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Here is the 2021 Pro Football Betting Guide preview for the AFC South.
THE FAVORITE: TENNESSEE TITANS
The Titans were an improved team last season, winning the AFC South with an 11-5 record. But they fell to the Baltimore Ravens in the first round of the playoffs and were not able to duplicate their run to the AFC championship game in 2019. The biggest story of the Titans’ offseason was the addition of receiver Julio Jones. With Jones' 10-year career in Atlanta over, he will don jersey No. 2 to symbolize his career's second act. In Tennessee, he will line up opposite A.J. Brown, who has two 1,000-yard-plus seasons in his first two years in the NFL. The potential is there for a lethal offense when you combine Jones and Brown with Derrick Henry, who rushed for 2,027 yards last year and has back-to-back rushing titles. Henry is a throwback running back in an era in which the position has never had less value. Ryan Tannehill has proven to be much more than just an adequate quarterback.
The Titans defense needs to improve big time if they are going to take the next step. The unit ranked 29th in DVOA, per Football Outsiders, which is not surprising considering Tennessee had only 19 sacks last season. That’s why the Titans gambled on outside linebacker Bud Dupree coming back from an ACL injury. With Arthur Smith now the head coach in Atlanta, Todd Downing steps in as the offensive coordinator. Shane Bowen also was promoted to defensive coordinator. As the reigning division champion, it is justifiable to have Tennessee as the favorite, but the margin between the Titans and Indianapolis is paper-thin.
LIVE DOG: INDIANAPOLIS COLTS
The No. 1 question for the Colts was whether Frank Reich could fix Carson Wentz. Wentz had the best years of his young career under Reich as the offensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles. However, before Reich can fix Wentz, doctors are going to need to fix him as Wentz broke a bone in his foot in early August. He was initially ruled out for a period of five to 12 weeks, but rehab seems to be on schedule and there’s a chance he could be ready to go for the opener against Seattle. All-Pro left guard Quenton Nelson had the same injury and is on the same timetable for a return. The decline in Philadelphia was not all on Wentz as his receiving corps and offensive line were decimated by injuries last season and the team infrastructure crumbled around him.
Assuming good health and that Reich can find something closer to 2017 Wentz, the weapons are there on offense with a loaded running backs room led by Jonathan Taylor and a good group of young receivers to learn under T.Y. Hilton. The offensive line is also very good but needs former Chiefs tackle Eric Fisher to return soon from a torn Achilles tendon to replace the retired Anthony Castonzo.
Defensively, the Colts rated in the top 10 last season in points and yards allowed, first downs, rushing yards, rushing yards per attempt, yards per drive and points per drive. But they need to generate a better pass rush and not take so many penalties in the secondary. Their early schedule is a bear, so this is a team that might have even more value toward the middle of the season in terms of winning the AFC South.
PROP PLAY: DERRICK HENRY UNDER 13.5 RUSHING TOUCHDOWNS
Henry had a career year in 2019 and then smashed those numbers in 2020 with 2,027 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns (both career highs). However, Arthur Smith has moved to Atlanta as the Falcons' new head coach and the Titans have a new offensive coordinator in Todd Downing. Downing is unlikely to make massive changes to the offense and the running game plus play-action passing from Ryan Tannehill will still be its bread and butter. Nevertheless, the Titans must incorporate Julio Jones into the offense. Plus, Tennessee, playing a first-place schedule, will have to face six of last year's top eight rushing defenses (including two games against the Colts). Only eight men, including Henry, have rushed for more than 2,000 yards in a season and all of them dropped off significantly the following year.
BIG GAMES ON THE BOARD
Jacksonville at Houston (Sept. 12)
The Jaguars have a rookie quarterback, a first-time NFL head coach, a first-time defensive coordinator at the NFL level, a new offensive coordinator and a new general manager. Yet they are favored on the road in a divisional game, which pretty much tells you where the Texans, just two years removed from a division title and a playoff victory, are right now.
Indianapolis at Tennessee (Sept. 26)
These teams split their series last year with each team winning on the road. With the Carson Wentz injury in training camp, a coin-flip divisional race between these two has shifted toward Tennessee being the favorite. However, there’s a chance Wentz could be back in time for this key game early in the division race.
Buffalo at Tennessee (Oct. 18)
The Bills started 4-0 last season for the first time since 2008 but were dealt their first loss of the season at Tennessee on a Tuesday night in a game moved back because of positive COVID-19 tests on the Titans.
Indianapolis at Buffalo (Nov. 21)
This is a rematch of last season’s wild-card-round playoff game in which the No. 2-seeded Bills defeated the Colts 27-24, thus ending the career of quarterback Philip Rivers, who started 252 games and never missed a start in his 17-year career.
Indianapolis at Jacksonville (Jan. 9)
The Colts opened last season with a loss in Jacksonville — the Jaguars’ only victory of 2020 — as eight-point road favorites and it likely ended up costing them the AFC South title.
The Titans have reached the playoffs in three of the past four seasons and went 11-5 in 2020 before losing at home to Baltimore in a wild-card-round game. Former offensive coordinator Arthur Smith left to coach the Falcons, so the offense could have a different look this season. The new OC is Todd Downing, who has called plays only once before, for the 2017 Raiders. That Raiders club finished only 17th in total offense and 23rd in scoring offense; however, this Titans team has substantially more talent.
Running back Derrick Henry leads a group that produced the fourth-most points in the league last year. Henry also became the eighth player in NFL history to top 2,000 rushing yards in a season, finishing with 2,027 yards and 17 touchdowns on the way to winning his first Offensive Player of the Year award. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill had his most effective season in 2020 with 3,819 yards and 33 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. While two of his top three targets are gone, No. 1 weapon A.J. Brown is back, and Tannehill will now have Julio Jones to work with as well. Brown went over 1,000 yards for a second consecutive season. Jones, the seven-time Pro Bowl receiver, is far from a sure thing, though. Jones is 32 years old and missed seven games last season. He was good last season when healthy, but his yards per game have dipped from 104.8 in 2018 to 92.9 in 2019 to 85.7 last season.
The defense will determine how far the Titans go, and the 2020 numbers were not pretty. Tennessee ranked 28th in yards allowed, 29th in passing yards allowed, 30th in sacks, 30th in red zone defense and 24th in points allowed. They gambled $82.5 million on ex-Steelers outside linebacker Bud Dupree, who tore his ACL last season. Denico Autry will line up at defensive end opposite Dupree after they pried him away from the division rival Colts. Janoris Jenkins was also signed from New Orleans to replace Adoree Jackson at cornerback. General manager Jon Robinson used five of his eight picks on defense in the draft. In all, only five starters return for a defensive unit that needed a massive overhaul. Those rookies may be needed immediately as Tennessee’s depth was depleted by free agency, and this looks like a top-heavy team.
The Titans went 7-2 in one-score games last season, and only three of their 11 victories were against teams with winning records. At 9.5 wins, this is an Under play, but just an Under lean at 9 with plus money.
Indianapolis made the playoffs for the second time in three seasons under coach Frank Reich in 2020. At 11-5, the Colts had the same record as the AFC South champion Tennessee Titans, but a tiebreaker cost them the division title as their season-opening loss to Jacksonville came back to haunt them. The Colts beat only two teams with winning records last season and now must start a new season with a new starting quarterback for the fourth straight season.
Enter Carson Wentz, who is looking to revitalize his career which took a downturn after Reich left Philadelphia to take the top job in Indianapolis. Wentz went 18-11 in his first two NFL seasons with Reich as offensive coordinator and 17-21-1 after Reich left. He was originally ruled out for 5-to-12 weeks after suffering an early August foot injury, but there’s a chance he could return in time for the season opener. Second-year quarterback Jacob Eason and rookie Sam Ehlinger have been splitting the first-team reps in the preseason.
Regardless of who starts under center, the run game looks to be a team strength as Jonathan Taylor shined as a rookie in 2020 with 1,169 yards and 11 touchdowns. Marlon Mack, who had 1,091 yards in 2019, returns from an Achilles injury suffered in Week 1 last season. Nyheim Hines also provides a threat as a pass-catching back. Indianapolis has its four top receivers back, including T.Y. Hilton, who led the Colts with 762 yards and five touchdowns last year. Michael Pittman Jr. and Zach Pascal each topped 500 yards.
The Colts defense ranked 10th in scoring last season and returns nine players who made eight or more starts. First-team All-Pro selections Darius Leonard and DeForest Buckner will anchor the group again. Leonard had 132 tackles, seven pass breakups, three forced fumbles and three sacks. Buckner led the pass rush with 9.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in his first season in Indianapolis. The Colts have a lot of pieces in place to be a very good team yet again, but it will all hinge on the quarterback. It’s unlikely Wentz will return to the form of his 2017 NFL MVP season, but he does not necessarily have to for this team to be successful. On the other hand, he cannot be what he was last year.
The early schedule is daunting with home games against Seattle and the Los Angeles Rams and then three straight games on the road at Tennessee, Miami and Baltimore. If the Colts can stay afloat early and improve throughout the season, they will be a factor in the playoff chase.
The Trevor Lawrence era begins in Jacksonville. The former Clemson quarterback and No. 1 pick in the draft was the Jaguars’ reward for a franchise-worst 1-15 showing last season. Lawrence put together three strong college seasons and won a national championship. Now he and new coach Urban Meyer will look to turn the tide of an organization that has had just eight winning seasons in 26 years. The cupboard is not necessarily bare for the rookie quarterback as he gets the benefit of developing alongside some talented and young skill-position players, including running back James Robinson, who gained 1,400 yards from scrimmage and scored 10 touchdowns as a rookie. The Jaguars used another first-round pick on running back Travis Etienne, Lawrence’s Clemson teammate. Jacksonville returns two of its top three receivers in DJ Chark and Laviska Shenault Jr.. Sheanuly Jr. seems like a good candidate for a role like Meyer used Percy Harvin at Florida. Chark and Shenault combined for 113 catches, 1,306 yards and 10 touchdowns last year and could improve with the addition of Marvin Jones Jr., who nearly topped 1,000 yards in Detroit.
Meyer finally gets his crack at an NFL job, but he has not coached in two years, and the percentages say he will be part of a long line of great college coaches who could not translate to the NFL. Nevertheless, the cap situation is solid in Jacksonville and owner Shad Khan will give Meyer every chance to succeed. The Jaguars invested heavily on a defense that was 31st in PPG allowed in the NFL last year at 30.8.
Cornerback Shaq Griffin, safety Rayshawn Jenkins and defensive end Roy Robertson-Harris were added via free agency. Recently promoted general manager Trent Baalke also drafted defensive backs Tyson Campbell and Andre Cisco in the first and third rounds to add depth to the secondary. One area that needs to improve is the pass rush. Former first-round picks Josh Allen (2019) and K'Lavon Chaisson (2020) combined for only 3.5 sacks last season. New defensive coordinator Joe Cullen is switching to a 3-4 scheme.
The Jaguars will undoubtedly be a better team in 2021. They could not be much worse considering they were outgained 445-241 in their one victory (Week 1 vs. Indianapolis) and they lost 15 games by an average of 12.9 points per game. While this roster looks better, and they certainly should be more competitive, winning seven games seems like a bit of a stretch.
The Texans were not quite in the penthouse in January 2020, but they were at least in a nice townhome as they had won a division title (their second straight), a playoff game and had the eventual Super Bowl LIV champion Kansas City Chiefs on the ropes, down 24-0 at home. The Chiefs eventually won 51-31, and the Texans franchise came apart much like that lead did.
Last year, the team started 0-4 and head coach and general manager Bill O'Brien was fired. Jack Easterby, who was reportedly the main force behind the decision to trade star wideout DeAndre Hopkins, took over as interim general manager, and the negative press surrounding the organization began to mount. Every player was unhappy, and dissension was prevalent within the locker room. Now the Texans find themselves without two future Hall of Famers in Hopkins and J.J. Watt, who was the face of the franchise and the leader of the team in the community. Furthermore, they are stuck with an unhappy franchise quarterback in Deshaun Watson, who is facing 22 civil lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct by him and has likely played his last down in a Texans uniform. David Culley, who has coached in the NFL since 1994, most recently as assistant head coach in Baltimore, finally gets his shot to be a head coach and he inherits about as bad of a situation as possible.
Aside from a lack of talent on this roster, it is the oldest in the league. The Texans were 4-12 in 2020 with Watson having the best statistical season of his career. Veteran Tyrod Taylor or third-rounder Davis Mills will likely be the starting QB when Jacksonville comes to town in Week 1. We have yet to even mention a defense that, while it returns seven starters, including the entire secondary, rated 30th in DVOA last year, per Football Outsiders. New GM Nick Caserio has made a lot of transactions and there were 50 new players on a 90-man offseason roster.
It is difficult to ascertain what the rebuilding plan is in Houston. Perhaps the plan is to be the worst team in the NFL to draft either Spencer Rattler or Sam Howell next April. At least that is a plan, but it does not do much for the team's prospects in 2021.