NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- AFC South
There was only a brief respite for the AFC South, when the Indianapolis Colts' death grip on the division released.
In its 12 seasons of existence, the Colts have won this division eight times and missed the playoffs only once. The Titans won the AFC South in 2002 and again in 2008 -- both years the Colts made it into the postseason as a wild-card team. Their only playoff-less season came in 2011, with Peyton Manning sidelined, when they earned the Andrew Luck pick in the 2012 draft.
With Luck, the playoffs returned to Indianapolis.
Now it’s up to the rest of the division to determine whether the Colts’ domination will return.
The AFC South has offered wild-card teams in six different seasons -- two in 2007 (the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars). Most recently, the Colts were a wild-card team in 2012 when the Houston Texans won their second consecutive division title. They didn’t come close to having one last season. The Colts were the only team with a winning record.
Tennessee finished 7-9, the Texans (2-14) and Jaguars (4-12) wound up with top-five picks in this year’s draft, and the Titans and Texans are starting fresh with new head coaches as a result of what transpired.
Can the balance of power shift? Or are we still a few years away from some semblance of parity in the division? NFL Nation’s AFC South reporters Michael DiRocco, Paul Kuharsky, Mike Wells and Tania Ganguli offer their thoughts.
Will the Indianapolis Colts make the playoffs in 2014?
Michael DiRocco: I like what the Colts did in free agency in signing linebacker D'Qwell Jackson and defensive end Arthur Jones, moves that should help improve a defense that got embarrassed in the playoffs. Adding receiver Hakeem Nicks may turn out to be one of the better moves within the division because it gives Andrew Luck an experienced, big-play receiver (provided he stays healthy). Indy is the best team in the division, but I think it could widen the gap with a good draft, especially if it adds help up front. A dominant defense is something Peyton Manning never had there, but it seems as if the Colts are trying to get one for Luck.
Paul Kuharsky: The Colts were a playoff team the past two seasons and they will be a playoff team in 2014, as well. The primary reason is the same: Andrew Luck. He's a quarterback with a knack for making big plays at big moments, and he and his team have great faith they can pull games out late. The offensive line will be better with Donald Thomas back healthy. Other key guys who will return from injury will give them a great boost on offense -- Reggie Wayne, Dwayne Allen and Vick Ballard. I think they will miss safety Antoine Bethea, who was often the glue of the secondary, and they need help on the back end of the defense. But they have a way of functionally patching holes, finding fill-ins and surviving just fine. As long as Luck is healthy, they're the leader of the pack.
Mike Wells: The Colts can go ahead and start making "Back-to-Back AFC South Champion" T-shirts. Partially because they'll be that much better than the rest of the division and partially because they aren't thinking about just winning the division. The Colts want to take another step in the AFC. They reached the divisional round of the playoffs last season, so ideally they'd like to at least get to the AFC Championship Game this coming season. Depending on health and how the offensive line blocks, the Colts could have one of the best offenses in the league next season. So winning the division is the least of the Colts' worries.
Will the Tennessee Titans make the playoffs in 2014?
DiRocco: I really liked the hiring of coach Ken Whisenhunt. He should be a huge help to quarterback Jake Locker, who is likely facing his last chance in Tennessee. Whisenhunt likes his quarterbacks to stay in the pocket and get rid of the ball quickly, so that may be a bit of a challenge for Locker. To me, the Titans' playoff chances hinge on the impact that Whisenhunt has on Locker. The defense is good enough and the offense, even without Chris Johnson, has some playmakers, especially with the addition of Dexter McCluster. Locker has to improve significantly. If he does, they're a legitimate wild-card contender.
Kuharsky: The Titans' biggest upgrade comes with Ken Whisenhunt and a new coaching staff. Mike Munchak proved to be in over his head as the team's head coach. I don't think the Titans are super-talented. But I think the offense will be much better with Whisenhunt designing the offense and calling the plays. The big question is clearly at quarterback, where Jake Locker has to show he can learn the system, stay healthy and be productive. Defensively, coordinator Ray Horton brings a new scheme and a far more aggressive mindset. If some guys who faded under Jerry Gray can rebound, it's a unit that could surprise. I think the Titans will improve, but I don't know that they will be a playoff team.
Wells: The Titans need to figure out if Jake Locker is the answer at quarterback for them first. The first step is for him remain healthy. Then they have to find a replacement for Chris Johnson at running back. New coach Ken Whisenhunt led Arizona to the Super Bowl in 2008, but the Titans aren't ready to close the gap between them and the Colts. Tennessee will be a better overall team but it may not show in the record. Houston may end up having a better record than the Titans next season.
@PaulKuharskyNFL only if Locker stays healthy, young WR step up, and Horton's defense is as good as advertised.- Taki C (@Takithrator) April 15, 2014
Will the Jacksonville Jaguars make the playoffs in 2014?
DiRocco: The talent level on the roster is still the worst in the division, although GM David Caldwell has made significant improvements with his first two free-agency classes and his first draft. The team still lacks a franchise quarterback and there aren't a lot of playmakers on offense, either. That will be addressed in the draft, but relying on too many rookies never ends well. The defensive line got an upgrade via free agency but the Jaguars need to improve their speed on defense, especially at linebacker. They should be able to challenge a .500 record in 2014 but they're another season away from competing for a playoff spot.
Kuharsky: The Jaguars have had a nice offseason and continue to make steady progress under the fine leadership of general manager Dave Caldwell and coach Gus Bradley. The free-agent haul upgraded the lines on both sides of the ball and I expect them to get a blue-chip non-quarterback at No. 3 in the draft and perhaps a guy who will take over for quarterback Chad Henne down the line. With the longtime face of the franchise, Maurice Jones-Drew, now with the Raiders, Jacksonville's national identity is as anonymous as ever. It could be a team that proves how such things can be overrated. I don't think the Jaguars will be a playoff team yet, but I think they are closer than most people think. And if they are a surprise team in 2014, I won't be that surprised.
Wells: There's no way I can say "yes" when I had to Google to see which quarterbacks the Jaguars still have on the roster. It's also going to take some time getting used to not seeing Maurice Jones-Drew taking handoffs in the backfield for them. I do like how the Jaguars rolled the dice and made a run at Cleveland center Alex Mack. You can't fault them for being aggressive. The Colts, who have questions at center, had no interest in taking that approach with Mack. The Jaguars need to find a quarterback before they think about making the playoffs.
@ESPNdirocco Improved? Sure! Playoffs? It is gonna be a bit hard until they have someone better than Henne leading this offense.- Jason Greenbaum (@JWGreenbaum) April 14, 2014
Will the Houston Texans make the playoffs in 2014?
DiRocco: Things went bad quickly for the Texans, but the answer isn't as simple as plugging in a new quarterback. Houston had ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in rushing from 2010 to 2012 but dropped to 20th last season. Injuries played a big role in that but the decline in the offensive line's play was startling. There is still a lot of talent on defense -- J.J. Watt, Kareem Jackson, Brian Cushing, for example -- but the Texans are too unsettled on offense to be a playoff team. To win in the AFC, you have to keep up with the high-scoring offenses in New England and Denver and the Texans don't have the firepower to do that even when the defense is healthy and playing well.
Kuharsky: In Bill O'Brien, the Texans have a somewhat mysterious new head coach. He did good work in New England with the Patriots, but it was very much in the background. He moved Penn State further down the rebuilding track than anyone could have fairly expected. His new team completely forgot how to win in 2013. The dive from 12-4 division winner in 2012 to 2-14 and No. 1 in the draft happened very swiftly. I don't think a reverse turnaround is going to unfold in 2014. I expect the Texans to play with more purpose, and they have some top-flight talent. But the quarterback question and the time the new staff needs to fill out the roster is going to mean it's a rebuilding year that is unlikely to result in a postseason game.
Wells: The Texans fooled me last season. I picked them to win the division and face Denver in the AFC Championship Game. Houston won its first two games then lost its final 14 games of the season. Receiver Andre Johnson and running back Arian Foster are still around on offense and the defense is led by J.J. Watt, but can new coach Bill O'Brien make the transition from being a college head coach to an NFL head coach? The Texans may end up using the No. 1 overall pick on a quarterback. They'll win more than two games next season, but they won't win enough of them to make the playoffs.
@taniaganguli If Clowney can play QB, too, then yes.- Mike K(lowney) (@Zepp1978) April 15, 2014