A healthy Deshaun Watson raises the entire AFC South's relevance.
A healthy Deshaun Watson raises the entire AFC South's relevance.
Photo by Eric Sauseda

Where Does The AFC South Stack Up Heading Into 2018?

With all but two teams done for the season, and more importantly, with all of the head coaching positions in the division now filled (assuming we believe Josh McDaniels will wind up in Indianapolis once the Patriots' season is over), it's time to look at the state of the union in the AFC South. It's crazy to think that a year ago the division was won by a team led by Brock Osweiler at QB, Jacksonville was a laughingstock signing up to use a retread head coach and a 70-something Tom Coughlin as their cleansing agent, Tennessee was Tennessee, and Andrew Luck's arm was about to fall off.

Well, some of that still exists. (This is where we have a moment of silence for Andrew Luck's shoulder.) But a lot has changed, although that's not necessarily reflected in the overall records by division:

NFC SOUTH ... 37-27
NFC NORTH ... 34-30
NFC WEST ...   34-30
AFC EAST ...    33-31
NFC EAST ...    32-32
AFC WEST ...   30-34
AFC NORTH ... 29-35
AFC SOUTH ... 27-37

Yes, using the actual won-loss records of 2017, the AFC South is still the worst division in all of football. However, reading a bunch of won-loss records is different than projecting what next season could look like, and if we are to do what the Texans did in extending Bill O'Brien and the Titans did in hiring Mike Vrabel as their head coach, then does it make sense to give the Texans a mulligan for 2017 when evaluating the potential of the AFC South in 2018?

For handicapping purposes, it sure as hell makes sense, and I subscribe to the religion of gambling. I know we still have a draft and free agency, not to mention a few months of rehab on some very significant Texan limbs, but right now, heading into Super Bowl week next week, where is the AFC South? Just as poignant, where exactly is the AFC as compared to the NFC?

Well, here are my rankings of the eight divisions in football —

1. NFC SOUTH
Key Attributes:
 All four teams have their franchise quarterback ... Two of the last three MVP's are in this division, both in their primes, both winning double digit games in 2017 ... Its the only division in football last season with three playoff teams .. Saints have evolved to where they don't rely on Brees' greatness exclusively
Mitigating Factors: Will Tampa Bay ever be a consistent winner again? ... Jameis Winston regressed last season, statistically and emotionally ... Cam Newton always seems to be one hit away from having his brains completely scrambled.

2. NFC NORTH
Key Attributes: Aaron Rodgers is in this division, therefore, they will always have a contender (provided he is healthy) ... Detroit and Chicago are trying something new at head coach, which should be an upgrade over Jim Caldwell and John Fox ... Minnesota's defense is built to be nasty for at least the next 2 or 3 years.
Mitigating Factors: When will Matt Stafford win a playoff game? ... I can't believe I'm saying this, but Minnesota hanging on to Case Keenum needs to happen for the division to stay in this spot ... Can Trubisky make a nice Year 2 jump?

3. NFC EAST
Key Attributes: Carson Wentz, perennial MVP candidate ... Dallas' nucleus is better than their 2017 record and not as good as their 2016 record, which means probably 11-5 or so ... Giants have the second overall pick and a bunch of skill talent coming back healthy in 2018
Mitigating Factors: Kirk Cousins is a Redskin, for now, but probably not for long ... Jason Garrett and Jay Gruden are two of the head coaches in this division, not a compliment.

4. NFC WEST
Key Attributes: Jimmy Garoppolo is undefeated as an NFL quarterback! ... John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan ... Sean McVay, Coach of the Year ... Todd Gurley, best RB in football .... Aaron Donald, best defensive player in football ... The Rams, the Rams, the Rams! .... Russell Wilson is still the starting QB for the Seahawks.
Mitigating Factors: Arizona has to fill the two most important positions for an NFL franchise, head coach and QB, so how do you even evaluate them? .... Is Seattle's backslide real and permanent? .... The Jury is still out on Jared Goff .. Rams have offseason work to do with contracts on defensive side of the football.

5. AFC NORTH
Key Attributes: The Steelers have Big Ben, Le'Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown (and Juju Smith-Schuster and Martinis Bryant) ... The Ravens always seem to hang around ... Cleveland has roughly 142 draft picks in this year's draft, it has to work at some point, right? .... RIGHT?!?!

Mitigating Factors: Mike Tomlin might be the shakiest head coach of a perennially good football team ... Ryan Shazier's murky future ... Marvin Lewis coming back for two more seasons ... Joe Flacco, not elite ... Browns are, well, the Browns.

6. AFC SOUTH
Key Attributes: Deshaun Watson, transformative player ... One last stand for J.J. Watt to play alongside Clowney and Mercilus, and with RAC as the DC (not a bad thing) ... That Jags defense is the Viking defense of the AFC .. Tennessee has pieces .. Chris Ballard is not Ryan Grigson.
Mitigating Factors: A healthy Andrew Luck makes this the best division in the AFC, it's just he may never be healthy ever again ... Texans' offensive line issues .. How does Jacksonville address their QB issues? .. Can Mariota live up to his billing? .. Is Vrabel ready for the head coaching gig?

7. AFC WEST
Key Attributes: Highest floor of the four AFC divisions ... Jon Gruden makes the division more noteworthy (but does he make them better?) ... Philip Rivers' game continues to age well, and he has weapons ... Pat Mahomes.
Mitigating Factors: Denver's defense is OLD ... Will the real Derek Carr please stand up? .. Andy Reid's clock management .. The Chargers' home field, ahem, ADVANTAGE.

8. AFC EAST
Key Attributes: Tom Brady, Bill Belichick ... Jets playing hard for Todd Bowles ... Bills playing hard for Sean McDermott ... Miami is a helluva place to visit in December.
Mitigating Factors: Where to begin ... the Jets felt like they massively overachieved and won FIVE games all season ... Bills feel like they got to playoffs with duct tape and chicken wire, and might be turning the team over to Nathan Peterman ... Ryan Tannehill went out with a knee injury last season, they signed Jay Cutler off the street, and expectations rose. Tannehill returns now.

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.

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