After years of being the weakest division in football, the AFC South has slowly morphed into one of the more competitive areas in the league.
All four teams have a chance to reach the playoffs – a notion that would have been laughable as recent as three years ago.
The Jacksonville Jaguars, as one-sided as they are, are legitimate threats to get back to the AFC Championship Game, while the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts have their star quarterbacks back and healthy.
A regime change in Tennessee could give the Titans the jolt they need to find their stride.
Learn more about the four teams with our AFC South team guides.
Head coach: Bill O’Brien
Star player: J.J. Watt
Last season: 4-12
Key ins: Tyrann Mathieu (Arizona), Aaron Colvin (Jacksonville), Zach Fulton (Kansas City), Senio Kelemete (New Orleans), Kayvon Webster (LA Rams), Justin Reid (rookie), Martinas Rankin (rookie), Jordan Akins (rookie)
Key outs: Brian Cushing (free agent), Xavier Su’a-Filo (free agent)
Strengths: If Watt can return to something of his old self, their front seven will wreak chaos.
Weaknesses: Allowed the second-most sacks in the league last year (54) and offensive line hasn’t improved much.
Verdict: Deshaun Watson, when he’s upright, makes them an intriguing playoff contender.
Head coach: Frank Reich
Star player: Andrew Luck
Last season: 13-3
Key ins: Luck (injury), Ryan Kelly (injury) Eric Ebron (Detroit), Matt Slauson (LA Chargers), Ryan Grant (Washington), Najee Goode (Philadelphia), Quenton Nelson (rookie), Braden Smith (rookie), Jordan Wilkins (rookie)
Key outs: Jon Bostic (Pittsburgh), Frank Gore (Miami), Johnathan Hankins (free agent), Donte Moncrief (Jacksonville), Darius Butler (free agent), Rashaan Melvin (Oakland)
Strengths: Interior of offensive line.
Weaknesses: Defence gave up the third-most points in the league last year (25.3).
Verdict: Don’t have enough around Luck to make much noise.
Head coach: Doug Marrone
Star player: Jalen Ramsey
Last season: 10-6, lost in AFC Championship
Key ins: Andrew Norwell (Carolina), Austin Seferian-Jenkins (NY Jets), Donte Moncrief (Indianapolis), D.J. Hayden (Detroit), Taven Bryan (rookie), D.J. Chark (rookie)
Key outs: Marqise Lee (injury), Patrick Omameh (NY Giants), Aaron Colvin (Houston), Allen Hurns (Dallas), Chris Ivory (Buffalo), Marcedes Lewis (Green Bay), Allen Robinson (Chicago)
Strengths: Defence is rife with talent, particularly the secondary
Weaknesses: Pass-catchers are maybe the worst in the league.
Verdict: Defence can carry, but unless Blake Bortles takes a step, their ceiling is capped by his limitations.
Head coach: Mike Vrabel
Star player: Jurrell Casey
Last season: 9-7, lost in Divisional Round
Key ins: Malcolm Butler (New England), Dion Lewis (New England), Bennie Logan (Kansas City), Kenny Vaccaro (New Orleans), Will Compton (Washington), Rashaan Evans (rookie), Harold Landry (rookie)
Key outs: Johnathan Cyprien (injury), DeMarco Murray (retired), Avery Williamson (NY Jets), Da’Norris Searcy (Carolina), Erik Walden (Seattle)
Strengths: Run defence is stout as they surrendered fourth-fewest yards on the ground last year (88.8).
Weaknesses: Unproven wideouts.
Verdict: Changes across the coaching staff should help get more out of their collection of talent.
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Nike just did it. One of the biggest brands in the world inserted itself into one of the most divisive issues in America by making Colin Kaepernick the face of its 30th anniversary ‘Just Do It’ campaign.
The advertisement features the face of the unemployed quarterback in black and white, with the words: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
Kaepernick has yet to find a home on an NFL roster since 2016, when he began the movement of kneeling during the national anthem before games to protest police brutality against African Americans. He’s in the process of suing NFL owners for alleged collusion to blackball him from the league.
Needless to say, there’s a contentious relationship between Kaepernick and the NFL owners. By launching their campaign with Kaepernick, Nike haven’t just willingly involved themselves – they’ve actually picked a side.
And they haven’t done this as an independent third party either. Nike are heavily in business with the NFL after inking an apparel deal through 2028 which allows them to supply all 32 teams with uniforms that have the swoosh logo.
According to ESPN reports, the NFL weren’t aware Nike were coming out with the ad campaign, which means the company didn’t feel the need to get approval from the league before moving forward. That’s not an insignificant nugget, because it reveals Nike’s willingness to ruffle feathers in this situation.
Nike spokeswoman Sandra Carreon-John said: “Nike has a longstanding relationship with the NFL and works extensively with the league on all campaigns that use current NFL players and its marks. Colin is not currently employed by an NFL team and has no contractual obligation to the NFL.”
BREAKING: Nike had been paying Colin Kaepernick all along, waiting for the right moment. That moment is now, as he becomes the face of the company’s 30th anniversary of the “Just Do It” campaign. pic.twitter.com/uccpDStbq5— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) September 3, 2018
Nike undoubtedly deserve credit for speaking up amidst the culture war. Kaepernick has plenty of supporters, but there also those who oppose what he stands for, even if they misconstrue the issues he’s fighting for.
By promoting Kaepernick, Nike are essentially alienating a chunk of potential customers – some of the same people who voted Donald Trump to be the President of the United States. Not exactly a minority group.
But there’s value in supporting a cause and providing a platform to an influential voice. It helps to further legitimise them because when money is involved, people who wouldn’t normally listen start to pay attention.
There’s more to this, of course, than Nike helping Kaepernick out of the goodness of their heart. Ultimately, Nike is a major business, and this decision is more about the bottom line than it is about altruism.
Kaepernick has actually been signed to Nike since 2011, but the company couldn’t figure out how to monetise him over the past two years after he fell out of the league.
They do now, and they’re taking advantage of it.
This is a chance for the company to increase their presence in the consumer world by transcending sports. Kaepernick made his name as a football player, but he became a household name by kneeling on the sidelines before games. He isn’t so much an athlete now as he is an icon.
And icons have followings, particularly among the younger generation and those who can most identify with them – in this case, people of colour. As mentioned, Trump’s voter base is massive, but so is the group Kaepernick is fighting for.
The wave of negativity that Nike has had to deal with over the past couple days – the burning of Nike products, the outrage on social media, the threats to boycott, etc. – will die down. People may follow through on their claims that they’ll never wear Nike products again, but this isn’t some up-and-coming company without an established consumer base. Nike will sleep just fine at night with the knowledge that some Joe Schmos are out on the brand.
When it comes to the NFL, Nike’s move is a significant win for the players. It shows the league’s owners that, in fact, the protesting by Kaepernick and others hasn’t been a blow to their businesses like they imagined. Does it go against the personal and political beliefs of many of the owners? Sure, but at the end of the day, as long as those same figures are stuffing their pockets, they won’t mind.
And the people who are set to boycott Nike over this were likely the same ones who were boycotting the NFL due to the national anthem protests. The league isn’t losing many of the customers that have stuck around, all while gaining an excuse to begin the mend with the Players Association.
Nike haven’t fired a shot across the bow, they’ve left a cannon ball-sized hole in the topic. It may just be the start of settling this tug of war.
One of the best parts of the NFL season is how unpredictable it is.
Aside from the New England Patriots, who you can pretty much pencil in for the second weekend of the playoffs, the rest of the field in both conferences can go in various directions.
Similarly with the individual awards, the competition to be one of the standout players will be stiff, especially if most of the big names can stay healthy.
We won’t know how any of this plays out until months from now, but in the meantime, let’s gaze into our crystal ball and relay what we see.
New England Patriots
New Orleans Saints
The NFC will be a bloodbath in the playoffs and a number of teams could come out of the conference, but the Saints are arguably the most balanced and well-rounded team in the league.
SUPER BOWL CHAMPIONS
New Orleans Saints
Their improved defence will be just good enough to hold off Brady while the offence has its way in a shootout.
If he stays on the field, he’s a lock to put up gaudy numbers in terms of both volume and efficiency.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
As of writing, Bell has yet to report to the Steelers, but it’s hard to imagine him missing out on game cheques. And when he does get on the field, the Steelers will feed him early and often with a massive workload in his final year with the team.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Somewhat surprisingly, the Broncos edge rusher has never picked up the award, despite having multiple stellar seasons. That will change this year as there will be fewer double teams to deal with now that Bradley Chubb is part of the defence.
OFFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
He was drafted second overall for a reason as the Giants plan to use him extensively as a runner and receiver to help take the pressure off Eli Manning.
DEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
A playmaker in the Chargers secondary, James will be vital to the success of San Diego’s defence as someone who can wreak havoc and create turnovers.
COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR
He looked like himself in his final preseason outing and with the talent he possesses, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Luck push the Colts into the playoff picture.
COACH OF THE YEAR
With the Chargers winning the AFC West and earning a bye one year after missing the playoffs, Lynn will be rightfully rewarded.