How quickly things can change in the NFL. Cast your minds back if you will to immediately after week 4 of this season. The AFC South was looking like the worst division in the NFL by some distance.
Arizona had destroyed the Tennessee Titans, sneaked a comeback overtime win against Seattle, beaten the Colts, and mystifyingly lost to the Jets. At the same time, the Colts had picked up their first win of the season against the embattled Miami Dolphins.
Houston did look like a train wreck team going into the season but had beaten the Jags and shown bright sparks in Tyrod Taylor and Brandin Cooks. They were 1-3. The Jaguars, on the other, hadn’t won in over a year, and we’re quickly approaching the NFL record for longest losing streak.
The last three weeks, however, have seen something of a turnaround for the division. The Titans followed up a routine victory over Jacksonville with impressive wins over Buffalo and Kansas City to sit joint top of the AFC.
Indianapolis suffered an agonizing overtime loss to Baltimore, only weeks after their narrow defeat to another Super Bowl contender, the LA Rams. The Colts bounced back from that defeat with a dominant win against the Texans and a significant victory against the 49ers in terrible weather conditions.
The Colts have scored at least 25 points in their last four games and at least 30 in their previous two. At 3-4 in a crowded AFC, Indianapolis is only a few games behind any of the teams in the AFC.
I was fortunate enough to be in London to watch the Jaguars get a last-second win against Miami two weeks ago. Jacksonville shouldn’t get too ahead of themselves after winning their first game in well over a year, but they do have some reasons to be optimistic.
Trevor Lawrence looks like he’s improving, although he does still have a long way to go. While James Robinson continues to play, Marvin Jones has been an essential target for Lawrence, and Jacksonville finally finds someone who can kick.
Jacksonville will be encouraged by how quickly Arizona and Cincinnati have become great teams after using number one draft picks to secure their franchise quarterback. The Jaguars will have to do many things right to improve as quickly as those two teams, and they’ll undoubtedly have to be far better at drafting than they’ve been over the past decade.
Unfortunately for Houston, their future does look bleak. Deshaun Watson trade rumors have only intensified as the trade deadline approaches. On the field, the promise the Texans showed with Tyrod Taylor under center has disappeared since his injury. They’ve been comprehensively beaten in three of their last four games.
They must be strong candidates to secure the first pick of the 2022 draft. Detroit may still be winless, but they’ve shown spark and fight in narrow losses to the Ravens and Rams. That’s been sorely missing from the Texans over the past month. At least if Houston does get the number one pick next year, they’ll be able to use it. Unlike the number three pick, they had to give to Miami this year.
Despite their victory in London, Jacksonville will also likely be getting another top-five draft pick next year. That would leave Houston and Jacksonville in similar league positions to last season. Despite some concerning early-season signs, I think there’s also every chance Indianapolis and Tennessee replicate last season’s form by both reaching the playoffs.
The AFC is remarkably up in the air seven weeks into the season. Kansas City has been deposed as the top team in the AFC, but no team has yet to claim that mantle for themselves. It looked like the Ravens could be that team after they defeated the Chiefs, only for them to be soundly beaten by Cincinnati last Sunday. Buffalo, too looked like they could be that team until they lost to Tennessee last weekend. The Bills, Bengals, Raiders, Ravens, and Titans are all joint leaders in the AFC with five wins. While other dangerous teams like the Chargers, Browns, and Colts are not too far behind. Other teams like the Steelers and Patriots are also in the mix, but I don’t expect either to be challenging for a playoff spot come to the end of the season.
The unpredictability of the AFC this year means a whole host of teams could make the playoffs, with many of them having a chance to claim the number one seed. It also creates the opportunity for both the Colts and Titans to make the playoffs again this year, something I certainly wasn’t expecting a couple of weeks ago.
As we know, seven AFC teams will make it to the playoffs. It certainly looks like at least two will come from both the AFC North and AFC West. As I hinted earlier, I don’t rate the Patriots this year (and no one thinks the Jets or Dolphins will make the playoffs), leaving only the Bills from the AFC East to make the playoffs. That leaves whichever one of the Colts and Titans doesn’t win the AFC South to battle it with the third-place AFC North and West teams for that final wildcard spot.
At this stage, Indianapolis shouldn’t be too focused on other team’s results and instead needs to concentrate on winning ten or eleven games this year to likely decide their own destiny. Given the Colts improving form and favourable remaining schedule, that’s a reasonable expectation for this team.
The Jets, two Jags games and another Texans game *should* all be decisive wins. The Patriots and Raiders will be tougher games but I think Indianapolis should win them both. The Bills, Buccaneers and Cardinals look like three of the toughest teams in the NFL so the Colts will likely be underdogs in all three of those games. Although the Colts are capable of winning one of them and need to start showing they are capable of beating top teams.
Of course, I neglected to mention the most important game left of the Colts schedule, this Sunday’s AFC South showdown with Tennessee. Realistically, Indianapolis need to win this game to win the AFC South and would have precious little room for error in their hunt for a wildcard spot if they lose. If they win, they’ll only be one game behind the Titans and I think the momentum the win would give them would make them favourites to win the division. Even if they didn’t go onto win the division, the win would put them in a much stronger position to claim a wildcard spot. Given how well-matched the Colts and Titans have been in recent years, I am expecting the Colts to win to make it 1-1 for the season.
The AFC South may once again be a top-heavy division, but it’s certainly not the worst in the NFL. That accolade indeed has to go to the AFC East that boasts one great team, one mediocre one, and two terrible ones. The AFC East inherited that title from their NFC East brethren. The division may be looking better as Dallas has substantially improved, but the disappointing performances of Washington, the Giants, and the Eagles indeed leave it worse than the AFC South. I could even make a case for the NFC North being a worse division, although it is hard to judge how good the Vikings and Bears are.
However, the Texans and Jaguars may continue to struggle for the rest of the season. No AFC team should be counting out the Colts or Titans at this stage of the season. Both are dangerous teams, albeit for different reasons. Tennessee has some elite offensive playmakers but continues to be vulnerable in defense. The Colts continue to look better as they get healthier and look to have a well-balanced squad. Although concerns remain about the defense line, and there have been significant injuries to the secondary. Despite this, the defense has consistently secured turnovers.
I don’t expect either the Colts or Titans to make it to the Super Bowl this year. But given the lack of a standout AFC team so far this season, I suspect no team will be keen to play either in the playoffs. Teams can underestimate the Colts and Titans at their own peril.