In some ways, the 2021 season in the AFC South played out as expected: the Colts and the Titans were the division’s top two teams, and the Texans were, well, not very good at all. In other ways, though, this division delivered a steady stream of surprises.
The Colts, despite adding a one-time MVP candidate at quarterback, were unable to parlay their high-quality roster into so much as a playoff appearance, let alone meaningful success. The Titans, meanwhile, despite losing superstar running back Derrick Henry for more than half of the season, not only ran away with the division but secured the top seed in the AFC playoffs. The Jaguars added a generational quarterback prospect and a legendary college coach, and not only failed to make progress throughout the season, but were an unmitigated disaster. And the Texans started out 1-0… after that things pretty much played out as you'd expect.
Heading into the 2022 season, AFC South predictions have bettors divided. The Colts have brought in yet another veteran quarterback - former Atlanta Falcon Matt Ryan - to try and unlock their roster’s upside. The Titans (among other moves) traded away a superstar receiver and added a developmental quarterback, seemingly jumpstarting a period of retooling.
There are plenty of questions surrounding the teams in the AFC South heading into the 2022 campaign. Let’s take a closer look at how the sportsbooks view each team heading into the season, and where you can find some value.
It's wild that an NFL team can manage just four wins in 17 outings and “overachieve”. That, however, is exactly what the 2021 Texans did. In fairness, their 2021 offseason played out about as badly as possible, with franchise quarterback Deshaun Watson first demanding a trade, only for more than two dozen allegations of sexual misconduct against him to prevent the Texans from trading or playing him. For a team with as ugly a skill-position situation as any in the league, it created a pretty grim situation.
Add to that the departure of franchise cornerstone and three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, and this team started out dead in the water. After a Week 1 win over somehow-even-worse-Jaguars, they lost 13 of 16, and ended up in the bottom-four (in Expected Points Contributed) on both offense and defense, with the #3 pick in the draft.
The scenario isn’t dramatically different heading into 2022. Sure, Watson’s been traded to Cleveland and 2021 third-round pick Davis Mills exceeded expectations and looks like a serviceable quarterback, but he’s also not much more, especially in a skill position wasteland like this. It's worth noting that with their #3 pick, the Texans added cornerback Daryl Stingley Jr., a generational talent who’ll be a difference maker in the future. This season, however, it's unlikely that the rookie out of LSU lifts this team out of the doldrums.
All of this means it’s tempting to look at “Worst Regular Season Record” at +250 at Caesars; however, with the Falcons and the Bears poised to turn in truly awful seasons we think an Under offers better value. Be sure to check out the best sportsbook bonuses to maximize any bets.
As interesting a team as the Colts are, analyzing them is pretty straightforward. A defense that was mediocre in 2021, particularly against the pass, needed reinforcements. To that end, pass-rusher Yannick Ngakoue was acquired from the Raiders, and veteran corner Stephon Gilmore was added in free agency.
More important, of course, was the question of quarterback. For some time, GM Chris Ballard has planned to build a Super Bowl-caliber roster, and hope that a worthy quarterback would come available. Last year, Carson Wentz (who came at a steep price), though mistake-prone, wasn’t a complete disaster… until Week 18, when the Colts simply needed to beat the bottom-of-the-barrel Jaguars to make the playoffs. He’s now in Washington.
In his place comes longtime Falcon Matt Ryan. Though far from his MVP prime, Ryan’s an intelligent and cool leader on the field and a great teammate. In an offense that contains superstar running back Jonathan Taylor and wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr., who, on the heels of an 88-catch, the 1,082-yard second season in the NFL (in which he upped his catch rate to 68.2%, from 65.6% as a rookie) should benefit from the attention Taylor will command in the run game, as well as the infusion of size and talent opposite him at receiver in second-round pick Alec Pierce, the materials are in place, again, for a playoff run.
The question, again, is: do they have the right quarterback? Just how good Ryan still remains to be seen, but with the defending division champs pretty clearly taking a step back (more on this in a second), the road to an AFC South title is pretty clean.
What a difference a year makes. At this time last year, the Jaguars had just spent the top pick in the NFL Draft on a generational quarterback prospect, Trevor Lawrence, whose talent was being compared to that of John Elway. They’d also hired Urban Meyer, the most successful college coach in the past 30 years not named Nick Saban, to guide Lawrence's transition into the NFL. Three months into the season, after just two wins, more than two abject performances, and several coaching and non-coaching-related embarrassments, the entire operation was on fire, and Meyer got the boot.
New head coach Doug Pederson isn’t going to step in and immediately turn around a team that ranked at or near the bottom of the NFL in just about every meaningful statistic, on both sides of the ball. However, Pederson is known as an excellent quarterbacks coach and will relish the opportunity to work with Lawrence, who’ll have some new weapons around him - most notably his college running back and fellow 2021 first-round pick Travis Etienne, who missed his rookie season due to injury, and free agent receiver Christian Kirk.
With an adult at the helm, Lawrence has an opportunity to truly begin his development. It’s unlikely to immediately translate into wins, but 3801 passing yards (roughly 224 per game over 17 games) shouldn't be a bridge too far.
There's A LOT to be said for the Titans’ performance in 2021. After starting strong, they lost running back Derrick Henry - not only the best player in the NFL at his position, but also the engine of their offense - and responded immediately with wins over the eventual Super Bowl champion Rams and the Saints, and wins in four of their last five regular-season games, to secure not only a division title but the top seed in the AFC. It was an incredibly impressive feat of perseverance.
This season, a lot has changed. The Titans’ top two wide receivers (in terms of receiving yards per game) - future Hall of Famer Julio Jones and, most importantly, superstar star A.J. Brown - are gone, to be replaced by rookie first-rounder Treylon Burks (who’s already faced questions about his conditioning) and the team’s only holdover with more than 301 yards receiving in 2021, third-year man Nick Westbrook-Ikhine. The infrastructure for a successful passing game, whether built on efficiency or dynamism and big plays, is simply not in place.
Add to that the selection of QB Malik Willis in the third round of the NFL Draft, and quarterback Ryan Tannehill's grip on the starting spot looking tenuous long-term, and this has the look of a team in transition. All of that, in a stacked field of AFC contenders (by my count, the Chiefs, Bills, Bengals, Ravens, Chargers, Broncos, and Colts are all superior teams, and the Raiders, Dolphins, Patriots, and Steelers could be), suggests that 2022 will be a rough year for Tannehill and the Titans.
The four teams that make up the AFC South Division include Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, and the Tennesse Titans. Established ahead of the 2002 season, the roster has not changed since.
The Colts are our pick to win the AFC South Division. To claim the championship, they've brought in Matt Ryan as a replacement quarterback for Carson Wentz. This is an area they've needed to strengthen and they'll need to remain consistent, along with the fitness of Parris Campbell certainly raising eyebrows.
A look at where each of these teams stands at the sportsbooks going into the season, and where you can find the best value on the NFL futures and season props.
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After a flurry of offseason activity, the AFC West looks to be the NFL’s strongest, deepest, and most star-studded division. Patrick Mahomes should keep the Chiefs on top, but the Chargers, Raiders, and Broncos will all be on their tails.