AFC South preview: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans set to do battle

The time for talking is nearly over, with the 2021 NFL season just around the corner. And as kickoff edges ever closer, Sky Sports NFL writers are breaking down all eight divisions from the key men to the marquee acquisitions.

Thursday, September 9 is the date to mark in your diaries as the reigning Super Bowl champions Tampa Bay Buccaneers host the Dallas Cowboys, which you can see live on Sky Sports NFL from 1.20am UK time on Friday morning.

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For now, let’s take a look at the contenders – continuing with the AFC South.

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Houston Texans

Head coach: David Culley

Key man: Deshaun Watson’s troubles have been much publicised. This is no longer his team – even though he does still occupy a spot on the 53-man roster.

Watson currently faces 22 active civil lawsuits, including being accused of sexual assault and inappropriate behaviour, but his divorce from the Texans was in the works well before any allegations came to light, with the quarterback requesting a trade back in January after a desperately disappointing 4-12 season to follow back-to-back playoff berths.

With a mass turnover of playing personnel, there is no obvious key man to unify this team, especially when one of the departures is their long-time leader – and three-time NFL defensive player of the year – J.J. Watt, who headed to Arizona. First-time NFL coach Culley has a monumental task on his hands to bring this motley crew together.

Major additions: Where do you start? The turnover felt by the whole team is most typified in the offensive skill position. Journeyman Tyrod Taylor is joined in the QB room by rookie Davis Mills, a third-round pick out of Stanford; as many as three new running backs – Mark Ingram, Phillip Lindsay and Rex Burkhead – have arrived in Houston and will be competing for touches; it’s a similar story with the receiving corps, as Anthony Miller arrives via trade from Chicago and joins fellow new faces Chris Conley, Andre Roberts and rookie Nico Collins.

Last season: The Texans held a 24-0 lead over the Kansas City Chiefs early in the second quarter of their 2019 season divisional round playoff clash. They’d blow that lead in spectacular fashion, being subsequently outscored 51-7 by the eventual Super Bowl winners but, even if it was all too brief, they’d given KC a scare. As a result, Houston entered the 2020 season hopeful of another playoff run and possibly even revenge against the defending champs.

They’d get an early look at the Chiefs too in the season opener at Arrowhead Stadium, but would fall to a convincing 34-20 loss on their way to an 0-4 stumble out of the blocks that would ultimately cost head coach Bill O’Brien his job. A mini revival in November of three wins in four briefly reignited Houston hopes only for the team to lose all of their final five.

Prospects: There is just too much unrest and uncertainty revolving around this team entering into the season to predict anything other than bottom spot for them in the South – and a total of two in the wins column might actually be a tad too generous.

Prediction: 4th (2-15)

Indianapolis Colts

Head coach: Frank Reich

Key man: There are one or two deserving of this crown on the offensive side of the ball, most notably running back Jonathan Taylor – fresh from a 1169-yard and 11 TD debut season – as well as destroyer of defensive lines, beastly guard Quenton Nelson.

But the real standout of this Colts team is its defense, specifically up front, where DeForest Buckner sets the tone at defensive tackle. He rightly was named First-team All-Pro for the first time in 2020, where he was joined by linebacker Darius Leonard, who received the honour for the second time.

Major additions: The no-doubt talented, but much-maligned Carson Wentz is the most notable offseason arrival in Indianapolis – though the former Philadelphia quarterback hasn’t done much to endear himself to his new fan base as, due to being unvaccinated, he is set to miss the season opener as a Covid-19 ‘close contact’.

On the defensive side of the ball, watch out for rookie defensive end Kwity Paye, as the No 21 overall pick out of Michigan might just have landed in the perfect spot to wreak havoc as Buckner takes up double teams alongside him.

Last season: Indianapolis shared an 11-5 record with the Titans but were pipped to the South crown due to having a worse head-to-head record in the division – how the Colts must look back ruefully on their shock Week One loss in Jacksonville, with the Jags failing to record another victory all season.

Forced to go on the road to Buffalo in the Wild Card round, the Colts trailed 24ᆞ in the second half before a fourth-quarter rally could, and perhaps should, have seen them go through. Soon-to-be-retiring quarterback Philip Rivers and the offense got the ball back down by just three and with more than two minutes left, they’d convert two fourth downs on the drive but, crucially, not a third as the Bills took over and ran out the clock.

Prospects: The defense will once again have the Colts competitive and in playoff contention, albeit their schedule looks particularly tough. The real question mark though, even before his Covid-related absence in Week One, is whether Wentz can return to his 2017 season vintage which had him in the running for league MVP before injury struck, or whether his malaise of the last three years – particularly his 15-interception 2020 season which cost him his starting job with the Eagles – continues in a new city?

Prediction: 2nd (9-8)

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Jacksonville Jaguars

Head coach: Urban Meyer

Key man: It can only be one man, Trevor Lawrence: the number one overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. The rookie quarterback is the NFL’s newest star, or at least that is the hope for Jaguars faithful, who have suffered through their fair share of false dawns in recent years.

Lawrence has it all: the height, the hair, the arm strength, as well as the stats in college. He led Clemson to two straight national title games, winning the first in his rookie season, and suffered just two defeats in his 36 starts across three years. He threw for over 10,000 yards, with 90 passing touchdowns to only 17 interceptions, while he added a further 943 yards and 18 scores on the ground.

Major additions: Tim Tebow. Well, he was until he was waived a month before the season’s start after a failed attempt by the former Denver Broncos quarterback – six years removed from the league and nine since having last taken the field – to shift position to tight end. Tebow was recruited by his former college coach Meyer, but it obviously wasn’t to be.

Sticking around (hopefully) a bit longer, however; former Seahawks cornerback Shaquill Griffin is a welcome addition to a woeful defense from 2020 which finished 31st in yards (417.7) and yards (30.8) allowed; receiver Marvin Jones is a ready-made red zone weapon for Lawrence, having snagged nine touchdowns in each of his last two seasons in Detroit; veteran running back Carlos Hyde adds much-needed depth to a backfield reeling from the loss of rookie Travis Etienne to injury for the season.

Last season: It couldn’t get much worse. Well, I suppose, technically it could have, if the Jaguars had followed in the footsteps of the 2008 Lions and the 2017 Browns in becoming just the third team to go 0-16 across an entire season. They avoided that ignominy, barely, courtesy of a shock 27-20 Week One win over the playoff-bound Colts… 15 fairly convincing losses later and they had the 2021 number one draft pick in their possession.

Prospects: Even with Lawrence added into the mix, this team is still some way short of being competitive. They’ll have a chance to win their season opener again – in Houston – and should this time follow that up with two or three more, though that’s likely it.

Prediction: 3rd (4-13)

Tennessee Titans

Head coach: Mike Vrabel

Key man: The success of the Vrabel-led Titans has been contingent on two factors: a stingy defense, and a one-man wrecking crew on offense, Derrick Henry. The Titans running back has finished as the NFL’s leading rusher in each of the last two seasons, while he has topped 1,000 yards in each of Vrabel’s three years in charge – finding the end zone a staggering 47 times over that period too.

That being said, Henry will have to share the limelight somewhat in 2021 after the addition of Julio Jones to this stacked squad. The seven-time Pro Bowl receiver arrives via a trade from Atlanta and though he struggled to stay healthy last season, many still argue he is the best at the position in the game. He is set to form a truly deadly duo at WR with A.J. Brown, who has logged two 1,000-yard campaigns in his first two years in the NFL.

Major additions: On top of the aforementioned Jones, defensive back Janoris Jenkins is a notable addition to their secondary, while fellow cornerback Caleb Farley – their first-round draft pick – could prove an absolute steal with the No 22 overall selection.

Last season: The Titans overcame the disruption of a Covid-19 outbreak in their facility that not only took hold of several players and staff but wreaked havoc on their schedule. A Week Four clash with the Steelers was rescheduled to Week Seven, replaced by an early bye week, while preparation for their Week Five meeting with the Bills was severely impaired – not that you’d have known, as they dished out a 42-16 shellacking to the eventual conference finalists.

Despite all of the drama, Tennessee romped out to a 5-0 start to the season and ultimately finished up an impressive 11-5 on the season – good enough to secure their first division title in 12 years. Fresh from a run to the conference finals the previous season, their postseason stint on this occasion would be all too brief as their succumbed 20-13 to Baltimore at the first time of asking.

Prospects: The Titans are practically playoff certainties, but questions still remain over whether they can truly break into that AFC top tier currently occupied by the Chiefs, Bills and arguably even the Ravens, who ousted them on Wild Card Weekend last year – even though, admittedly, they did shock the Baltimore, the 2019 No 1 seed, the season before.

Prediction: 1st (12-5)

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