Tennessee Titans (9-7, lost to Kansas City in the Conference Championship)
What happened last year
After a strong start against the Browns, the Titans could not find good ground almost all season. With quarterback woes and injuries plaguing the team, it would take a miracle to save their season, and it came in the form of Derrick Henry. In a crucial game against the Chiefs, Henry ran for 188 yards and 2 touchdowns to bring the Titans back to a .500 record with 6 games to go. Finishing strong at 9-7, the Titans just barely clinched a Wild Card spot, and proceeded to shock the entire AFC by knocking off the Patriots and Ravens before being ousted by the Chiefs.
LB Vic Beasley, OT Ty Sambrailo, DE Jack Crawford, LB Nick Dzubnar, OT Isaiah Wilson, CB Kristian Fulton, CB Jonathan Joseph
QB Marcus Mariota, DT Jurrell Casey, TE Delanie Walker, RB Dion Lewis, K Ryan Succop, DE Cameron Wake, LB Wesley Woodyard, OT Jack Conklin
Week 5: Bills at Titans
Week 11: Titans at Ravens
Week 17: Titans at Texans
The Titans need to perform consistently throughout the year if they want to win anything this season. Everything starts in Week 5, where the Titans will face off against the Bills who boasted the second-best run defense in the NFL last year. Derrick Henry is usually quiet throughout the start of the season and will need to change that in order to alleviate pressure from Ryan Tannehill and keep the Titans winning. In Week 11, the Titans will endure a rematch against the Baltimore Ravens. Despite proving they could beat them in last year’s playoffs, securing a win in the regular season will go a long way to securing their place as a top tier team in the AFC. To end the season, the Titans will have to prove they can beat their division rival Texans, who won the division by a single game last year.
X-Factor: Derrick Henry and the Offensive Line
Derrick Henry is one of the top-tier running backs in the NFL today, but he struggles with consistency. If the Titans want to compete and make another playoff run like last season, it will require Derrick Henry to play a full season of football, maintaining his role as the focal point of the offense. It will also require a great deal of work from the offensive line, who have been a top-tier unit for multiple seasons. With the departure of Jack Conklin, it will be important for the Titans o-line to try and maintain that status.
The Titans have not suffered substantial losses this offseason and have done a fairly good job reloading and preparing for the upcoming NFL year. If they can prove to be a consistent team and their superstars prove their reliability, the Titans may just be able to clinch the division.
Houston Texans (10-6, lost to Kansas City in Divisional round)
What happened last year
After trading edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney to the Seahawks, the Texans spent the 2019 NFL season relying heavily on the output of both Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins to carry the team to a winning record. Clinching the AFC South, Watson and Hopkins showed off the full capability of their dynamic duo, and Watson emerged as the show stopping talent he was drafted as, cementing himself as a perennial NFL quarterback.
Consistency issues and a weak defense led to the Texans departure, losing to the Chiefs in the Divisional round despite the three possession lead they held in the first quarter. After trading Hopkins, the Texans future lies on Watson’s shoulders more than ever.
WR Brandin Cooks, RB David Johnson, WR Randall Cobb, S Eric Murray, DT Ross Blacklock
WR DeAndre Hopkins, S Tashaun Gipson, CB Jonathan Joseph, DE D.J. Reader, RB Carlos Hyde, OLB Barkevious Mingo
Week 1: Texans at Chiefs
Week 6: Texans at Titans
Week 14: Texans at Bears
The Texans have lost three straight season openers. With a new roster and pressure mounting on Deshaun Watson, they have to set the tone early for a good season. There is no better way to do that than with a win against the defending super bowl champion Chiefs, who will test the Texans in every way imaginable. The Texans will continue to be tested throughout the year, especially when they reach Week 14 against the Chicago Bears. With the 4th-ranked defense in the league, showing the ability to produce offensively against such a strong unit will prove vital into the offseason. Lastly, their Week 6 away matchup will prove crucial to securing a playoff berth, attempting to contain Derrick Henry and their division rival Titans early on to prevent another deep playoff run.
X-Factor: Deshaun Watson and JJ Watt
It should come as a surprise to nobody that Deshaun Watson and JJ Watt are the Texans X-factors heading into the 2020 season. Watson will shoulder more responsibility than ever before, and will have to continue building on his success without his star receiver to win games. JJ Watt, on the other hand, will have to stay healthy for a full season, taking full control and leadership of a young and under-performing Texans defense.
Despite having hopes for the Texans, the uncertainty surrounding the team without DeAndre Hopkins may be too much to overcome. Deshaun Watson will have to maintain a fairly new wide receiver core, and will have very little time to develop chemistry with them when you account for the ongoing pandemic. If they take advantage of their schedule, the Texans may just be able to overcome these faults and bring about another winning season.
Indianapolis Colts (7-9, missed playoffs)
What happened last year
After the unexpected departure of franchise quarterback Andrew Luck, the Colts were left with Jacoby Brissett as their starter for the 2019 season. Despite showing flashes of great quarterback play, Brissett could not consistently lead the Colts offense. Additionally, the Colts battled a multitude of injuries as the season progressed, losing star players Darius Leonard and T.Y. Hilton for multiple games. Starting 5-2, the Colts eventually ended the season with a 7-9 record, failing to secure a playoff berth
DT DeForest Buckner, QB Philip Rivers, WR Michael Pittman Jr., TE Trey Burton, CB Xavier Rhodes, DT Sheldon Day, RB Jonathan Taylor
TE Eric Ebron, OT Joe Haeg, C Josh Andrews, DE Jabaal Sheard, S Clayton Geathers, CB Pierre Desir, DE Magnus Hunt, WR Devin Funchess
Week 5: Colts at BrownsWeek 14: Colts at Raiders
Week 16: Colts at Steelers
The Colts will have a lot of big games this season, but if they want to secure a playoff spot they’re going to have to win the manageable ones to fight for a wildcard berth. That’s going to start in Week 5 against the Browns, whose star-studded roster has not quite lived up to the expectations they had for it. Both being mid-tier AFC teams, this game will go a long way to determining playoff seeds later in the season. Additionally, the Colts will have a crucial Week 14 matchup against the Raiders, a strong team playing in a stronger division who will likely be clawing for a playoff berth in their first year in Vegas. Lastly, the Colts have to secure a Week 16 win against the Steelers. The Steelers have consistently given the Colts problems, and this game will prove imperative to ensuring a playoff berth and giving Indianapolis a much-needed boost entering the postseason.
X-Factor: Head Coach Frank Reich
The Colts success hinges on good coaching by Frank Reich. Reich was able to somewhat rally his team to a 7-9 finish despite losing their franchise quarterback in Andrew Luck. Now, with an updated roster of some very strong players and the added challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, Frank Reich’s leadership will be on full display this year, and will make or break the Colts season.
The Colts are the ultimate wildcard team this year. Their roster has promise, but there’s nothing showing they can play together as a team. The Colts have the potential to build on last year, but ultimately have too much to juggle right now to make a substantial playoff push with teams like the Titans and Texans leading their division
Jacksonville Jaguars (6-10, missed playoffs)
What happened last year
The Jaguars got off to a rocky start to the 2019 season, losing their first two games to the Chiefs and Texans. If the start couldn’t get worse, Jalen Ramsey requested a trade after the second week of the season. Being led by fan-favorite rookie quarterback Gardner Minshew II in Nick Foles’ absence, the Jaguars improved 4-5 despite the departure of Ramsey. However, after losing 5 in a row in the middle of the season, the Jaguars fate was sealed as they finished with a 6-10 record and a glaring need to rebuild.
TE Tyler Eifert, LB Joe Schobert, DE Rodney Gunter, DT Al Woods, LB Cassius Marsh, CB Rashaan Melvin, CB C.J. Henderson, LB K’Lavon Chaisson, WR Laviska Shenault
RB Leonard Fournette, CB A.J Bouye, EDGE Yannick Ngakoue, DE Calais Campbell, QB Nick Foles, LB Austin Calitro, WR Marquise Lee
Week 5: Jaguars at Texans
Week 15: Jaguars at RavensWeek 17: Jaguars at Colts
If the Jaguars want to prove themselves to the NFL this year, their first major test will come in Week 5 against the Texans. Securing a win over the Texans high-powered passing offense will be crucial for the Jaguars to reestablish their battered secondary. The same philosophy applies to Week 15’s matchup against the Ravens who have one of the premier offenses in the league; their offense will have to play in the pivotal end-of-season matchups. Lastly is the Jaguars Week 17 game against their division rival Colts, who both have the potential to be fighting for a wildcard spot in the season’s final game.
X-Factor: Defensive Backs
The Jaguars took two massive hits on defense, losing cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J Bouye over the last calendar year. If the Jaguars hope to make headway this season, they are going to have to lean on Tre Herndon, DJ Hayden, and rookie cornerback C.J. Henderson to lead that unit. If they can perform to the ability of their predecessors, the Jaguars could be in good shape for the season.
The Jaguars seem too jumbled to compete this year, and Doug Marrone and Gardner Minshew II will have their hands full trying to rally this Jaguars roster. While there is a breath of hope in their draft class, the Jaguars will likely be spending this year in preparation for a rebuild phase.
(Cover Photo: design by Ryan Waldis, photos via USA Today Sports and IndyStar)