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The Dizzying AFC South

The art of constant change.

Indianapolis Colts v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Well, Week 1 of the 2020 season has concluded in fantastically dramatic fashion. If you told me a year ago that Week 1 would have ended with Stephen Gostkowski making a game winning field goal, I wouldn’t be shocked. If you would’ve told me this happened after missing three field goals and an extra point (huh?) and repeatedly putting his team in jeopardy until somehow clawing out the win, I’d be a bit more surprised.

The season is already up to an odd start. Tennessee was just a few more yards or tweaked nerves away from losing to Denver, which would have left Jacksonville as the only winning team in the division.

Houston’s offense, as chastised as it’s been, was nothing like expected. Their rivals in Tennessee went against the grain and won their first game at Mile High since BECOMING THE TENNESSEE TITANS, kicking and screaming the whole way to victory. Jacksonville, expected to be operating in all out tank mode, surprised even their own fans and beat a Colts team with playoff hopes. Those Colts, now with an uncomfortable L on their schedule, have to determine what needs to be changed in an offense that can move up and down the field at will, while still being handcuffed to Philip Rivers’ gunslinging turnovers. Things are even more dire for Indy since Marlon Mack is sidelined indefinitely with a torn Achilles.

This amount of confusion is something my AFC North fostered constitutions will need further time to fully acclimate to. The Steelers always win, the Browns always lose, the Bengals will always bungle, and the Ravens will always make things interesting.

In the AFC South, it feels like every week is spent on a different planet. Specifically, it harkens back to the first weeks of the 2019 season, where every team in the AFC was, again, in a state of flux.

The Colts entered that season as bona fide Super Bowl contender, but the abrupt retirement of Andrew Luck left them in a state of dazed purgatory at the season’s inauguration. The Jaguars were similarly elated to ride their defense to unforeseen heights with a quarterback that won’t lose the game, but a broken collarbone and embarrassing performances made the second act of Nick Foles end as soon as it began. Just a year ago, many a prognosticator believed the Jaguars were a legitimate NFL powerhouse with few their equal. How quickly things change. Even the dependable 9-7 Titans were in the throes of debate on whether or not Marcus Mariota’s mediocrity and potential allure was worth his inconsistency; one month later, Ryan Tannehill answered that question for them. The ships of the AFC South had been christened for their maiden voyage across 2019 waters, and only two months later, the supposed “best fleet in the NFL” had suffered through major hurricanes and tsunamis of change. Only one vessel braved the storm and emerged largely the same, the Houston Texans.

Probably the game that most exemplifies Houston’s function to Duval’s dysfunction last year:

The 2019 Texans entered last year with many questioning if they could survive their gauntlet of a schedule with a winning record. Through consistency, grace, and quality play, those Texans emerged division champs once again. We entered last season knowing the defense was probably going to dip in quality after losing several stars, but the offense would keep them in every game. For the most part, that story was the same from Week 1 to Week 17. As the rest of the AFC South tore itself to pieces looking for concordance, the Texans maintained a steady course through the tumultuous waters. Captain Deshaun Watson provided solid, steady, and exceptional guidance that literally every other team in the division envied.

Now, only one week into the 2020 season, the harbingers of those rogue waves are here once again. The Colts lie on the beach as the water recedes deep into the ocean, unaware of the swell of turnovers that will descend upon them as they accept the Curse of Rivers. The Jaguars are suspected to be in search of treasure in Davy Jones’ Locker, but are floating around in suspense for another week. The Titans, again, are coasting about, unsure of what to make of themselves at this point. Maybe all the Texans need to do to win this division again is keep rowing forward.

Where do I think this crazy division is gonna end up by New Year’s Day? What unexpected developments will wind up on our shores this time around? Well, I forecast a lot of the same chaos, naturally.

The Jaguars will hang around for longer than most expect but will eventually determine tanking for Trevor the most favorable route and will finish the season with a similar record as they had in 2019. The Colts will certainly be a lot more exciting to watch than in recent years past, but the Chargers got rid of Philip Rivers for a reason. Another 7-9 season filled with nail biters is just beyond the horizon for Indianapolis. The Titans… well, you already know. 9-7 with a chance to go deep into the NFL Playoffs if they can get their foot in the door (which may be easier this year since the doorway is a bit larger.) Finally, the Texans, the team that went through the most offseason turmoil, still has Deshaun Watson, who will show up every Sunday and ensure a winning record. 10-6 with a division title for the good guys once again.

Sounds pretty bold considering the competition, but things have already gone sideways for the Colts, and the Titans are likely not far behind. History will repeat itself, and Houston’s division rivals will get lost in a whirlpool of injury, quarterback catastrophe, or some other third thing (kicking woes? Banking on Gardner Minshew II and an undrafted RB? Take your pick!) while the Texans sail onward to calmer seas.

It’s amazing how volatile this division is, and has been, for the past few years. It’s bound to give any spectator whiplash. Who would’ve predicted that the Jaguars would win the division in 2017 and find themselves only one game away from the Super Bowl, just to follow it up next year by being the ONLY TEAM in the division to not have a winning record? Who would’ve predicted that same year the Texans would go from 0-3 to 11-5, or the Colts from 1-5 to 10-6? The Titans seem to a ride a wild roller coaster every season but always step off at 9-7. It’s just...weird. It’s become so unpredictable that it’s horseshoed back to being predictable.

I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same.