has 10 career interceptions. The Colts will be counting on Rhodes to shore up a secondary that was torched on several occasions last season.
Tennessee Titans (+175)
Tennessee finished 9-7 a year ago which earned them one of the two AFC wildcard spots. Not bad when considering they started the season 2-4. It was at that time they switched quarterbacks and replaced Marcus Mariota with former Miami Dolphins starter Ryan Tannehill. The move paid dividends as they went 7-3 over their final 10 regular season games with Tannehill under center.
The Titans traveled to Foxboro to take on the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots in an AFC Wildcard Round game. They proved to be up for the challenge as they upset New England 21-13, while doing so as a 6.5-point underdog.
Tennessee was then rewarded by having an unenviable task of going on the road to take on a red-hot Baltimore Ravens team. The Ravens were coming off a bye and entered postseason action on a 12-game win streak. Nevertheless, Tennessee once again came with a shocking win by this time knocking off Baltimore 28-12 as a substantial 10.0-point underdog.
Their Cinderella run came to an end during an AFC Championship game 35-24 defeat at Kansas City. Unfortunately, they blew a pair of 10-point leads in that loss. Nonetheless, it was a successful year in which they can surely build off heading into this season.
Potentially Dangerous Offense
Ryan Tannehill picked a fine time to play the best football of his career and did so in a free agent year. Hence, Tannehill was remunerated handsomely by Tennessee who signed him to a 4-year contract. Subsequently, last year’s opening day starter Marcus Mariota was free to pursue other options, and he eventually signed on as the Las Vegas Raiders backup behind incumbent starter David Carr.
Titans running back Derrick Henry is coming off a sensational season. During 15 starts, Henry ran for 1540 yards and 16 touchdowns. He was an absolute monster in Tennessee’s playoff wins over New England and Baltimore. During those two games Henry rushed for 377 yards on 64 carries. Henry was entering year five of his rookie deal this season. Tennessee opted to hang a franchise tag on him and retain his services for at least one more year.
Tennessee is all set at wide receiver with the trio of Adam Humphries, A.J. Brown, and Corey Davis. Derrick Henry will be running behind a strong Titans offensive line. Keep an eye on tight end Jonnu Smith who will be entering his 4th NFL season. Smith showed signs of coming into his own last season after hauling in 35 receptions for 439 yards and three touchdowns.
Tennessee's defensive style last season can best be described as having a bend but do not break mentality. Case in point, they were an uninspiring 21st in total defense (359.5 YPG) yet ranked 12th in points allowed at 20.7 points allowed per contest. Tennessee's defense should be bolstered by the free agent signing of former Atlanta Falcons starting linebacker Vic Beasley. On paper, the Titans secondary is much better than last season’s 255.0 yards passing allowed per game indicates.
Houston Texans (+225)
Houston is the defending AFC South champion after finishing their 2019-2020 regular season slate 10-6. The Texans then went on to win a 22-19 overtime thriller over Buffalo in an AFC Wildcard Round Game. One week later they blew a 24-0 lead at Kansas City and ultimately lost 51-34 to the eventual Super Bowl champions.
Notwithstanding of winning a division title, last season's Houston defense was far from championship caliber. They ranked 29th in total defense during regular season action while allowing opponents to rack up 388.3 yards per game. They were also a pathetic 31st in third down defense while permitting the opposition to convert on a disturbingly high 48.5% rate. Those defensive deficiencies carried over to the postseason as Buffalo rang up 425 yards of total offense and Kansas City had 434.
In all fairness, the Texans were without stud defensive end J.J. Watt for eight regular season games last season. Watt's availability has become a huge concern when bearing in mind he has missed 32 of 64 regular season games throughout the previous four seasons. Nonetheless, when healthy, Watt continues to be one of the best game-changing defensive ends in football.
Offensive Unknowns Post DeAndre Hopkins Trade
General Manager/Head Coach Bill O'Brien placed a huge blowtorch under his seat after making some highly questionable personnel moves. The most controversial of which was trading all pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona for what seemingly is disproportionate value. In addition to Hopkins, the Texans sent Arizona a 2020 fourth round draft choice in exchange for running back David Johnson and 2021 second and fourth round draft picks.
All Hopkins did a year ago is accumulate 104 pass receptions for 1165 yards and eight touchdowns in 15 regular season games. The star wide receiver also had 15 catches for 208 yards in Houston's two postseason contests. Furthermore, Hopkins was extremely durable during his 7-year NFL career which all came with Houston. He missed only two of Houston's 112 regular season games over that time.
David Johnson will be expected to immediately step in and be Houston’s #1 running back. However, we must keep in mind, Johnson has missed a total of 18 regular season games over the past three seasons. Johnson rushed for only 345 yards in 13 games last season after taking a back seat to Kenyan Drake who was acquired from Miami at the trade deadline. Pending on what Houston decides to do during this year's draft, diminutive Duke Johnson is at least for now penciled in as #2 on their running back depth chart.
Another dubious offseason move by O'Brien was the free agent signing of slot receiver Randall Cobb, who was inked to a 3-year $27 million deal. The 29-year-old Cobb has missed seven games over the past two seasons and appears to be on a decline in recent years. Cobb enjoyed his best season in 2014 with Green Bay when he had 91 catches for 1287 yards and 12 touchdowns. He has not come close to that type of productivity since, and that was also his only season eclipsing the 1000-yard plateau. Cobb is still a serviceable and dependable target, but not at the compensation O'Brien agreed to pay him.
The one move I did not take issue with was O'Brien trading for former Saints and Rams wide receiver Brandin Cooks. The 26-year-old speedster has recorded 1082 yards or more receiving during four of the past 5 seasons. Although, it must be noted, he is coming off a down year with the Rams that saw him manufacture only 42 receptions for 583 yards in 14 games. That was by far his lowest total in his 6-year NFL career.
The cupboard is certainly not empty on offense and remains capable of being explosive. Especially when considering they possess an elite quarterback in Deshaun Watson. Now entering his 4th NFL season, Watson is a textbook modern-day dual threat quarterback that can beat you with both his arm and legs. Last season Watson combined to throw and run for 4265 yards while also accounting for 33 total touchdowns in 15 regular season games. Moreover, Watson passed for 625 yards and 3 touchdowns in addition to running for a pair of scores during the Texans 2 postseason contests.
Jacksonville Jaguars (+1500)
Since winning a division title during the 2017-2018 season, things have gone south for Jacksonville, with no pun intended. They have finished last in the AFC South standings for two consecutive seasons, while going a combined 11-21 during that time. As a matter of fact, they began their 2018-2019 campaign by winning three of their first four games and then went a dismal 8-20 in its next 28 contests. Yet, through it all, head coach Doug Marrone has managed to retain his job even with several dustups with his own players. There certainly seems to be a deleterious culture inside the Jaguars locker room and it is unlikely to abruptly change with Marrone in charge.
On a positive note, Jacksonville possesses 12 picks in the upcoming 2020 NFL Draft, which includes a pair of first round selections. It is imperative they draft wisely so they can set themselves up for future success, and particularly after tearing down their roster in recent years. They should end up with a minimum two or 3 immediate starters from this year's rookie class. Consequently, the organization is clearly in a rebuilding mode, and expectations for instantaneous positive results would be considered unfeasible.
I have set a precedence in previous divisional preview articles of not wasting time summarizing a team’s roster which in my opinion has little or no chance of finishing on top. I am holding true to that logic in this piece as well. Hence eliminating Jacksonville without any hesitation whatsoever.
Final Analysis and Pick
After careful evaluation, I deem Indianapolis' roster to be the most balanced when comparing it to Houston or Tennessee. I also think Frank Reich is the best head coach in this division. One of my NFL division futures predictions will align with those previous thoughts.
Pick: Indianapolis Colts +150
Ross Benjamin is a top sports analyst and one of the sports industry's most respected handicappers. Follow him on Twitter: @RossBenjamin1 or visit his website at RBWins.com