NFL 2018: Jags look to repeat as AFC South champs
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — For so very long, the AFC South easily ranked among the NFL’s worst divisions.
Both Jacksonville and Tennessee are coming off playoff berths, with the Jaguars a blown lead in the AFC championship game from playing in the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history. The Jaguars and Titans also have their rosters from those trips back largely intact. Deshaun Watson and J.J. Watt are healthy again in Houston. Even Andrew Luck is throwing passes and ready for the season in Indianapolis.
“It’s crazy how nobody wanted to play in the AFC South a couple years ago,” Jaguars linebacker Telvin Smith said. “Now it seems like it’ll be one of the premier (divisions) in the league.”
The Jaguars not only are defending division champs, they are looking for a second straight playoff berth for the first time since 1998-99. The Titans changed coache s after consecutive 9-7 seasons because sweeping Jacksonville last season wasn’t enough to win the AFC South, and another postseason would be their first back-to-back berths since 2007-08. If the Texans stay healthy, they are chasing their third division title in four years.
The Colts have a lot of rebuilding ahead, but a healthy Luck is so good that Indianapolis always has a chance.
Here’s what to look for out of the AFC South this season:
Yes, the Jaguars not only are contenders, they are a popular pick to reach their first Super Bowl. That means dealing with high expectations from the start.
“That’s a big jump, but I feel like we’re going to put ourselves in the right position to be an immediate contender,” defensive tackle Malik Jackson said. “I think with the defensive product that we put out there, the offensive product we put out there, and special teams, if we do anything less than what we did (last) year, it’d be a huge disappointment. I know we’re going to be consistent. I can promise you that.”
All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey is keeping Jacksonville lively with his comments — positive and disparaging — on NFL quarterbacks. But Jaguars coach Doug Marrone has every key starter back, including 10 of 11 on one of the league’s stingiest defenses featuring six Pro Bowlers. Blake Bortles’ right wrist has been surgically repaired , and he has an offense that led the NFL in rushing last season.
Tennessee has a first-time head coach who won three Super Bowl rings playing linebacker in New England, Mike Vrabel . This franchise also has been busy building the past three years trying to compete not only in the division but the AFC. The Titans gave themselves a big confidence boost by rallying for a wild-card win in Kansas City before a divisional loss in New England . It was an eye opener.
“To be able to experience that was huge,” quarterback Marcus Mariota said. “You understand that the postseason, everything kind of intensifies just a little bit more, and to go through that, to experience that in year three was huge. I do believe that it was a good stepping stone for this season, hopefully for future years as well.”
The Titans have new coordinator Matt LaFleur teaching Mariota his third offense in four seasons, and they replaced aging DeMarco Murray by signing Dion Lewis to work with Derrick Henry. They also bolstered the defense by signing cornerback Malcolm Butler and drafting linebackers Rashaan Evans and Harold Landry.
This season has to be better for Houston if only because the Texans are healthier. When they finished their first losing season since 2013 at 4-12 last year, 22 Texans were on injured reserve. Losses of Watson , Watt and LB Whitney Mercilus were most costly. So even with the Texans’ run at a third straight division title over, coach Bill O’Brien got a new general manager and a contract extension .
Watson was so thrilling while healthy. Yet the second-year quarterback will be tested if an offensive line anchored by center Nick Martin and featuring three new starters can’t protect Watson any better than a year ago, when the Texans gave up the second-most sacks in the NFL.
As dominant as Watt was in winning the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award three times in four seasons, he now has to prove his body can survive a full season. Watt played only eight games combined over 2016 and 2017.
Finally improving the offensive line has been a big key for general manager Chris Ballard in trying to end a three-year postseason drought. The Colts gave up a league-worst 56 sacks last season, and Luck won’t stay healthy for long if they can’t protect him better. Ballard drafted guard Quenton Nelson at No. 6 overall, signed two free agents, and has center Ryan Kelly coming back off an injury.
Owner Jim Irsay also fired Chuck Pagano and hired Frank Reich when Josh McDaniels decided to stay in New England . Reich now has watched Luck return to the field; Luck is feeling much more confident in his own throwing shoulder.
“I feel like I can make all the throws I need to make with confidence,” Luck said.
Safety Malik Hooker is back from knee surgery that ended his rookie season after just seven games. But not even Luck might be able to cover up the roster issues that Ballard needs more time, draft picks and money to fix.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: Jaguars, Titans, Texans, Colts.
AP Sports Writers Mark Long and Michael Marot contributed to this report.
Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker