Rivers, schedule should lift Colts in AFC South

The favorite: Colts. In 2018, the Colts began Frank Reich's first season as coach with a 1-5 record. Then they caught fire to finish 10-6 and win a wild-card game on the road at division champion Houston before bowing out in Kansas City. But 2019 was the opposite. Andrew Luck retired a little more than two weeks before the opener, but the Colts responded, at least early. Indianapolis started 5-2 before injuries and lack of depth took hold, and the Colts drifted to 7-9 and third place in the division. Jacoby Brissett did a solid job taking over as the starting quarterback, but that was one of the issues — he did just a solid job. Brissett is one of the more capable No. 2 QBs in the league, but he’s basically good enough not to lose but not good enough to win. Enter 38-year-old Philip Rivers, who signed a one-year, $25 million deal to get the keys to the offense. Rivers comes off one of his worst seasons, having thrown just 23 touchdown passes versus 20 interceptions. But he is now behind one of the better offensive lines in the league, and GM Chris Ballard has surrounded him with a good mix of young and veteran offensive weapons. Ballard also spent money defensively, trading the Colts’ 2020 first-round pick to San Francisco for Pro Bowl DT DeForest Buckner and signing him to a four-year, $84 million extension. The Colts face only one playoff team from last season before Nov. 8, so the opportunity is there for another hot start before facing a stronger schedule on the back end. 


Live dog: Texans: Houston is going for a three-peat in the AFC South and its fifth division title in six seasons. The Texans are doing so amidst roster upheaval. Critics are out for coach and GM Bill O’Brien. That’s because O’Brien traded four-time Pro Bowl WR DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals for oft-injured RB David Johnson, whose production has declined steadily since 2016. To replace Hopkins, Houston signed Randall Cobb to a three-year, $27 million free-agent deal and traded a second-rounder to the Los Angeles Rams for Brandin Cooks. The Texans needed a running back to replace Carlos Hyde, who left for Seattle, but they are gambling on Johnson finding his best form in four seasons. Due to their recent success in the division, 7-2 seems like a good value price on the surface. But look at the early schedule. The Texans get an AFC divisional playoff rematch in Kansas City in Week 1, then host Baltimore in Week 2 before traveling to Pittsburgh in Week 3. If they start 1-2 or 0-3, the price should have better value. Of course, an 0-3 start is not easy to get out of, but with no clearly dominant club in this division, the Texans will always be a factor because they have the best quarterback in the division with Deshaun Watson. 


Prop play: Reich sits at 14-1 at Westgate SuperBook USA to win AP NFL Coach of the Year. Mike McCarthy, who inherits a great deal of talent in Dallas, and Bruce Arians, who will try to get another couple of seasons out of the Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski connection, are 10-1 co-favorites. Buffalo’s Sean McDermott is next at 12-1 and certainly will strengthen his case if he can halt the New England Patriots’ 11-year streak as AFC East champions. The next choices are Bill Belichick and Reich at 14-1. These awards don’t always go to the coaches of the teams with the best records. They often go to the coach of a team that shows considerable improvement. The Colts finished a disappointing 7-9 last season but added Rivers and will benefit from a very manageable early schedule. Reich, Rivers and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni reunite after a three-year stint in San Diego from 2013-15. The Colts have also added a great deal of weaponry on offense with some explosive receivers and young running backs who will give Rivers some easy checkdowns. The Colts had some hard luck with injuries and close losses last season, losing six games by a touchdown or less. That makes the team a candidate for positive regression, and Reich, finally getting the credit he deserves after being the Eagles’ offensive coordinator for their Super Bowl LII run, could reap the rewards as the division has no dominant team. 

Big games on the board

Houston at Kansas City, Week 1: The Texans won 31-24 in Week 6 last season at Arrowhead. It looked like they were going to repeat the feat in the divisional playoffs after they jumped to a 24-0 lead. However, the Chiefs responded with 28 points to close the second quarter and ended up running off 41 straight points. Houston became the first team in playoff history to lose by 20 points or more after leading by 20 points or more. 

Houston at Pittsburgh, Week 3: The Texans begin the season with the consensus AFC favorites, at Kansas City in Week 1 and vs. Baltimore in Week 2. The schedule doesn’t get much easier in Week 3, as they have to go on the road to face Pittsburgh with a healthy Ben Roethlisberger. Houston could be staring an 0-3 start. Only six teams since 1980 have started 0-3 and made the playoffs. The last team to do it? The Texans in 2018. 

Baltimore at Indianapolis, Week 9: The Colts’ game against Minnesota in Week 2 is the only time they will face a team that made last year’s playoffs among their first seven games. A 7-0 start isn’t out of the question, but even at 6-1 or 5-2, Indianapolis will put itself in good position to control its destiny in the AFC South. However, this game vs. Baltimore will be a strong indicator of whether further aspirations are attainable. This game will likely determine whether the Colts are an AFC contender or a pretender. 

Indianapolis at Tennessee, Week 10: No team was happier to see Andrew Luck hang up his helmet more than the Titans, against whom Luck went 11-0 for his career. The Colts have won seven of the last eight meetings in Nashville. 

Tennessee at Baltimore, Week 11: Ryan Tannehill got a second chance as a starting quarterback in Week 7 last year and never looked back, going 7-3 and leading Tennessee on a surprising playoff run. First the Titans ended Tom Brady’s tenure in Foxboro. Next they went to Baltimore and upset the Ravens in the divisional playoffs before bowing out at Kansas City in the AFC championship game. 


Indianapolis (Over 9 -120, FanDuel)


Many markets have 9.5 juiced to the Under, but nine seems like the correct number for this total. 


This team will go only as far as QB Philip Rivers can take it. Rivers threw only 23 TD passes last year versus 32 in 2018 and threw 20 INTs vs. just 12 in 2018. However, that looked to be a byproduct of a poor offensive line. Rivers will have a much better group in front of him this year, anchored by Pro Bowl guard Quenton Nelson, arguably the best player at his position in football. Nelson hasn’t allowed a sack in his last 30 games and surrendered only two in the first four games of his rookie season. 


The Colts also added some weapons in the backfield and in the receiving corps. Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, the two-time Doak Walker Award winner as the best RB in college football, was drafted in the second round and can take some of the load from Marlon Mack. Mack had 247 carries last year with 1,091 yards against many stacked box defenses due to the Colts’ poor QB play. Add Nyheim Hines, a good return man and pass-catcher out of the backfield, and Jordan Wilkins and the Colts could have one of the best RB rooms in the league. Indianapolis will need WR T.Y. Hilton to be healthy, as he missed time last year and the club is 1-9 when he doesn’t play. Michael Pittman, a second-rounder out of USC, gives the Colts a big target at WR they haven’t had for years. Vertical threat Parris Campbell, who played only three games as a rookie last year due to injuries, returns, and Rivers has praised him in camp. 


The trade for DT DeForest Buckner gives them a run stopper and someone who can get to the QB up the middle. The pass rush should show improvement, but the secondary must make a big leap, so the Colts signed former first-rounder Xavier Rhodes from Minnesota to a one-year deal. The early schedule provides a chance to get off to a hot start, and that often can have a snowball effect. The schedule is back-ended with home-and-homes vs. Tennessee and Houston, plus home games with Baltimore and Green Bay and a late trip to Pittsburgh. 


Houston (Over 7.5 -110, Westgate SuperBook USA)


The Texans lost their leading receiver and their leading rusher from last season’s division champions, so this should be an easy Under, right? Not so fast. 


The trade of WR DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona is curious and received scorn across the board. Hopkins was third in the NFL in receptions (104), and had 1,165 yards, which was 29% of the team total. Houston will have to replace him by committee, and WR Will Fuller will need to stay off the injury report. The Texans brought in Kenny Stills last season and have added Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb. QB Deshaun Watson should have plenty of capable pass catchers even though Hopkins is a major subtraction.


The key to the offense will be the running game. Carlos Hyde and his 1,070 yards and six TDs are now in Seattle, and David Johnson, who is happy to be out of Arizona after Kenyan Drake supplanted him, will have to find his best form in four seasons. Houston’s offensive line made slight improvements last season, but Watson was still the most sacked starter in the NFL with 55. Laremy Tunsil helped on the left side, but the Texans will need Tytus Howard, who tore his ACL last year as a rookie, to hold up the right side. 


Houston’s defense will also need to be better. It gave up 6.1 yards per play, worst in the league, though being without J.J. Watt for eight games hurt. The Texans were forced to blitz more — eighth in the league at 33% of the snaps — but mustered only 31 sacks, 27th in the NFL. Houston rated 25th against the run and 29th against the pass. Watt’s return should help those numbers at least a little, and Bill O’Brien drafted a DT and an edge rusher with his first two picks. Starting with Kansas City, Baltimore and Pittsburgh is not ideal and an 0-3 start is possible, but Watson should be enough to get this club to eight wins. 


Tennessee (Under 9 -140, PointsBet)


Last year was looking like another disappointing season when the Titans started 2-4. The Marcus Mariota era ended after Week 6, and Ryan Tannehill took them to the playoffs and all the way to the AFC Championship Game. Tannehill made the most of his second chance to be a starter and was rewarded with a four year, $118 million deal. Did Tannehill turn the corner or just get lucky?

It’s an entirely different situation coming on in relief to save a season as opposed to being the guy right from the jump, and Tannehill will need RB Derrick Henry to duplicate or at least come close to his career year last season, when he led the league in rushing attempts (303), yards (1,540) and rushing TDs (16). Third-round RB Darrynton Evans could provide the speed to complement Henry’s power running. Nevertheless, the Titans won’t be able to surprise teams again with a run-heavy attack. Tannehill will have to make plays consistently down the field. 


Tennessee had been searching for a No. 1 receiver and might have found him with 2019 second-rounder A.J. Brown. He led the team with 52 catches for 1,052 yards and eight touchdowns and established himself as more of a threat than 2017 first-rounder Corey Davis. On defense, the biggest loss for the league’s No. 12 defense looks to be coordinator Dean Pees, who retired. Coach Mike Vrabel is electing to go with mentor Bill Belichick’s approach — a collective effort with the entire staff, including recent hire Jim Haslett, but Vrabel calling the defense. The Titans had a lot go right in the second half of the season and the playoffs, and that will be difficult to duplicate in 2020.


Jacksonville (Under 4.5 + 110, Westgate SuperBook USA)


Jacksonville decided to keep coach Doug Marrone and GM David Caldwell and send executive VP Tom Coughlin packing. It has been a messy situation, as players have openly feuded with executives on social media. DE Yannick Ngakoue received the franchise tag and has publicly asked to be traded.


The Jaguars are coming off a tumultuous 6-10 season in which Nick Foles was hurt in the opener and started only four games, all losses. They traded Foles to Chicago in the offseason and are out $19 million in dead money. Sixth-round pick Gardner Minshew took the reins and threw for 21 TDs versus only six INTs, and he is their guy, at least for now. Mainstays of the defense like Jalen Ramsey (Rams), A.J. Bouye (Broncos), Marcell Dareus (free agent) and Calais Campbell (Ravens) are gone, and the Jaguars are rebuilding with youth. The defense retains talent, but it is young. 


Offensively, Jacksonville is in flux. RB Leonard Fournette seems likely to leave after the season, and the Jaguars are structuring for draft capital and cap space to rebuild. Second-round WR Laviska Shenault could be an interesting piece in the passing game, but Minshew must be able to throw the ball down the field more. He threw mostly short and intermediate routes like he did in Mike Leach’s spread at Washington State, and while more spread-offense elements are making their way into the NFL, at least a threat of a vertical passing game is still needed. 


Minshew has a year to prove he can be a long-term starter, but it seems more likely that the Jaguars will be in the Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields draft sweepstakes.


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