Dec 29, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew luck (12) high fives fans as he heads to the locker room after the Colts defeated the Jacksonville Jaguars, 30-10 at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Who Will Challenge the Colts in the AFC South?

The Indianapolis Colts benefitted greatly last season from being in the worst division in the NFL: the AFC South. The division was nearly a complete embarrassment in 2013.

The Colts went 6-0 in division play, but it wasn’t always easy. A couple close games against the Tennessee Titans and a dramatic comeback in Houston were necessary for the sweep.

An argument could be made that the NFC East was the worst, but they at least had two teams at or above .500. Interestingly enough, the two divisions will play each other this season to prove once and for all who is the worst.

The Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars featured the two worst score differentials in the NFL. The Jags were dead last at -202 points, but still managed to win two more games than the Texans who were at -152.

Not surprisingly, those two teams were horrendous on both sides of the ball. The Titans, on the other hand, were simply inconsistent largely due to starting QB Jake Locker‘s health.

There is a tendency in the NFL for teams at the bottom of the division to jump to the top, or near it like Kansas City. The key difference with the Chiefs was at quarterback. Something the Titans, Jags, and Texans have in common are major question marks at quarterback. Coincidentally, the Colts haven’t had that issue (except for the gas leak year in 2011) and have won the division more often than not.

A year later, will any of these three teams be able to challenge the Colts for the division crown?

Tennessee Titans (7-9, 2-4)

Letting Chris Johnson walk was about the smartest move the Titans have made in years. The boom-and-mostly-bust running back was a serious drain on the team’s finances and blamed everything but himself for the lack of a run game.

Since the division win in 2008, which was due to a strong defensive performance and Peyton Manning‘s bum knee, the Titans haven’t made the playoffs or won more than nine games.

The big question will be Locker. Can he stay healthy all season long and also make a jump in his level of play? Locker was about average last season, but had more bad games than good ones in 2013. Along the line, the left side is set with Michael Roos and Andy Levitre but the rest is below average (even with Blindside out there!). There are weapons to be had with tight end Delanie Walker and wide receivers Justin Hunter and Kendall Wright.

Defensively, they’re switching to a 3-4 scheme but as of now don’t appear to have much in the way of personnel. Jurrell Casey is a great defensive end, but moving into that line might lower his impact and stats. There are a few more bright points on defense, like Derrick Morgan, Akeem Ayers, and Bernard Pollard.

There is a lot of average across this roster. Really it will come down to the consistency of the quarterback and right now Locker hasn’t proven to be “the” guy going forward. There is a real chance that this becomes a solid defense that can keep the team in games long enough for the Titans to steal a few wins.

They are easily the biggest threat to the Colts.

Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12, 3-3)

The Jags were a special kind of bad last season. The fact they won four games (thanks Texans, Titans, and Browns!) was nothing short of a miracle. Per Pro Football Focus, they had the worst overall rating of all teams at -181.6 for the season.

On offense, they have Marcedes Lewis at tight end and Cecil Shorts at wide receiver, and that’s it for quality starters. They’ll either start the horrible Chad Henne or rookie Blake Bortles (if Bortles can’t beat Henne, he should retire).

They upgraded the defensive line, which was porous at best last year, with ends Red Bryant and Chris Clemons (both from Seattle Seahawks, so at least two players know how to win now). Cornerback Alan Ball returns after a very good 2013 as well.

In reality, kicker Josh Scobee (the bane of Colts’ fans existence) might be the team’s best starter.

Once again, this team is devoid of a QB who can make the offense work and the defense is only going to be average at best. The Jags are still in rebuild mode and desperately need Bortles to work out at QB.

Houston Texans (2-14, 1-5)

Two wins and then 14 losses in a row. The main problem? Quarterbacking. Quickly followed by a defense that couldn’t stop anyone (T.Y. Hilton just burned the safeties for another touchdown).

The offense has all the pieces to be good this year. Solid offensive line, a solid stable of running backs, and Andre Johnson (assuming he actually shows up to camp) is still beast at wide receiver. DeAndre Hopkins heads into year two and showed flashes of developing into a very good receiver.

But who plays quarterback for the Texans? Ryan Fitzpatrick is simply terrible. Case Keenum isn’t the answer either. So will it be rookie Tom Savage? His final senior year at Pitt was pretty good and Savage possesses everything you’d want in a QB, but he’s also a fourth round rookie.

Savage could win the position, but the chances he carries his team to the playoffs or near the top of division are next to nil. The Texans have never found a long term option at QB and it won’t be any different in 2014.

Defensively, the Texans still have J.J. Watt. Not sure I need to say much more. His PFF grades nearly broke the charts, but he’s all the team had last year. They’ll pair rookie Jadeveon Clowney with Watt, which could develop into a pretty fearsome pass rush duo.

The defense will be ahead of the offense this season, but without a quarterback this team isn’t challenging anyone.

The Colts cruise to another AFC South title by overpowering three extremely inferior quarterbacks. Colts fans might be the luckiest in the entire NFL; over a decade with Manning and what’s sure to be a long tenure with Andrew Luck.

Tags: AFC South Blake Bortles Indianapolis Colts Jake Locker JJ Watt Peyton Manning Tom Savage

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