AFC South preview redo: Value in Colts, post-Luck

Wes Reynolds  
Pro Football Betting Guide

We asked Wes Reynolds to redo the AFC South preview he did for the VSiN Pro Football Betting Guide after the news of Andrew Luck’s retirement, but Wes still likes the value he sees in the Colts.

AFC SOUTH

THE FAVORITE

Houston Texans 155

With the retirement of Andrew Luck from the Indianapolis Colts, the reigning AFC South division champions move back into the favorite role. In reality, all four teams in this division have their fair share of question marks, but the market believes that the Texans have the fewest questions. The Texans have a gifted franchise quarterback in Deshaun Watson, who in his first full season as a starter threw for 4165 yards (68.3%), 26-9 TD-INT and posted a 103.1 rating. Watson also ran for 551 yards and five TDs. He is the first player in NFL history to have 4,000 passing yards, 25 passing TDs, 500 rushing yards and 5 rushing TDs in a single season. That's the good news. The bad news: He was the most sacked starting QB in the league. Opposing defenses got to him 62 times. While the Texans spent two of their first three draft picks in 2019 on offensive linemen, the question remains whether they can protect the franchise's most valuable asset.

LIVE DOGS

Jacksonville Jaguars 250

The Jaguars finally closed the book on the Blake Bortles era and are moving on with Super Bowl LII winning QB Nick Foles under center. Jacksonville's offense fell 11 points (26 to 15 ppg) and 58 yards (360 to 302) last season. Those abysmal marks can only improve going forward. We forget this team did start out 3-1 last year including a double-digit win over the eventual Super Bowl Champion Patriots in Week 2 in a revenge spot from the previous AFC Championship Game. Then the wheels came off and the Jags lost seven straight games. Infighting within the team ensued and injuries mounted up. The team also looked resigned to their fate and pretty much quit on the season as the losses mounted. If we know anything about Jaguars Executive VP of Football Operations Tom Coughlin, we know that he won't put up with a team that quits. This defense was one the league's best two years ago and the majority of the talent on that side of the ball remains. Foles should improve the quarterback play but he will need his top WR Marqise Lee and RB Leonard Fournette to stay healthy, which they did not do last season. 

Indianapolis Colts 500

While the Colts fell a game short of winning this division last season at 10-6 (after starting 1-5), they proved to be the division's best club by going on the road and defeating the AFC South champion Houston Texans 21-7 on Wild Card Weekend. This year they came into the season as a clear favorite as last year's primary question was answered regarding Andrew Luck's health. Luck posted career highs in completions (430), attempts (639), completion percentage (67.3%), and QB rating (98.7) and also earned Comeback Player of the Year. Then on Aug. 24, Andrew Luck retired from the game at the age of 29. Of course the betting markets reacted and the Colts season win total was dropped to 6.5 and their SB odds now as high as 60/1. Enter Jacoby Brissett, who has played a role in this movie before. Back in 2017, Luck was injured and Brissett was acquired eight days before the season opener and wasn't even the initial starter (Scott Tolzien). Brissett ended up starting the remaining 15 games of the season and threw for 3098 yards, 13 TDs and 7 INTs as the Colts went 4-12. Early markets look to be anticipating at least a similar performance as the Colts have gone from the frontrunner to being picked last. However, the markets are underestimating that this team and organization are much different than in 2017. First of all, that team had a brand new GM in Chris Ballard who had to make a deal on the fly to get a team ready. This 2019 team now has experienced executive that has built a much better roster. They also have a better coaching staff top to bottom and now have Brissett, who knows what it's like to be thrown in the deep waters. Granted, the market had to adjust the Colts downward with Luck's retirement, but there is still good value here in a division where every team still has many question marks.

PROP PLAYERS

Josh Allen NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year 1100

Over 6.5 Sacks -110

Allen, the 2018 SEC Defensive Player of the Year out of Kentucky, slipped in the draft to the Jaguars at No. 7 overall. However, this could be a blessing in disguise as Allen comes into a good defensive and has Pro Bowlers like Calais Campbell, Marcell Dareus and Yannick Ngakoue lining up beside him on the front four. Jaguars DC Todd Wash has already come out to say that Allen would be playing defensive end exclusively and that could allow for more sacks and strip causing fumbles. The Jaguars only mustered 37 sacks in 2018 after posting 55 in 2017. 

BIG GAMES ON THE BOARD

Indianapolis at LA Chargers, Sept. 8

The post-Andrew Luck era begins here as Jacoby Brissett now is given the keys to the car of the Colts offense.

Jacksonville at Houston, Sept. 15

Both clubs are Week 1 underdogs (Jacksonville hosting Kansas City; Houston at New Orleans) and could both be looking to avoid an 0-2 start. Houston swept the series last season. Since 2007, only 12 out of 98 teams have started 0-2 and made the playoffs and the Texans were one of them last season.

Indianapolis at Tennessee, Sept. 15

Similar situation here with the Colts visiting the Chargers and the Titans on the road in Cleveland. Andrew Luck was 11-0 all-time against Tennessee but the Titans no longer have that obstacle in their way. 

Tennessee at Jacksonville, Sept. 19

Thursday Night Football game where one or both of these teams could be 0-2 (Ten: at Cleveland, vs. Indianapolis; Jac: vs. Kansas City, at Houston) and be in must-win situations in Week 3. 

Indianapolis at Kansas City, Oct. 6

A rematch of last year's Divisional Playoff game where the Chiefs got the better of the Colts up front on both sides of the ball. 

Indianapolis at Houston, Nov. 21

Both teams on a short week for a Thursday Night Football game that's a rematch of the Wild Card game last season.

HOUSTON TEXANS

Under 8.5 123 (DraftKings)

Last season, the Texans became only the fourth team since 1990 to start 0-3 and make the postseason (1992 Chargers, 1995 Lions, 1998 Bills). They were actually starting 0-4 dead in the face after blowing a lead in Indianapolis but got a reprieve when Frank Reich elected to go for it on 4th down on his own side of the field with little time remaining in the overtime period. The conversion failed and Houston stole a win that ended up starting a nine-game winning streak and led to an eventual AFC South title. In order for the Texans to duplicate that finish, they have to find a way to protect Deshaun Watson as he was sacked a league-high 62 times last season. They drafted two offensive tackles with their first two picks but didn't do much in free agency to bolster their offensive line, which could be one reason that they fired GM Brian Gaine in early June after just one season. If help doesn't materialize on the offensive line, Watson will at least have some assistance at receiver with Will Fuller returning from a torn ACL to complement DeAndre Hopkins. Another thing that would help Watson is for Bill O'Brien to be less predictable in his play calling. No team ran the ball more on first down than the Texans did last season, which of course leads to 2nd/3rd and long situations where the defenses can pin its ears back and tee off on the quarterback. On defense, the Texans are looking to return to its 2015 and 2016 form when they ranked No. 1 and No. 3 respectively in total defense. You can give the Texans some credit for resiliency by staying with the season and getting into the playoffs after an 0-3 start, but you also have to give credit to a substantially weaker schedule as well. While the Texans had to face Andrew Luck twice, they also got to face three rookie QBs (Josh Allen, Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield), along with seven other QBs who are not starters heading into the 2019 season (Brock Osweiler, Blaine Gabbert, Blake Bortles, Cody Kessler, Colt McCoy, Case Keenum and Nathan Peterman. This season, they draw Drew Brees, Philip Rivers and Patrick Mahomes all on the road in the first six weeks. Plus they get a December meeting with that Brady guy. 

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

Over 8 -110 (FanDuel)

The Jaguars were the darkhorse in this division before the Luck retirement and still might be considering Houston was adjusted to the favorite role. Just one year ago, this club was the shortest price to win this division at 8/5 but ended up dead last as injuries mounted and dissension within the team took its toll during a seven-game losing streak. Jacksonville finally reached the point of no return with Blake Bortles and he was released just one year into a $54 million contract extension. Enter Nick Foles, who finally gets another shot to be the true number one guy under center. Foles was the opening day starter back in 2014 for Philadelphia and led them to a 6-2 start before breaking his collarbone and missing the rest of the season. In 2015, he was traded to St. Louis to be their guy but it never materialized as he struggled with turnovers and was benched late in the season in favor of Case Keenum. After the Rams drafted Jared Goff, it was off to start another stint in Philly. During that second stanza, Foles was always the backup but in that timeframe won a Super Bowl as a starter in place of the oft-injured Carson Wentz. Now he gets his chance to be the guy again and reunites with new OC John DeFilippo, who was his QB coach during his Super Bowl season in Philly. The question remains though is if Foles can be the man and if he's put those turnover issues behind him. However, he takes over an offense that has nowhere to go but up and perhaps can play with less pressure on him due to the help of a potentially elite defense. In 2017, Jacksonville forced 33 takeaways but only nabbed 17 last year. Improvement should be expected in that area as they went from 10 in turnover margin to -12 in just one season. The Jags looked to have strengthened a strength with the drafting of Josh Allen as a rush end. Even with such a disappointing year where they packed it in, the Jags still ranked 5th in total defense (311.4 ypg), 4th in scoring defense (19.8 ppg) and 2nd in pass defense (194.6 ypg). That pass defense will need to be stout facing Patrick Mahomes, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers this year in non divisional games. The good news though is that they get Kansas City, New Orleans and the LA Chargers all at home. Jacksonville proved that they are capable of beating the elite teams last year when they knocked off the Patriots last season. They also shut out Andrew Luck and the Colts last season when they had nothing to play for and the Colts were making a late charge to get into the playoffs. The ceiling is actually pretty high for this team and it would not be shocking to see them challenge for division supremacy.

TENNESSEE TITANS

Under 8 -108 (PointsBet)

Titans fans were excited to get Matt LaFleur from the Rams as their new OC last year as he was supposed to open up the offense a little bit more. However, he ended up relying on the run just as much if not more so than his predecessor Mike Mularkey. Now LaFleur has gone on to become the head coach in Green Bay and Marcus Mariota will now be working with his fourth different OC in five seasons (Arthur Smith). Mariota is in a contract year this season so it is time to go big or go home. The Titans have attempted to get him help at receiver with the FA signing of Adam Humphries and drafting A.J. Brown in the second round out of Ole Miss. Nevertheless, it is 2017 first-rounder Corey Davis that needs to rise to expectations. He started every game last season but only had 891 yards and four touchdowns. This is a team that desperately needs a playmaker on offense to emerge in order to help out their workhorse Derrick Henry (1059 yards, 12 TD in 2018). The Titans ran the second most in the league on first down last year partially because they've lacked dynamic offensive weapons. Tennessee appears to also be having issues on their OL as they have allowed 12 sacks in three games in the preseason, including 7 against Pittsburgh where the Titans first team OL got beat badly by the Steelers front. Tennessee appeared to take a step forward defensively last year as they allowed 23 ppg in 2017 but improved to 19 ppg last season. The Titans also added five-time Pro Bowler Cameron Wake and his 98 career sacks to bolster their front seven. They'll need him to produce because the schedule is much more difficult than last year's slate. In 2018, the Titans defense faced Josh Allen, Eli Manning, Josh Johnson, Josh McCown, Blake Bortles, Joe Flacco (who lost his starting gig in Baltimore), Cody Kessler and Ryan Tannehill (now the backup right here in Tennessee). The Titans draw Patrick Mahomes, Philip Rivers and Drew Brees plus Baker Mayfield, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton all on the road. Eight wins seems like the correct number for this team.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

​Over 6.5 -121 (PointsBet)

In 2017, Jacoby Brissett started 15 games in 2017 behind a makeshift offensive line and was pressed into starting duty just two weeks after being acquired in an early September trade.  This season, Brissett takes the reins of a Colts offense that ranked 7th in total offense (386.2 ypg) and 5th in scoring offense (27.1 ppg) last season. Indianapolis has added to its offense with the FA signing of Devin Funchess, the drafting of Parris Campbell and the return of Deon Cain from a torn ACL. Frank Reich and OC Nick Sirianni love to use the tight ends in the passing game and there was no larger proof of that last season than Eric Ebron, who was a first round bust in Detroit and was turned into a Pro Bowler in this offense. Ebron only caught 11 career touchdowns during four career seasons in the Motor City but nabbed 13 of them last season. Jack Doyle also returns from only playing six games last season to form one of the best 1-2 TE punches in the league. The offensive line, anchored by Quenton Nelson off a Pro Bowl rookie campaign, also returns intact along with T.Y. Hilton, off his fifth 1000-yard season in the last six years, and a running game led by Marlon Mack, who ran for 900 yards in just 12 games. Chris Ballard felt this team lacked an elite pass rush last season (dead last in Sacks with only 18), so he went out and got a familiar face from his time in Kansas City in Justin Houston. He also used seven of the first eight draft picks in April on defensive players. It's not too much of a leap to say at least a few of those picks are likely to make impacts considering Ballard found last year's Defensive Rookie of the Year Darius Leonard out of FCS South Carolina State in the second round. Leonard went on to lead the league in tackles (163) as a rookie. The schedule seems to be difficult early on considering the Colts are one of only four teams to open with two straight road games (at LA Chargers, at Tennessee) but gets far more manageable with only having to travel in two of the next nine weeks (6 home games plus a bye week from September 16th through Nov. 20). The more difficult games are on the road, including Kansas City, Pittsburgh and New Orleans. The Colts only face one team at home this season that made the playoffs (Houston) last season and could end up being favored in every one of those games. The road schedule is not as easy but they only need to pick up a couple to likely clear this deflated total post-Luck retirement. 

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