Rise of the AFC South: NFL's Most Ridiculed Division Might Soon Become Its Best

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistMay 4, 2016

Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey poses for photos after being selected by Jacksonville Jaguars as fifth pick in the first round of the 2016 NFL football draft, Thursday, April 28, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

For a seven-year period between 2004 and 2010, the NFC West was the divisional laughingstock of the NFL. The division posted a .400 winning percentage during that span, with three of its four teams losing at least 16 more games than they won. And only six teams finished seasons with winning records. In 2010, the Seattle Seahawks won the division despite finishing 7-9, and nine wins were enough to win the division in 2004, 2006 and 2008. 

So for the better part of a decade, the NFC West wasn't just the worst division in football, it was by far the worst division in the NFL and one of the worst in professional sports. 

NFL divisional breakdown: 2004-2010
CategoryWinning teamsPlayoff teamsWinning %
NFC East1614.544
AFC East1511.522
AFC North1411.518
AFC South1311.551
NFC South1310.511
AFC West129.478
NFC North1110.475
NFC West68.400

But with the draft, free agency and the salary cap, parity reigns in the modern world of professional football. That means it's hard to stay good or bad for long, which is why strong and weak divisions come and go in cyclical fashion. 

Eventually, the NFC West used all of the advantages associated with being terrible and leveraged those opportunities into success:

  • The Arizona Cardinals were able to draft key cogs like Calais Campbell, Patrick Peterson, Daryl Washington and Tyrann Mathieu and pay quarterback Carson Palmer.
  • The San Francisco 49ers rebuilt themselves with first-round picks Patrick Willis, Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree and Aldon Smith while also investing wisely in free agency.
  • The Seahawks were revitalized by blue-chip, early picks Earl Thomas and Russell Okung while also adding diamonds in the rough such as Richard Sherman and Russell Wilson.
  • And even the St. Louis Rams became respectable with key picks Chris Long, Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers, James Laurinaitis and Janoris Jenkins. 

As a result, the NFC West has sent at least two teams to the playoffs in each of the last four seasons, with the Seahawks, Cards and 49ers becoming serious contenders. (Although, San Francisco has since fallen off.) 

We're about to see the same thing happen to the AFC South, which took over as the league's sorriest division as soon as the NFC West abdicated the throne. 

Like the NFC West between 2004 and 2010, the AFC South has produced just eight playoff teams in the last seven years. 

NFL divisional breakdown: 2009-2015
CategoryWinning teamsPlayoff teamsWinning %
AFC North1615.526
NFC North1413.522
AFC West1210.496
NFC West1111.509
NFC South1110.503
AFC East119.525
NFC East118.475
AFC South118.444

The division has been particularly bad over the last three years, with a winning percentage of just .385. And in the last five years alone, AFC South teams have won five or fewer games on nine occasions.

But it's darkest just before dawn, and it appears the sun is about to rise in the south...er, something like that. 

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

They have their quarterbacks

It's nearly impossible to win nowadays without consistently steady play at the quarterback position, which is why it's so important that all four AFC South teams finally look as though they're secure under center: 

  • The Indianapolis Colts seamlessly replaced Peyton Manning by drafting Andrew Luck first overall in 2012. Luck struggled during an injury-plagued 2015 campaign, but his numbers improved steadily during his first three NFL seasons, all of which resulted in Pro Bowl nods. 
  • The Jacksonville Jaguars are thrilled with 2014 No. 3 overall pick Blake Bortles, who took a big step forward with 35 touchdown passes while posting a solid 88.2 passer rating in his second season. 
  • The Tennessee Titans spent a second overall pick in 2015 on former Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, who put up superb numbers in 12 starts as a 22-year-old rookie last season. 
  • The Houston Texans pulled the trigger on the highest-rated free-agent quarterback on the 2016 market, signing Super Bowl champion Brock Osweiler to a four-year, $72 million contract. Osweiler still has a lot to prove, but the 25-year-old often looked the part in seven starts with an elite team in 2015. 
Quarterbacks of the AFC South
Andrew LuckColts261st overall, 2012
Marcus MariotaTitans222nd overall, 2015
Blake BortlesJaguars243rd overall, 2014
Brock OsweilerTexans2557th overall, 2012

And now they have their supporting casts

That's where the 2016 draft came in handy, with all four AFC South teams going to great lengths to serve and protect their franchise quarterbacks:

  • Indy gave Luck what it hopes will be this era's version of Jeff Saturday in first-round center Ryan Kelly while also drafting two offensive tackles in the first five rounds. Kelly should immediately shore up the interior of the offensive line, making life easier on Luck, who has taken far too many beatings four years into his career."He's got all the traits that you're looking for," said head coach Chuck Pagano, per the team's official website. The Colts didn't draft any pass-catchers, but Luck is already well-supported in the receiving game by recent high draft picks Phillip Dorsett, Donte Moncrief and T.Y. Hilton. 
  • Jacksonville, which had already added high-quality young offensive weapons Marqise Lee, Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns and T.J. Yeldon in recent drafts, shifted the focus to the defensive side of the ball and became the talk of the draft by selecting potential studs Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack with their first two picks. Add those two along with 2015 No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler and high-priced free-agent Malik Jackson, and it's easy to see that defense becoming a strength in 2016.  
  • Tennessee is doing everything it can to develop a mean streak on offense. It drafted nasty offensive tackle Jack Conklin eighth overall and battering-ram running back Derrick Henry—the reigning Heisman winner—in Round 2. The Titans also added three defenders in the first three rounds, and the offense already had talented youngsters Dorial Green-Beckham and Taylor Lewan in place. Throw in free-agent pickup DeMarco Murray, and you have yourself a nasty core. 
  • Houston added a ton of speed for Osweiler by using three of its top four draft picks on receivers Will Fuller and Braxton Miller along with running back Tyler Ervin. With Fuller, Miller and free-agent addition Lamar Miller supporting Pro Bowl receiver DeAndre Hopkins, Osweiler should have plenty of opportunities to make big plays. And remember, they already have the best defensive player in the game in J.J. Watt. 

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

Not overnight

If Luck can stay healthy and continue progressing, the Colts could contend in 2016. Beyond that, nobody in this division is expected to be part of any Super Bowl conversations in the immediate future. Tennessee still lacks bite in the receiving corps and will need a full season from Mariota. Jacksonville's young defense might need some time, and Bortles will have to get better. And despite his pay, Osweiler remains a huge question mark entering his first season as a full-time NFL starter. 

Still, nine victories likely won't win the AFC South again in 2016. The Colts and Texans should both make playoff runs with double-digit win totals, while the Titans and Jaguars figure to finally become quality teams. There are no longer any basement-dwellers in the AFC South, and it might only be a matter of time before an oft-mocked division becomes a force. 

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.


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