The AFC South figures to be a two-horse race between the Indianapolis Colts and the Tennessee Titans according the pre-season NFL odds, albeit the former edges ever so slightly ahead of the latter in the betting. Neither Houston Texans nor the Jacksonville Jaguars are expected to factor given their separate realties (which we’ll delve into later) and they’re tipped as the longshots of the division. So, with the lay of the land set, the only question that emerges is: do the online sportsbooks have it right?
It was a two-horse race between the Colts and Titans last season with both sides finishing on an identical 11-5-0 record, however it was the Titans that ended up clinching the AFC South crown thanks to winning the tiebreak over the Colts based on having the best win percentage in division games. Both sides advanced into the playoffs nevertheless and both similarly proved to be casualties of the first round. The Titans were eliminated by the Baltimore Ravens, losing 20-13 at home to the Ravens in a much-anticipated grudge match, while the Colts succumbed to the Bills 27-24 at Orchard Park in Buffalo.
So, to look at last season is to get a sense of why the NFL betting outlook is as it is. The fact that it’s likely to come down to a race between the Colts and Titans does seem likely. Moreover, the idea that the Texans and Jaguars aren’t likely to factor meaningfully sits well too. However, if there were one point of contention it’s that it might be truer to suggest that the Titans are the better bet rather than the Colts. For one simple reason and that is the Colts with Carson Wentz as the starting quarterback running the offense are a great mystery that’s yet to be unpacked.
Colts Sign Carson Wentz
The Colts are on to their third starting quarterback since Andrew Luck’s surprise retirement a few years ago. Jacoby Brissett didn’t work out as a starter in Luck’s stead and so they turned to veteran Philip Rivers last season. Initially, things looked good as the Colts finally reached the playoffs again but Rivers decided to go into retirement after the Colts crashed out of the playoffs in the wild card round. Once again, the Colts dipped into the league’s quarterback warehouse and snapped up Philadelphia Eagles cast-off Carson Wentz, who made his desire to leave the city of brotherly love well known towards the end of last season. To say it was an amicable parting would be an understatement. The understatement to end all understatements. It was rather bitter and acrimonious to say the least with Wentz demanding he be traded forthwith.
Wentz wasn’t pleased about his treatment in Philadelphia, mainly because he was blindsided by the organisation’s decision to draft Jalen Hurts. Looking over his shoulder at the rookie quarterback seemed to unsettle Wentz from the first week of the season when the Eagles fritted away a lead and lost to the Washington Football Team. Things went south fast from thereafter until the organisation decided it was time to park Wentz on the subs bench.
To look at the 2020 campaign in a vacuum, it’s clear that Wentz didn’t handle the situation well at all. Moreover, when comparing Wentz’ performance last season to another quarterback that faced a similar situation he comes up sorely wanting. Aaron Rodgers who saw the Packers draft Jordan Love out of nowhere was just as blindsided as Wentz was, if not more so because the Packers traded up the draft to select the rookie quarterback. But when it came down to getting the job done, Rodgers made his case by winning the regular season MVP award.
Of course, outside of a vacuum this is more than just about the trajectory of Wentz’ 2020 campaign. It’s about his ability to deal with adversity and in turn to overcome challenges and rise to the occasion. Fact is, he might be lacking the grit and guile necessary to survive in this league. Let’s face it, Wentz hasn’t been the same quarterback since Nick Foles stole the show and led the Eagles to Super Bowl glory over the New England Patriots. It was bad enough he had to look at Foles’ statue in front of the stadium every day he went to work and another looking at a hovering Jalen Hurts on the field every single day.
By the stats, Wentz’ production diminished over the last few years until they hit a new nadir last season. Whether moving to the Colts will improve his performance and play remains to be seen, but he absolutely has to if he’s to regain any credibility in the league.
Separately, he’ll have run out of excuses in the move. While he could point the blame at the coaching and organisational decisions in Philly for some of his disappointing results, he won’t have the same excuse in Indianapolis. The Colts are a solid team, well coached and loaded in talent across the bench. Last season, Rivers showed what a veteran quarterback can do with a product that is excellent in many ways. So if he can lift the Colts to an 11-5-0 mark. Wentz will have to match that if not do better in a season that will for the first time feature 17 games and 18 weeks of NFL action.
Titans Have Stability
Where the Titans have an advantage over the Colts is in their stability. Essentially, this is the same team that’s set to launch a title defense campaign in 2021, save for a few moves. Mike Vrabel and the Titans organisation have done exceptionally well and built a great team that the city of Nashville can be finally proud of. Importantly, Ryan Tannehill enters his third year as the starting quarterback for Tennessee, running back Derrick Henry continues to move from strength to strength and he is showing no signs of slowing down and A.J. Brown combining with newly signed Julio Jones could see the pair of wideouts emerge as the best two-punch offense in the AFC South if not beyond.
Overall, the Titans must be feeling a bit snubbed in favour of Carson Wentz and the Colts in pre-season NFL betting markets and as the defending AFC South champions they’ll be keen to make a point.
Texans and Jaguars Longshots
The Texans are in the midst of wholesale changes. They’ve hired a new coach and general manger separately, both of which are hoping to revamp the team’s culture. At the same time, the Texans have bid adieu to J.J. Watt while Deshaun Watson is refusing to play for the organisation for various reasons he’s chosen to take a stand on. However, further complicating matters is the legal case facing Watson, which has stunned the league and fans altogether with the sheer volume of allegations of sexual misconduct. How the Texans are to overcome all the distraction and disruption is beyond imaginable. As such, they’re a fade for NFL picks.
The Jaguars are embarking on a new era with a new head coach and quarterback. Urban Meyer’s college credentials preceded him, but it’s nevertheless his first-ever stint as an NFL head coach. There’s bound to be a period of adjustment. Similarly, Trevor Lawrence is undeniably the most exciting quarterback prospect of the 2021 NFL draft but he’s bound to experience growing pains as he acclimatises to playing with the big boys.