Previewing the AFC South from a Betting Perspective
The AFC South is probably the most well-rounded division in the entire NFL. All four teams have realistic playoff aspirations and each is lined with regular season win totals of 8 wins or above. Last season, the Houston Texans won the division with an 11-5 mark and the Indianapolis Colts qualified as a Wild Card team at 10-6. Let’s take a look at how the oddsmakers and betting markets currently view the AFC South.
AFC South Division Odds Regular Season Wins
Indianapolis -140 Indianapolis: 10 wins (Over +120/Under -140)
Houston +400 Houston: 8.5 wins (Over +130/Under -150)
Jacksonville +450 Jacksonville: 8 wins (Over +115/Under -135)
Tennessee +600 Tennessee: 8 wins (Over +110/Under -130)
Now, let’s take a deeper dive into each team as we embark upon the 2019 campaign.
When you look around the NFL, no team’s stock may be rising faster than that of the Indianapolis Colts. After a tumultuous 4-12 campaign in 2017 and a 1-5 start to the 2018 season, the Colts finished the regular season 9-1 and notched an impressive playoff win on the road last year. General manager Chris Ballard has done a terrific job assembling the coaching staff and collecting talent. Frank Reich is the perfect fit as a head coach that deeply believes in analytics and finding unique edges. The offense was unpredictable and featured quite a bit of formations and movement in Reich’s first season at the helm. And it doesn’t hurt having Andrew Luck behind center. He threw for over 4,600 yards with a 39-15 TD-INT ratio coming off of shoulder surgery. His arm should be even stronger this season as there’s no rust to shake off.
All five starters return to an offensive line that was one of the best in the league last season. Continuity is a huge factor for early season success and the Colts have it in spades on offense. Wide receiver Devin Funchess is a nice addition and the only offensive starter not on last year’s roster. Note that the Colts played at the second fastest pace in the NFL last season with a play run every 26.3 seconds on average.
The Colts made a power move when they signed defensive end Justin Houston. The former Chief registered 18.5 sacks the last two seasons and adds nice balance to the defensive front. We should see more zone coverages and less blitzing with Houston on the field now that the pass rush is upgraded. Indianapolis had a ton of injuries on the D-line and in the secondary last season. Good health alone will lead to marked improvement for a defense that already ranked #10 in DVOA. They should also be more comfortable in the second year in DC Matt Eberflus’ 4-3 scheme. The secondary is a little thin, but that’s probably nitpicking on what will likely be a top 10 defense again.
It’s clear that the NFL is still behind the other major sports in terms of the analytics revolution. But that’s not the case for Indy, who has built a front office that embraces modern football philosophies and has assembled a coaching staff that can execute their vision.
The theme of the 2019 season for the Houston Texans is that things are going to get tougher. For starters, the Texans were +13 in turnover margin last year – good enough for second in the entire NFL. Regression is surely coming there. On the scheduling front, Houston goes from playing one of the easiest schedules in the NFL in 2018, to the #1 toughest schedule in 2019 in terms of projected season wins for their opponents. Last season, the Texans played against the weakest group of quarterbacks that any team has faced in a long time. As a result, the Texans could take a step forward in 2019 and still end up with a worse record than their 11-5 showing last year.
The offensive line was a disaster in 2018 as Deshaun Watson was absolutely destroyed. He was sacked a league-high 62 times and took 162 hits en route to playing through cracked ribs, bruised lungs and damaged sternum. What did the team do to address this huge concern and protect their franchise quarterback? They decided to play musical chairs for the third straight season without showing any real improvement on paper. Drafting left tackle Tytus Howard from Alabama State was probably a reach and free agent Matt Kalil hasn’t been able to stay on the field the last few years. The O-line really can’t be any worse, but I don’t forecast much improvement either. The Texans need to keep their receivers healthy as they have one of the best trios in the league when they are – DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller and Keke Coutee are a matchup nightmare.
Houston’s Front Seven is the unquestioned strength of the team. JJ Watt returned his form after injury issues and NT DJ Reader is a rising start up front. The linebacker unit is the deepest unit overall led by Jadeveon Clowney, Bernardrick McKinney and Whitney Mercilus. The secondary has some new pieces and the chemistry could take some time to form, which is concerning given how inept they were at times in 2018. Losing Tyrann Mathieu is going to be bigger than most project.
I wasn’t a big believer in the Texans last year and there’s no reason to get any more excited about them heading into the 2019 season. Head coach Bill O’Brien is one of the worst play callers in the league and they haven’t made a big enough effort to protect Watson. I would be surprised if he plays all 16 games in 2019.
Earlier this week I wrote an article, “Handicapping NFL Coaching Turnover for the 2019 Season,” where I praised the hiring of OC John DeFilippo by the Jaguars. They couldn’t have picked anyone better to pair with newly-signed quarterback Nick Foles, who DeFilippo coached in Philadelphia when the Eagles won Super Bowl 52. Last year’s OC Nathaniel Hackett ran a predictable offense that feature a ton of running on early downs and very little innovation. With an upgrade at the quarterback position and a new OC, Jacksonville’s offense is surely going to improve. The only concern I have is how much head coach Doug Marrone will get in the way. He’s an old-school, run-first coach that wants the offense to be centered around running back Leonard Fournette. But the 24-year old back averaged a paltry 3.3 yard per carry in 2018 and doesn’t have top notch run blockers in front of him.
The Jags don’t have a big-time receiving threat and they led the league with 32 dropped passes last year (which tends to regress to the mean in subsequent years). Chris Conley from the Chiefs was added and could be a diamond in the rough, but they really need Marquise Lee to bounce back after missing the entire 2018 season with an injury. Four of the five starting offensive linemen return, but three of those players finished the season on injured reserve. Be sure to check the health of their line early on in the season before placing any bets.
The defense wasn’t nearly as dominant last year as they were in the previous season. They recorded far less sacks (52 vs. 81), turnovers (17 vs. 33) and fewer big plays overall compared to the 2017 season. The defensive line is the strength and getting DE Josh Allen with the #7 overall pick could take them to another level (maybe best in the league). Jacksonville also features one of the best CB duos in the game with Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye. They do have some youngsters in the secondary as Ronnie Harrison and Jarrod Wilson will likely start at safety and have just 10 combined starts in their careers between them.
Special Teams don’t get enough attention from sports bettors (they should!), but the Jaguars were one of the best in that category last season (4th in DVOA at Football Outsiders). We should see positive regression in turnovers (-12 TO margin last year) and a 2-6 record in one-score games. This is a better roster overall and the coaching staff gets a nice shot in the arm on the offensive side of the ledger.
It’s time for Marcus Mariota to deliver. The oft-injured quarterback is playing for a new contract this season and needs to prove that he can be a guy that the Titans can count on for years to come. Don’t be surprised if he puts up mediocre numbers once again, but still gets an eight-figure deal come next offseason.
Tennessee is going to rely heavily on the running back Derrick Henry this season. He came on like a freight train at the end of the last season, gaining 585 yards in his final four contests (only 1,059 for the entire season as Dion Lewis had the starting gig for the first half of the 2018 campaign). No one outside the Seattle Seahawks ran the ball more than the Titans did last year. In a league that is now built to protect the quarterback and receivers, the passing game is a much strong predictor of team success. Getting tight end Delanie Walker back after missing 15 games last season will be a HUGE boost. He’s easily their best weapon on offense, both down the field and in red zone opportunities. One of their best offensive linemen, left tackle Taylor Lewan, was recently suspended for failing a drug test and could miss the first four games of the season. That’s a big loss for a line that was already going to start two new faces.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees led the Titans to #3 in fewest points allowed last season, but that was masked by some unsustainable red zone numbers and a schedule of opposing quarterbacks that was downright putrid outside of a couple of matchups versus Andrew Luck and a game versus Tom Brady. Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey is the straw that stirs the drink for this team and he was injured in Week 17 last season (keep an eye on his status leading into the 2019 season as he’s on the preseasons PUP list). First-round draft pick, DT Jeffery Simmons, will likely miss the entire season due to a torn ACL in pre-draft workouts.
The linebacker core is fairly weak, but they’re buttressed by a very strong secondary. Cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan, both former Patriots, are a strong duo albeit on a decline. Safety Kevin Byard is one of the most underrated players in the NFL and is a true ballhawk. If they can just get average production from their linebackers, this could be a top 10 defense they can rely on. Given their propensity to run the ball, I expect to see a lot of lower-scoring Titans games again.
AFC South Best Bet
It’s chalky, but I really like Indianapolis at -140 to win the division. The Colts are a clear Super Bowl contender in my eyes with Andrew Luck running the offense and a top 10 defense on the other side (and a solid Special Teams unit). The other three AFC South competitors are solid football teams (there no easy wins in the AFC South), but the Colts have the weakest schedule of them all (9th easiest in the NFL) and I think we see even more strides under imaginative head coach Frank Reich. It might also be worth a shot to grab the Colts at 15-1 or better to win the Super Bowl (I found 16-1 in Las Vegas last week).
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