2014 NFL Preview: AFC South

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The AFC South has characterized by one dominant team at a time while the rest of the teams try to figure things out. The top team generally runs away with the division without much of a battle and the rest of the teams fall off far from the playoffs. For years that team was the Indianapolis Colts led by Peyton Manning. The Colts were the only team in the division every year and despite a few challenges from the Tennessee Titans every now and then, they were the only team in the division. The thing about that was that although they were the only team in the division they were also favourites to win a Super Bowl. The team to come out on top of the South tends to be a favourite in the playoffs and becomes a team to watch. The Colts time seemed to be done when one of the youngest franchises started to find their legs. The Houston Texans began taking over the division and looked like one of the more dominant teams in the league when they did. They relied on one of the best defences in the league and were set to take over the dominance of the division. That domination did not last as long as they thought though as the 2013 season saw a massive shift in teams. The Colts came back to the top of the division while the Texans fell to one of their worst records ever. The shift in the division was very surprising and as 2014 approaches there is not much certain the division. With Andrew Luck leading the way can the Colts stay at the top of the division? So far Luck has provided a great replacement for Manning and has helped the Colts to recover from their fall a few years ago. The Texans meanwhile are a complete mystery as last year they seemed like one of the best teams in the league. Their defence was considered one of the best while their offence could have been good enough to carry them to a Super Bowl. Then the season started and they fell to a terrible record with their defence falling off and their offence not operating even close to the expected. They enter a new season with many wondering what is to come for the Texans and if they can get to the top once again. Then there are the two teams that have not made a lot of noise in the last few years that will look to rock the boat. The Tennessee Titans were the team to always challenge the Colts during their dominance but lately they have fallen off. They look to some young players to help lead a resurgence and surprise everyone by bringing the Titans back. The Jacksonville Jaguars are a team constantly in transition still trying to find a quarterback while avoiding relocation rumours. They look to be the biggest surprise of the season and start to compete in the division. The AFC South is a mystery after years of having one clear favourite team as the division is beginning to see more competition as teams continue to develop and try to create a much tougher division.

Houston Texans

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Last year the Houston Texans were an early favourite to challenge for the Super Bowl but that is not how the season turned out. After winning their first two games of the year they were on the right track but those turned out to be the only two wins of the season. It was the worst season in Texans franchise history and for that changes were made. Gary Kubiak lost his job as the head coach while the Texans let longtime QB Matt Schaub move on to a new team. Entering the 2014 season the Texans are dealing with more change than they have dealt with before and are hoping that change has shaken the team out of their sleep. The defence has been the anchor of this team when they were winning divisions and they were the focus again this year. J.J. Watt has emerged as one of the best defensive lineman in the game but he cannot do it all himself with every offence focusing on him. Enter the #1 pick in the 2014 draft Jadeveon Clowney from South Carolina. If the preseason is any indication Clowney looks like he could be a force on the opposite side of the line making a devastating pass rush combination. That is where the defence starts for the Texans as the rest of the linebackers and cornerbacks lack depth. On offence the big question is whether or not Ryan Fitzpatrick is the answer at quarterback. After Matt Schaub left the job has been handed to Fitzpatrick who has the ability to manage games but is not a game breaker that can carry a team on his back. He will have playmakers to help him in Arian Foster, DeAndre Hopkins, and Andre Johnson but beyond that there is not a lot of depth. The Texans are still trying to figure out what happened last year when it seemed that their best players couldn’t do anything and if they can’t figure it out by opening day it is going to be another difficult year.

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Indianapolis Colts

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The Indianapolis Colts were once considered a lost team after dominating the AFC East for years. That all came when Peyton Manning was hurt with a neck injury and the Colts had their worst season in a very long time. The next year Peyton Manning was not brought back to the Colts and the panic ensued about whether or not the Colts could survive without him. Those questions have all been answered though as Andrew Luck has stepped in and filled the hole left. In 2013 the Luck led the Colts to first in the division but lost in the divisional playoffs. They continue to develop under a young quarterback and if they keep getting better they could be a Super Bowl favourite very soon. It might not be this year though as the Colts need some work on their defence to contend with the best in the league. The Colts defence is still stuck in the Manning era where they were built to play with a lead and not to carry the team. Although the offence is a good one it is still not good enough to provide the point differential that Manning once did and the defence needs to adjust. They are getting better though and the additions of Arthur Jones and D’Qwell Jackson are a big reason that they look to be a better defence this year. As the defence still tries to match the best in the league the offence continues to look good, albeit young. Luck is clearly an elite young quarterback and with T.Y. Hilton, Reggie Wayne, and recently added Hakeem Nicks in the passing game he has plenty of weapons. Trent Richardson’s addition midway through last year gave the Colts a long-term option that they have never really had in the backfield and he should continue to develop into a great young back. The Colts are still the class of the division and as they keep getting better the rest of the divisional teams are on notice that this may be the Colts’ division again.

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Jacksonville Jaguars

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The Jacksonville Jaguars have been the joke of the league and the division for years but in 2013 they didn’t finish in last. After years of being one of the worst teams in the league the Jaguars got out of the basement but a lot of that had to do with the Houston collapse and not an improved performance. Still the Jags did look better in 2013 and although they only had four wins they seem to be on the right track. 2013 was the first year of new general manager David Caldwell and new head coach Gus Bradley. It was expected to be a struggle as the Jags were essentially building from the ground up and looking for another rebuilding phase. It was simply a chance for the new regime to see what they had on the roster and where they needed to improve. The new regime went to work this offseason looking to bring the team out of the basement and although it is going to be a long process they are stepping in the right direction. The biggest need for the Jags has always been the quarterback and this year the Jags may have found the future. After trying multiple times to find someone in the draft the Jags took Blake Bortles in the 2014 draft who has looked like he could be a great starter. They will not start him yet though as Chad Henne will take the reins again and will have some extra weapons to help him out with rookie receiver Marqise Lee and new running back Toby Gerhart. Meanwhile the defence needs to improve in a big way and moves in the offseason made steps towards that. The additions of Chris Clemons and Red Bryant on the line should help the rush improve while Paul Posluszny continues to lead form the centre of the linebackers. The Jags are better and there is no doubt about that but the amount of holes that they have will take a lot longer than one offseason to fix as they are still at the start of the rebuild.

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Tennessee Titans

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The Tennessee Titans are familiar with being at the top of the division in the South as they were the only ones to actually challenge the Indianapolis Colts during their run. Since that time they have remained a team that could come out of nowhere to challenge for the division but they are never consistent with it. Last year they finished in second place in the division but had a losing record and were nowhere close to the Colts at the top. This year they look to change that and hope to get back to the top of the division. They will need Jake Locker to perform up to his potential if they hope to see the return to the division title. Locker looked promising when he came to Tennessee in 2011 as the back to Matt Hasselbeck. When he took over in 2012 he continued to develop and many saw him as the solid starter the Titans wanted. Last year he only played 7 games as the Titans made it clear they did not think he was ready when they signed Ryan Fitzpatrick. Now Locker takes over as the true starter for the Titans and will have Kendall Wright, Nate Washington, and Delanie Walker as his weapons in the pass game. After letting longtime star running back Chris Johnson leave in free agency Shonn Greene will take over in the backfield while new coach Ken Wisenhunt has brought in Jason Michael to give a boost to the offence. On defence the Titans are loaded with talent that not many people have heard of as they have everything they need to be great. That may be true but with the team adjusting to Ray Horton’s new 3-4 defence it will be a challenge to try to matchup against some powerful offences. The Titans have the talent and a regime change is sure to change things up but the question is whether it will be enough to put them back into the division race and challenge the top teams in the South.

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Prediction:
A division that has always had one dominant team take over may have seen the most change in the last few years with Houston ending the era of the Colts. As the top teams are looking to challenge there is the Jacksonville Jaguars who are looking to just be more competitive this year The division title is far away from the Jags’ grasp but they are getting better and could surprise a few teams this year. The Tennessee Titans are one of the teams that can challenge for the title but this year they will fall just short as Locker will not be able to take the next step leaving the Titans in a bind under centre. The Houston Texans are the latest dominant team and 2013 was just an anomaly as they will be back with a fierce defence but will fight all year with the Titans to get second. The Colts are back though and with Andrew Luck under centre it does not look like they will be giving up the division easily any time soon. Expect the Colts to once again take command of the division and move into the playoffs where they will look improved but will not make it to the Super Bowl.

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