AFC South Bold Predictions. Write these down. You can laugh at me later…
2019 Record: 10-6 Division Champs
Despite a suspect offensive line and losses on defense, like the departure of Jadaveon Clowney and injuries to J.J. Watt, Houston has remained a contender in the AFC for several years, on the back of Deshaun Watson and now departed wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Here’s the thing. They managed to go 10-6, but they did so despite a tragic -7 point differential. That’s the worst of all twelve playoff teams, and it isn’t close. Can they hold off the hard-charging Titans for the division title in 2020? Hint: The Titans +71 P.D. was considerably more in line with the expectations for a playoff team.
Bold Prediction: Nope. And when Watson’s sack totals mount up and his yardage and touchdowns plummet, we’ll know exactly why. The absurd deal that sent Hopkins to Arizona brought back little of substance in return. It’s clear that the deal was in some way personal, a punishment for some undisclosed and probably insignificant breach of protocol. Either way, it matters not. The Texans WILL suffer for the loss of a top five wide receiver with little in return. I’m not saying that they’ll end up at the bottom of the division this year, but don’t be surprised if the Texans finish 2020 as a wild card contender on the outside looking in.
2019 Record: 7-9
New year, new (but not young) quarterback…yet. A few years ago, if you’d have told Indy fans that Andrew Luck would be retired before Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, you’d have gotten laughed out of the building. But here we are. It’s 2020 and long time Charger Philip Rivers is taking the reins in Colt country after a decent season by Jacoby Brissett that started out gangbusters, then fell apart. Waiting in the wings is young fourth-round selection Jacob Eason, and rumors are that he looks solid, even if Rivers is the presumed starter.
Bold Prediction: We’ll get to see Jacob Eason under center before the end of the year…as a starter. We know that Rivers is a one- or two-year rental at best as the team moves to Eason for the foreseeable future. But Rivers is thirty-eight, and the much younger Andrew Luck got beaten into submission behind Indy’s flawed offensive line, culminating with his early retirement. I just don’t see Rivers playing the whole season. And if the Colts start losing, expect the chants for Eason to get pretty loud…if they allow people into Lucas Oil Stadium.
2019 Record: 6-10
What an odd season that was for the Jags. It started with huge expectations with the arrival of Nick Foles, only to see him sidelined early in the season. The despair was palpable until Gardner Minshew erupted onto the scene with a splash. The young, unheralded QB was, for a time, the most exciting thing in the league. His brand of seventies-era facial hair and free-wheeling, fun-loving game day antics reminded us of the theoretical love child of Uncle Rico and Matthew McConaughey.
Even after Foles came back from injury, Minshew won the job outright, relegating the former Super Bowl MVP to the bench, but the Jags just couldn’t string together wins. A big part of that was that the once-fearsome defense had eroded into only the league’s twenty-first best unit.
Bold Prediction: Jacksonville drafted to improve on defense, bringing in both cornerback C.J. Henderson and edge rusher K’Lavon Chaisson in the first round. That should help, but it’s the Jaguars second-round pick that interests me most. Wide receiver Laviska Shenault out of Colorado is the Gardner Minshew of receivers. He’s an elite guy that played at a second-tier school, so never had the talent around him to get on the radar. Now that he’ll be catching passes from an exciting young NFL quarterback on a team that likes to throw the ball, the sky is the limit. I expect Shenault to compete for offensive rookie of the year honors, and be among the top rookies in receptions, receiving yardage and receiving touchdowns.
2019 Record: 9-7 Wildcard
Yes, the Titans finished second in the division, but they did it with style. The AFC’s second wildcard team boasted the best point differential in the division and rampaged through the playoffs, sending home the Patriots and Ravens before falling to the eventual Super Bowl champs in the AFC championship game. This is a team that featured the run with rushing champ Derrick Henry, but also boasted one of the league’s best young receivers in A.J. Brown, who was the only rookie receiver to amass over 1,000 yards in 2019. That’s interesting, as he was largely ignored until Marcus Mariota got benched for week seven and Ryan Tannehill took over. The rookie averaged forty-five yards per game with Mariota under center, but almost 80 per game under Tannehill. You could easily argue that Tannehill’s understanding of Brown’s potential is the reason he took over and took the Titans to the playoffs.
Bold Prediction: I’m pretty sure Tennessee wins the AFC South this year, but that’s not my prediction. My prediction is that Brown makes the jump from best rookie receiver to one of the game’s elites in 2020. Here’s why. The Titans will still focus on Derrick Henry in 2020, but to keep teams from overloading the box to stifle him, Tennessee will need to go to Brown early and often to prevent that. It will result in a massive jump in production for the second-year receiver. Think 1,400-1,500 yards and at least 8-9 touchdowns.
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Image Source: AP Images