The conventional wisdom right now is that the AFC South race is over, second only to the NFC West when it comes to anticlimactic finishes. Houston went from a popular and reasonable pick prior to the season, to a top-heavy favorite after Peyton Manning went out and now it seems that a first-ever playoff berth is finally on the way for this franchise. Before crowing the Texans too quickly though, let’s review the division and see if the conventional wisdom is accurate.
Houston (6-3): As hard as it may be to believe the Texans are doing it with defense. They’re the best in the league when it comes to preventing yardage and they’ve done it without defensive end Mario Williams. They do face challenges ahead—the front seven is getting beat up and there’s a lot of pressure on this unit with wide receiver Andre Johnson out and limiting the offense’s explosiveness. But Wade Phillips has done a yeoman’s job in his first year as coordinator here, and combined with a powerful running game, Houston has been able to weather the storm.
Tennessee (4-4): When you look at a team with Chris Johnson at running back, a talented offensive line and former O-line coach Mike Munchak being elevated to the top job, you’d think a running game would be the first thing you can count on. Instead, the Titans are 31st in the league running the ball. Tennessee comes up through a stretch against NFC South teams, with Carolina, Atlanta and Tampa that will determine if they can mount a second-half challenge.
Jacksonville (2-6): The Jaguars are playing decent defense and any team with Maurice Jones-Drew is going to run the ball. That combination makes them competitive and one that could play spoiler in this race. Having a rookie quarterback in Blaine Gabbert still learning is what keeps them at 2-6. The Jags play Indy this week and then go to Cleveland so the opportunity to move toward respectability is there.
Indianapolis (0-9): The complete awfulness of the Colts has been well-documented and we don’t need to kick a team when they’re down. Sunday’s home game with Jacksonville represents a rare chance for a win and I can’t imagine that veterans like Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis really want to be a part of going 0-16 so they can get Andrew Luck. Particularly when they could win one or two games and probably still pull it off.
The conventional wisdom looks pretty good to me. Even if Houston slumps the season finale against Tennessee is at home, so that’s kind of a firewall against a slump. I think the real question about the Texans is whether they’re a legitimate dark-horse Super Bowl pick in a conference that lacks a true front-runner. How well they play when Johnson returns will tell us that.