Predicting the AFC South

The Footballguys staff looks at how the AFC South will end up in 2021

Links to discussions of other divisions:


Let's dig a little into the AFC South. Who takes this division? How many wins do you predict for each team?

AFC South Team
Vegas Win
Totals
Staff Predictions
Avg Place
1st-Place Votes
2nd-Place Votes
3rd-Place Votes
4th-Place Votes
Indianapolis Colts
10.0
1.3
9
3
0
0
Tennessee Titans
9.5
1.8
3
8
1
0
Jacksonville Jaguars
6.5
2.9
0
1
11
0
Houston Texans
4.5
4.0
0
0
0
12

Note: Vegas Win Totals are taken from VegasInsider.com.

Ryan Hester

What was recently a division of tightly-packed mediocrity is now one with two clear teams in each of the have and have-not categories — especially with Tennessee’s acquisition of Julio Jones. It used to be difficult to predict which team would win this division, grab the 4-seed in the AFC, and play in the Saturday afternoon Wild Card game that always got the lowest billing by the networks.

But with Tennessee's recent emergence and Indianapolis' all-around roster improvement, it appears the South has two bonafide playoff contenders. It's surprising to see Indianapolis' win totals line higher than Tennessee's given the Titans' recent success and the Colts' reliance on a Carson Wentz renaissance, though maybe those will adjust in the wake of the Jones trade.

The AFC South gets its six intra-division games, the AFC East, and NFC West. The extra games for these teams are as follows:

  • IND - at BAL, vs. TB, vs. LV
  • TEN - vs. KC, vs. NO, at PIT

On paper, that seems a bit harder for Tennessee, but that assumes New Orleans and Pittsburgh are closer to last year's versions of themselves than their respective 2021 floors.

Tennessee has the pedigree and the improving team, so I give them the narrow edge. But this could shake out like last year where the teams have the same record, and the division crown is decided by a tiebreaker.

Predictions for each team:

  • Tennessee - 11-6
  • Indianapolis - 11-6
  • Jacksonville - 6-11
  • Houston - 3-14

Jason Wood

The Texans went from a good team with questionable top-level decision-makers to the odds-on favorites for the first pick in the 2022 draft. Not only have the Texans been gutted talent-wise, they've also somehow gone from one of the youngest teams a few years ago to the NFL's oldest team. How do you simultaneously gut your roster and become the oldest? The answer is incompetence. I would be stunned if they win more than three games, with or without DeShaun Watson.

I'm throttling back on Tennessee this year because of Arthur Smith's departure. I realize the Titans thrived by promoting Smith from TE coach to OC, but the idea they can hit lightning in the bottle again with the same maneuver is slim. Remember how bad this offense seemed under Matt LaFleur's watch.

Jacksonville has almost no shot to win seven games, that's probably the easiest under play on the slate. Trevor Lawrence may have a great future ahead but this team has holes up and down the roster.

This leaves the Colts, who should win the division by at least a game or two. They have a seasoned, cohesive coaching staff and a roster with plus players at every level. Carson Wentz isn't without risk but I have little doubt he'll bounce back under Frank Reich's watchful eye.

  • Indianapolis -- 12-5
  • Tennessee -- 10-7
  • Jacksonville -- 4-13
  • Houston -- 1-16

Jeff Haseley

This is a two-horse race with Indianapolis and Tennessee fighting for the top spot. As Jason said, Arthur Smith's departure gives me some pause with the Titans, but the addition of Julio Jones raises my eyebrows for the offense to take another step forward. If it was difficult to stop Derrick Henry before, imagine doing so with less than eight in the box now? The offense isn't exactly the concern with Tennesse. Their Achilles heel last year was their defense, which may still be a liability. Adding Bud Dupree helps a defense that struggled to stop teams on third down last season. Tennessee arguably has the best quarterback, running back, and wide receiver in the division, and you could also argue tight end as well. They'll compete, but I'm not sure if they will have enough consistency and well-roundedness to beat Indianapolis for the division title. The Colts have the right blend of veterans and youthful talent as sub-stars at nearly every position with a few standouts on the offensive line, front seven, and of course, running back. Houston has fallen apart and put back together with Elmer's glue, while Jacksonville is still looking for their adhesive to take effect. It may be a year or two before Jacksonville can contend in the AFC South and Houston, perhaps even longer.

  • Indianapolis 11-6
  • Tennessee 10-7
  • Jacksonville 5-12
  • Houston 3-14

Andy Hicks

Last year the predictions were

  • Indianapolis 8.5
  • Tennessee 8.5
  • Houston 7.5
  • Jacksonville 4.5

The actuals were wildly different with Indianapolis and Tennessee recording 11-5, Houston going 4-12, and Jacksonville cratering to 1-15.

I expect similar volatility this year with two new head coaches and three likely new quarterbacks in this division.

Houston is a mess and it seems unlikely they have the skill or cohesiveness to exceed the over. That said, I am a big believer in culture change causing dramatic improvements in the right hands. It seems unlikely the new management and coaching staff achieve their aims, but I remain open-minded about the possibility. That’s not even getting into the Deshaun Watson scenarios. Tyrod Taylor and Davis Mills offer good backup at the position and lift the floor of a worst-case situation.

Jacksonville similarly starts afresh. Many are doubting the moves of Urban Meyer already, especially the Tim Tebow signing. They do start from a very low floor and the drafting of a potential generational quarterback has the advertised win total higher than expected. Ultimately the offense looks reasonable, but can the defense gel? Nothing would surprise me here from a total collapse to winning the division.

Tennessee potentially has the highest floor, but the departure of Arthur Smith looms large. It is safe to say they have overachieved under Ryan Tannehill and Mike Vrabel. When crucial building blocks on this team start disappearing is there enough foundation to hold the unit together? A crucial injury here or there could be brutal. The addition of a well over 30-year-old receiver in Julio Jones doesn’t seem logical either.

Indianapolis looks like the class of the division, but it all comes down to Carson Wentz. If Wentz plays to his best, then all good. This team should sail into the playoffs. What if he looks like he did in Philadelphia last year? He is likely to take his head coach with him out the door.

  • Indianapolis 6-15 wins, 11-6
  • Tennessee 7-12 wins, 8-9
  • Jacksonville 1-14 wins, 10-7
  • Houston 1-8 wins, 2-15

Jeff Tefertiller

Two good teams and two bottom-of-the-barrel teams.

With Arthur Smith now in Atlanta, I expect the Tennessee Titans to take a step back, but still contend for the division. In fantasy, the Julio Jones trade should improve the outlook for Ryan Tannehill.

This leaves Indianapolis a golden opportunity if Carson Wentz can stay healthy and play up to his potential.

Jacksonville is still void of talent.

Houston will struggle, especially without Watson, who could miss at least half the season. Plus, he's vowed to hold out.

I see the win totals:

  • Indianapolis 12
  • Tennessee 11
  • Jacksonville 4
  • Houston 3

This is not a strong division.

Will Grant

Like everyone else - I feel like this is the Colts' division to lose. However, the Titans acquiring Julio Jones makes it an interesting possibility. The Jaguars certainly made strides this offseason, but enough to have them winning six more games than last year? Probably not.

Houston has done their best to implode and have a really good chance to win fewer games than the Jaguars this season. Both look like four-win teams at this point.

With two 'easy wins' against division opponents, that gives the Titans a shot to win 11 games this season. As Ryan points out, the Titans get Kansas City, New Orleans, and Pittsburgh which will probably be closer than most people think.

Julio Jones gives them an advantage for sure - but he needs to stay healthy if the Titans are going to take the top spot. A playoff birth is still a strong possibility now with Jones on the team.

But for me, the edge still goes to Indy - especially down the stretch. Their last 5 games are against the Texans, Patriots, Cardinals, Raiders, and Jaguars - teams that were a combined 28-52 last year. They could easily run the table and go into the playoffs on a hot streak.

I think their final records will be:

  • Indianapolis 11-6
  • Tennessee 11-6
  • Jacksonville 4-13
  • Houston 4-13

Anthony Amico

This is not a division I expect to have more than one playoff team in 2021. The Colts enter the season as favorites but will need Carson Wentz to return to his late 2010's form in order to truly move the needle. Philip Rivers was very effective in 2020.

The Titans were terrible on defense in 2020, though they did spend draft capital looking to improve there. They don't have much weaponry after A.J. Brown and Julio Jones in the passing game. This offense is going to rely heavily on three people, which makes it fairly fragile. I don't think this is a playoff team.

Jacksonville is starting their rebuild, but as good as Trevor Lawrence is, I worry about the direction of the club with Urban Meyer at the controls. Adding Tim Tebow, being upset about missing out on Kadarius Toney when they have Laviska Shenault Jr, and hiring (then firing) a strength coach with a questionable past (putting it nicely). I think this is going to be a rough year.

It seems like no matter what happens with Deshaun Watson legally, he is done playing for the Texans. Some combination of Tyrod Taylor and Davis Mills will fill out most of the 2021 starts, and this team is fairly barren otherwise. Houston is the favorite to be picking first next spring.

  • Indianapolis -- 10
  • Tennessee -- 8
  • Jacksonville -- 4
  • Houston -- 1

Ryan Weisse

Much like the NFC East, the AFC South has two solid teams and two bad teams. Indianapolis is a great team on both sides of the ball but their overall success will come down to Carson Wentz. They will have one of the best running games in the league, and their defense can compete with anyone, but which Wentz will we get? Even mediocre quarterback-play should keep this team atop the division.

Tennessee is still going to be a force on offense, despite losing OC Arthur Smith, WR Corey Davis, and TE Jonnu Smith. Ryan Tannehill has been solid for two straight seasons, A.J. Brown is coming into his own, and Derrick Henry is still the king. The addition of Julio Jones is just icing on the cake...though it's very good icing! Their defense improves with Bud Dupree but they still aren’t quite as good as the Colts but they should lock up a wild-card spot.

Jacksonville made some improvements with their high draft picks in 2021 but their defense still leaves much to be desired. On offense, Trevor Lawrence could make an immediate splash in fantasy, as he will be throwing a lot. Just hard to trust Urban Meyer thus far.

Houston is going to be bad even with Deshaun Watson, but they will be VERY bad without him. The offense has little firepower and the defense will be on its heels in almost every game. At least they kept their own first-ound pick, so they can enjoy the 1.01.

  • IND 12-5
  • TEN 12-5)
  • JAX 4-13
  • HOU 2-15 (4-13 with Watson)

Sigmund Bloom

The AFC South gets the AFC East -- an improving division -- and the NFC West -- probably the best top to bottom division in the NFL -- which isn't a great draw. The three non-shared games for each team:

  • Houston - @CLE CAR LAC
  • Indianapolis - @BAL TB LV
  • Jacksonville - DEN @CIN ATL
  • Tennessee - KC NO @PIT

The Texans obviously have gotten worse with the unknown variable of how many games Deshaun Watson will play. The Colts should be as good as they were last year (or better), pending the play of Carson Wentz and the recovery of Eric Fisher. Jacksonville is rebooting and will have much-improved quarterback play, but much like last year, they will be in a spoiler role with an eye towards the future. The Titans lost Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith and both coordinators, but restocked at outside linebacker and cornerback, two sore spots in the defense, and added Julio Jones. With all this in mind...

  • Houston - 2-15
  • Indianapolis - 10-7
  • Jacksonville - 3-14
  • Tennessee - 11-6

The tough schedules for the Colts and Titans make it tougher to pick them to go over their win totals or be a clear divisional favorite. Whether this team sends two teams to the playoffs could/should come down to wild card tiebreakers.

Chad Parsons

  • Indianapolis - 10
  • Tennessee - 10
  • Jacksonville - 6
  • Houston - 4

The Colts and Titans are both quality bets to make the postseason, both with their team quality but also the lagging competition in the division (Jaguars, Texans). Houston is a strong threat for the 1.01 NFL Draft slot even if Deshaun Watson ends up playing half of the season.

Carson Wentz in Indianapolis is the key watch player (and team) of the division. Wentz has had MVP-like stretches in his career and the Colts are ready to go around him. The role is simple - keep the machinery moving from a strong team in 2020. Parris Campbell returns from missing essentially the entire season with an injury. Can T.Y. Hilton regain his form for one or two more seasons in sun? Carson Wentz's range of outcomes is another key variable for the Colts to post 10+ wins and a playoff appearance.

Jordan McNamara

This division is defined by change. New quarterbacks for Indianapolis and Jacksonville while Houston is a TBD. There are also new head coaches in Jacksonville and Houston, along with a new Offensive Coordinator in Tennessee. Given the changes, I agree with Chad that a lot hinges on whether Carson Wentz can be good.

Tennessee had an +11 turnover margin last year, the best in the NFL. Their yards per play differential was +0.3, which ranked 11th. Given their addition of Bud Dupree in free agency and Caleb Fairley in the draft, I think they could take a step forward. Tennessee also won the Julio Jones sweepstakes, which could turbocharge the offense.

Indianapolis's win line is right at where their 2020 expected record was, which makes them a clear under. Indianapolis produced 7.6 yards per passing attempt in 2020, a feat Carson Wentz has achieved only once in his career, and it would be more than a yard and a half better than Wentz performed last year. Also, Indianapolis had the second-best turnover differential in 2020 (+10), which is a feat I just can't see repeating.

As the only team with stability at both head coach and quarterback entering the season, I like Tennessee to win the division.

  • Houston -- 4
  • Indianapolis -- 8
  • Jacksonville -- 6
  • Tennessee -- 11

Victoria Geary

It appears the Titans and Colts will be battling it out all season for the division title. The Colts have the best team in the division in all three phases on paper, but a lot will rest on the shoulders of quarterback Carson Wentz. Knowing this team went to the playoffs with Philip Rivers last year, I don't see any reason why they do the same with Wentz at the helm. The Colts' offensive line is leaps and bounds ahead of the line Wentz was playing behind in Philly last season. Wentz has every opportunity to prove his haters wrong. Second-year running back Jonathan Taylor is primed for a great season, though I am tempering expectations seeing as we are forced to take him at his ceiling with his current ADP of sixth overall.

The situation for the Titans reminds me a lot of Dallas in the NFC East. Adding Julio Jones makes their offense that much more lethal, but can they keep up with the Colts with a sub-par defense? The answer to that will make or break their season, along with the fact they don't have a very deep roster if there are any major injuries to their starters. Losing wide receiver Corey Davis and tight end Jonnu Smith hurts, but if quarterback Ryan Tannehill can be as hyper-efficient as he was last season, the Titans will give the Colts a run for their money.

The future seems bright in Jacksonville, although with all of the new pieces added in the offseason, new head coach Urban Meyer will have a difficult time getting them all on the same page enough to make any kind of significant impact in this division. The Jaguars will still be a fun team to watch in 2021 with new quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne. Oh, and we can't forget new tight end Tim Tebow (gotta get those jersey sales up, right?). Though I don't believe in their offense just yet, I am still bullish on their players for fantasy at the right ADP. Newly added wide receiver Marvin Jones should be a great late-round pick.

Houston is playing a fun game called "How many great running backs from years past can we stack on one offense?" and it isn't going to get them anywhere. Many are expecting the Texans to finish with the worst record in the entire league.

Predictions:

  • IND 12-5
  • TEN 10-7
  • JAX 5-12
  • HOU 1-16

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