NFL Pick: 2023 AFC South Winner – Jacksonville Jaguars (-159) at BetRivers
The AFC South was anything but an easy call last year. The Indianapolis Colts were favored before the season started thanks to acquiring Matt Ryan, but that quickly proved to be a flawed team.
The Tennessee Titans were 7-3 and back in the mix for the No. 1 seed again – they never won another game. The Jacksonville Jaguars started 2-6 but rallied in the second half to win the division after returning a fumble for a touchdown against the Titans in the fourth quarter of Week 18.
- Jacksonville Jaguars (-159)
- Tennessee Titans (+325)
- Indianapolis Colts (+550)
- Houston Texans (+850)
Funny how much a fumble returned for a touchdown in Week 18 changes things. Now, the Jaguars are a heavy favorite and the only team in the division that seemingly has a proven franchise quarterback. The other teams all drafted a top signal caller in April, but the Jaguars sustaining their success in 2023 is anything but a lock.
We have our best bet to win the AFC South below.
Jacksonville Jaguars: The Logical Choice
Perhaps more than any other team in the NFL this year, the Jaguars are the most logical choice to win their division. Is it really that hard to think teams like Dallas, Baltimore, or Miami can steal the division from Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Buffalo? Is it a stretch to say Sean Payton can fix Russell Wilson in Denver, or that Justin Herbert has the best year of his career to end Kansas City’s 7-year reign in the AFC West?
The Jaguars have a Super Bowl-winning coach (Doug Pederson) with an unbelievable track record against the spread in the playoffs, an exciting quarterback who was the No. 1 pick in 2021 (Trevor Lawrence), an underrated defense, and they will have Calvin Ridley as the new No. 1 wide receiver.
What the Jaguars have is almost as good as what the rest of the division does not have. It is back to the drawing board in Houston and Indianapolis after hiring rookie coaches and drafting quarterbacks in the top 4 picks. The Titans also may have overstayed their welcome as leaders of this division, and neither Ryan Tannehill nor the potential of rookie quarterback Will Levis threatens the Jaguars that much this season.
With Lawrence, the Jaguars may have finally found their franchise quarterback for the next decade. It was not an immediate success in 2022, but getting away from Urban Meyer and into the mind of a coach in Pederson who led the Eagles to their only Super Bowl win in 2017 was a huge deal for Lawrence and this offense last year.
The Last Laugh
Maybe the most impressive part is we ridiculed the Jaguars for spending on receiving weapons such as Evan Engram, Christian Kirk, and Zay Jones. But that trio is exactly who powered Lawrence to a breakout season in Year 2 as they all had over 750 yards with solid catch rates.
Adding Ridley to this mix gives the Jaguars a more legitimate No. 1 option if he is still like the player he was in Atlanta before some banned gambling bets cost him the 2022 season with a suspension.
The excitement of what Pederson did in Year 2 for Philadelphia also has people excited about what he might do for the Jaguars in 2023 after already coming back from 27-0 down to win a playoff game against the Chargers. The Jaguars were swept by the Chiefs, but they did stick around in both games.
However, some of these positives for the Jaguars could be viewed as negatives too. For example, it was good to see the Jaguars make some huge comebacks and finally win the high-scoring games they always seemed to lose. On the flip side, a team that starts 2-6 and needs multiple 17-point comebacks (against the Raiders, Cowboys, and Chargers) might not be playing enough good football to be trusted in the future.
The 2022 Jaguars are only the 3rd team in NFL history to make the playoffs after starting 2-6. The other teams, the 1970 Bengals and the 2020 Washington Football Team, both lost 10 games the following year and missed the playoffs.
While Lawrence is gaining MVP buzz and is already being favorably compared to Justin Herbert, the quarterback he got his first playoff win over, let’s not forget how bad he was to start that game. In digging the 27-0 hole, Lawrence threw 4 interceptions before he threw 4 touchdown passes.
Even in the final 3 games of the regular season, Lawrence averaged 197.7 passing yards per game and threw 1 touchdown pass. If not for the defense returning that Josh Dobbs, Tennessee’s backup quarterback, fumble for a touchdown in Week 18, the Jaguars finish 8-9 and lose the division last year.
So, it will be very interesting to see if the Jaguars and Lawrence look more like the 2-6 team or the 7-2 team from last year. But the logical path forward would be Lawrence loving the Ridley trade and taking his game to the next level this year, and in the process, leading the Jaguars comfortably to an AFC South title.
Tennessee Titans: Last Ride?
If you want to be cynical, you can say the Titans blew their shot when they choked in the 2021 divisional round as the No. 1 seed against Cincinnati. Since then, they traded away A.J. Brown in a move that basically cratered the 2022 season despite a 7-3 start. The passing weapons were just not good enough for this to be a productive offense.
Ryan Tannehill’s injury late in the year doomed the Titans, who lost their final 7 games. Beating Dallas and Jacksonville in Weeks 17-18 would have been hard with Tannehill given the weapons this team had, but it was almost impossible with Josh Dobbs as the emergency quarterback. Rookie Malik Willis was just not cut out for passing the ball last year.
The Titans hope to enjoy 2023 with better health for Tannehill and leading pass rusher Harold Landry, who tore his ACL last summer just months after signing a new deal. Do not forget the impact of that loss in addition to the boneheaded trade of Brown to Philadelphia.
Not long after Brown had 119 yards and 2 touchdowns against the Titans, the team fired general manager Jon Robinson. The losing streak to end the year would get most head coaches fired too, but Mike Vrabel has done some great things as an underdog for this team.
Most people are completely off the Titans in 2023, but their odds continue to improve and they are the 2nd-best choice in the AFC South thanks to their veterans and Vrabel’s aggressive decision-making. It would not be out of question for Tannehill to embrace getting DeAndre Hopkins at wide receiver, though Tennessee is usually the equivalent to a retirement home for receivers past their prime. But Hopkins adding a veteran presence with 2nd-year wideout Treylon Burks and the consistent rushing of Derrick Henry should at least lead to a better offense this year.
Tannehill may also have a chip on his shoulder to keep holding off rookie Will Levis, who fell to the 2nd round of the draft. But Levis is not a great enough prospect to immediately change this team’s fortunes in Year 1.
The Titans set up well to be a team that hovers around .500 and has a chance late in the season to make the playoffs. Is that still enough for a division title? That really all depends on how far Trevor Lawrence can grow under Doug Pederson in Jacksonville. If the Jaguars take care of an easier schedule and win 11 or 12 games, then the Titans are going to be out of the running early.
Indianapolis Colts: The Learning Curve
A lot of us drank the Kool-Aid on the Colts last year, thinking Frank Reich and Matt Ryan would be an excellent pairing that would put this team on top of the AFC South for the first time since 2014.
But by season’s end, Reich was fired early, replaced by a TV analyst in Jeff Saturday with no prior coaching experience at the pro level, and Ryan was benched and may possibly never play another game after blowing a record 33-0 lead in his final appearance.
So, it may be hard for anyone to want to get hurt by the Colts again after such a disastrous 2022. But at least there is a new plan here. The Colts hired Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen to be the new head coach, and they drafted Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson with the No. 4 pick.
The Jalen Hurts Blueprint
Obviously, there is the idea that Steichen will put the raw Richardson on the Jalen Hurts plan to greatness and have him ready to compete for a Super Bowl in 2024 or 2025 at the latest. The Colts are going to need some other pieces to get to that point, but Richardson’s mobility should help a lot with the protection problems this line had last year with a statue like Ryan in the pocket.
Richardson could end up running wild like Michael Vick or Justin Fields in the NFL if given the freedom. But maybe the exciting part of this offense in 2023 is the positive impact Richardson should have on running back Jonathan Taylor, who was disappointing and injured in 2022 after such an incredible 2021 season. Running quarterbacks usually provide a boost to the overall running efficiency of the offense, and the Colts still have a top back in Taylor.
The defense will also welcome back Shaquille Leonard, the star linebacker who appeared in just 3 games last year. Blown leads were obviously a huge problem for this team last season. But with Steichen bringing real coaching expertise to Indy, the Colts have a chance to be on the right path now.
Houston Texans: Hard Reset
Look, the Texans have been a mess for years. Deshaun Watson’s refusal to play for the team even before we found out about his off-field issues have made the Texans an irrelevant watch for the past 2 seasons.
Houston badly needed an identity and something to put butts in the seats again. Enter DeMeco Ryans as the new head coach and someone who won’t be a one-and-done hire like David Culley and Lovie Smith the last two years. Ryans comes over after successfully running San Francisco’s talented defense last year.
But it still took a very aggressive draft night for Houston to make its mark this year. The Texans ended up using the No. 2 and No. 3 picks of the 2023 NFL draft on quarterback C.J. Stroud and edge rusher Will Anderson.
The cost was definitely high, but if both players work out well, it will be the defining moment in franchise history. Unfortunately, it does not feel like the kind of moves that can lead to a successful 2023 season.
Some had Stroud as the top quarterback in this class, but one thing he lacks over No. 1 pick Bryce Young and Indy’s pick of Anthony Richardson is how he uses mobility. Young loves to improvise and extend plays, and Richardson can just flat out run. Stroud is not like the Ohio State quarterback he replaced (Justin Fields), and he will stay in the pocket and try his best to be an accurate passer.
With the lack of great receiving weapons in Houston, it is hard to see this offense outscoring the likes of the Jaguars, let alone the Jets (Week 14), Ravens (Week 1), Bengals (Week 10), etc. in an AFC loaded with established quarterbacks.
But at least the Texans will be a team you’ll be curious to see play again, unlike the last few seasons.
Conclusion: And the Division Winner Is…
There is an understandable pause in not going all in on the Jaguars, a team that has not stacked playoff appearances since a 4-year run back in 1996-99 before the AFC South even existed.
But when we look back at what started successful runs in NFL history, we usually always find the arrival of a coach and quarterback. The Jaguars drafted Lawrence in 2021 and hired Pederson in 2022. Now they add a new No. 1 weapon in Ridley for 2023, so it will make sense for why this team can take off and look like a legitimate division winner instead of the team that started poorly and needed the Titans to implode.
The Colts may be worth a hedge because of the great value in odds there. Maybe we were just a year too early on the Colts’ hype in the AFC South, but if you were only making one pick, Jacksonville is the team to back here.
NFL Pick: 2023 AFC South Winner – Jacksonville Jaguars (-159) at BetRivers