NFL Division Preview: AFC South

Derrick Henry of Tennessee Titans and Nick Chubb of Cleveland Browns take the field prior to the 2020 NFL Pro Bow

As we approach the 2020 NFL season, questions remain about the AFC South standings. If you’re a fan of NFL betting, few divisions have introduced more uncertainty over the offseason, and NFL betting lines and NFL betting odds for the division have varied wildly. 

The 2020 NFL AFC South Division breakdown

When it comes to NFL odds, few divisions have as much parity. While most online sports betting is not particularly optimistic about the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Houston Texas, Indianapolis Colts, and Tennessee Titans are all common NFL betting picks for leading the AFC South standings.

Houston Texans

Deshaun Watson of Houston Texans during t2020 NFL Pro Bowl at Camping World Stadium

The Houston Texans have, at least the past few seasons, been the cream of the crop, having led the AFC South standings 4 of the last 5 seasons (the exception being the 2017 season; marred by Deshaun Watson’s season-ending injury, the Texans limped to a 4-12 finish).

How you feel about the Texans’ NFL betting odds this season has as much to do with how you feel about two key questions as anything else: 1) Can Deshaun Watson stay healthy? 2) Can Bill O’Brien successfully build and coach a long-term winner? Let’s look more closely at each piece.

When Deshaun Watson has been fully healthy, he is one of the NFL’s most electrifying playmakers; there’s a reason he’s a sleeper in NFL betting picks for MVP. His style of play, however, combined with the Texans’ poor offensive line (Watson was sacked f44 times last season—only 4 fewer than the league leaders—and led the league after taking an astonishing 62 sacks in 2018) makes injuries less a matter of if than when; Watson has yet to play a full season without injury, even if he has played through some of those injuries.

The second factor is Bill O’Brien’s double role as both coach and general manager; the trades O’Brien has made as general manager in particular have left the Texans without much depth—nor the draft picks or resources to bolster the roster. As a result, if the Texans don’t win this season, he could well be out of one or both of his jobs with the Texans. If you think the Texans can stay healthy, they have premier playmakers—Whitney Mercilius, Will Fuller, Nick Martin, Justin Reid, JJ Watt (who has played just two full seasons over the last five years, but when healthy is a dominant force), Laremy Tunsil, and of course, Watson- at a range of positions. The problem is there isn’t much depth, health is fickle (especially in a season without a preseason, where it’s reasonable to expect more injuries), and O’Brien’s moves have left Houston without much maneuverability. As a result, many sportsbooks casino NFL betting odds aren’t particularly high on the Texans’ chances this year.

2020 prediction: 7-9

Indianapolis Colts

Michael Pittman of Indianapolis Colts during training camp at Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center

With the addition of Philip Rivers, the Colts have made it clear they intend to climb back up the AFC South standings this season. Other marquee additions- Jonathan Taylor, DeForest Buckner, Trey Burton, and Xavier Rhodes- paint the same picture. But can they really expect to be that much better this season?

Looking more closely at their additions, it’s fair to wonder what value they’re actually getting. While $25 million/year is relatively reasonable for a starter-quality quarterback in a quarterback-driven league, Rivers will turn 39 this season and has shown clear signs of decline in the previous few seasons. Even if you attribute some of his 20 interceptions last season (compared to only 23 touchdowns) to poor offensive line play, Rivers has never been great at ball security, having led the league in interceptions in 2014 and 2016. While Xavier Rhodes has continued to gather Pro Bowl nods, his snap counts have been dramatically lower in 3 of the past 4 seasons (the exception being his All-Pro 2017 season) since cutting his teeth as a full time starter in 2014 and 2015. The Vikings also had no problem cutting him this offseason after he failed to live up to the extension he signed in 2017.

While Buckner looked good as a Niner, some of that may have been a product of his environment; in 2018, his12 sacks came on 20 QB hits and in 2019 his 7.5 sacks came on 14 QB hits. Normally, you can expect roughly 40% of QB hits to turn into sacks, but Buckner’s marquee seasons significantly outperformed that rate (In his first two seasons, Buckner turned 18 QB hits into 6 sacks and 22 QB hits into 3 sacks, respectively.) A return to 2016 or 2017 Buckner seems more likely than a repeat of 2018 given that he’s no longer surrounded by the talent he was in San Francisco. Similarly, Burton looked good as an Eagle, but flopped badly in Chicago, and is now entering the season with a strained calf. Finally, given both how short NFL running back careers tend to be and how important ball security is, it’s fair to wonder how effective Taylor might be in the NFL, given that he carried the ball nearly 1000 times at Wisconsin, found his success behind an NFL-quality line, and struggled with fumble issues in college.

The biggest thing the Colts have going for them in 2020 is that they play in the AFC South, which is why they have decent NFL betting odds as division champs.

2020 prediction: 9-7

Jacksonville Jaguars

Josh Lambo of Jacksonville Jaguars against Indianapolis Colts at TIAA Bank Field

While the Jaguars led the AFC South standings in 2017 and came within a quarter of the Super Bowl (eventually falling to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game, 24-20, after giving up two fourth-quarter touchdowns), their success was the result of a strong, opportunistic defense, steady quarterback play, and a spectacular running game. Unfortunately, none of those elements remain in northern Florida, and that shows in the Jags having far better NFL betting odds for the first pick in next year’s draft than their NFL betting odds for winning their division. Let’s look at each factor in their previous success, and why the Jaguars look like poor NFL betting picks.

First, the defense has cratered. The Jag’s defense was historically great defense in 2017 (the Jaguars led the league in forced fumbles (17), completion percentage (56.8), passing yards allowed per game (169.9), passer rating (68.5) and defensive touchdowns (7) in addition to finishing second in sacks (55), interceptions (21), total takeaways (33), yards allowed per game (286.1) and points allowed per game (16.8) and led the league in defense value over adjusted, or DVOA. A year later, their DVOA had fallen to 6th (and 9th in weighted value) and by last season, their DVOA had fallen to 29th—or one of the worst in the league. Since then, they’ve only gotten worse, as Jalen Ramsey, Calais Campbell, AJ Bouye, and Yannick Ngakoue have all been traded.

Secondly,Blake Bortles’ competency proved an illusion and an outlier; similarly, the running game cratered, with the offensive DVOA falling to 30th in the league in 2018 (and 21st in rushing DVOA) and 24th last year (though much of that improvement came after Bortles was benched).

As a result, most NFL betting odds and NFL betting lines point to a rough season for Jaguars’ fans (unless they’re following NFL betting picks for the top draft pick).

2020 prediction: 4-12

Tennessee Titans

Derrick Henry of Tennessee Titans runs with the ball during AFC Championship Game

Finally, there’s the Titans. How you feel about their 2019 dream season likely determines how you feel about their 2020 prospects to climb the AFC South standings. NFL betting odds suggest that last year’s magical run into the playoffs was likely a fluke,let’s look at why.

Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is key. Last season’s 10-game run as starter saw him match career highs in nearly every meaningful metric. Ask yourself: Is it more likely that last season was an outlier, given that he’s now entering his eighth season, or was he simply that poorly used by the Dolphins? While it may be that the Titans offense was a better fit for his skills than Miami’s, regression to the mean seems likely.

Similar questions apply to Derrick Henry, who—while an absolute monster in the second half of last season—also vastly outplayed his previous performance. The many losses suffered this offseason- Logan Ryan and Jurrell Casey, Delanie Walker, Jack Conklin, Cameron Wake, Dion Lewis, and others, many of whom were veteran locker room presences- are hardly matched by the handful of bigger-name additions such as Vic Beasley and Jonathan Joseph.

Finally, there’s the matter of how the Titans will handle a tougher schedule this season. It seems rather unlikely that things will break so perfectly for Tennessee a second season in a row.

2020 prediction: 8-8

Betting Picks and Predictions

To summarise, outside of the rebuilding Jacksonville Jaguars, the AFC South standings should be some of the more competitive, making for some fun NFL betting lines. We predict the following standings in 2020:

  • Houston Texans: 7-9
  • Indianapolis Colts: 9-7
  • Jacksonville Jaguars: 4-12
  • Tennessee Titans: 8-8

When it comes to NFL betting picks for the AFC South standings, parity means there’s no clear favorite. That could work in your favor. The likelihood of any of these teams truly standing out, however, also complicates NFL betting odds. If you’re ready to place your bets, BetMGM is the place to be. Check out the football betting lines and latest odds today!

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