Winning the AFC South: The Weird, the Mediocre, and the Ugly

If any AFC South teams are feeling lucky right now, they're sorely mistaken.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a classic part of film history.

Sure, it was an exceptional Western featuring Clint Eastwood (and it’s an easy sports metaphor to use), but it also popularized the use of the “Mexican Standoff” -- the at-gunpoint, mutually-assured-destruction scenario featured in many action thrillers -- as a tension-building tool. The plot of this film sets its three central characters in search of a rumored cache of buried gold, pitting them against each other in a showdown that puts the audience on the edge of their seats: who will lose their nerve and fire first?

And if that’s not the perfect metaphor for the tangled mess that is the National Football League’s AFC South, I don’t know what is.

In the case of NFL’s outlaw division, however, there are slightly different stakes on the line. As of right now, two of its teams hold playoff spots, with the 6-5 Indianapolis Colts holding the AFC’s 4 seed and the 6-5 Houston Texans sitting in the second Wild Card position (the 6 seed). Even the currently 4-7 Jacksonville Jaguars have an outside shot at hitting the playoff jackpot.

Still, this division has reeled because of injury and ineffectiveness, parched after months of running around the country searching for their prize. Which team will outlast the others and bring home the bounty?

Never Hurt Anybody: The Indianapolis Colts

See, the title of this section is a quote from the movie, but it’s ironic because everyone in Indianapolis is hurt. And by everyone, I mostly mean quarterback Andrew Luck. Sure, running backs Frank Gore and Ahmad Bradshaw are ailing, as is wide receiver Phillip Dorsett, but franchise passer Luck is the glue that holds this whole poorly constructed plotline together.

That said, he had a rough year prior to succumbing to a series of injuries; on 308 drop backs this year, Luck accrued just 24.50 Passing Net Expected Points (NEP). This mark is good for just 26th among the 42 quarterbacks with at least 100 opportunities in 2015. Still, Matt Hasselbeck's 0.23 Passing NEP per play (sixth-best) has been enough to sustain the Colts’ lagging offense at seventh in the NFL in Adjusted Passing NEP, with 69.38. But their 29th-ranked backfield by Adjusted Rushing NEP is doing them no favors, as they rank a middling 16th in Adjusted NEP through Week 12.

As for the defense, it’s a puddle of mediocrity itself. Star shadow cornerback Vontae Davis has been fighting injuries all season as well, and the team lost standout rookie defensive end Henry Anderson to a season-ending injury. The Colts hold a combined defensive rank of a middling 17th in Adjusted Defensive NEP (52.24). Are these buckaroos a surefire bet to lasso themselves a division title?

Our algorithms project the Colts to finish at 9-7, but they are currently just 14th in the NFL in nERD. nERD indicates how many points on average a team would beat (or lose to) a replacement-level team on a neutral field by. Indy’s nERD score through Week 12 is just -0.36, so they are around a replacement-level team at this point. That makes their predicted 60.7% chance at the division title and 66.1% playoff likelihood a little less certain in my mind.

There’s Two Kinds of People in This World: The Houston Texans

The Texans have given a brand-new meaning to the phrase “spaghetti Western” this year; their noodle-armed quarterbacking corps would certainly embarrass Clint Eastwood. A supposedly stable group of game managers led by Brian Hoyer has melted down into a radioactive mess, and the team’s Adjusted Passing NEP is a combined 16.00, good for just 25th in the NFL. The Texans’ mess in the passing game fortunately hasn’t affected DeAndre Hopkins, who currently leads all wide receivers in Reception NEP with 106.14, but he can only do so much on his own.

In addition, the loss of star running back Arian Foster has devastated the team’s rushing attack. The committee led by Alfred Blue is just not getting the job done, as the team’s combined Adjusted Rushing NEP of -21.71 is just 28th in the league. All in all, the Texans rank 25th in Adjusted NEP through Week 12, and it’s ugly out there.

That said, this is a tale of two teams. Due to impressive performances from a revitalized defensive unit that has star J.J. Watt holding down the line, and adding rookie cornerback Kevin Johnson, the Texans have put together a fearsome pass defense. They rank eighth in Adjusted Defensive NEP overall (8.62). Can these “Bulls on Parade” still rampage their way to a division title?

Our algorithms project the Texans to finish 8-8 with just a 38.4% chance to win the AFC South but a 49.4% chance to earn a postseason berth. Thanks to their dominant defense, they rank 13th in nERD with a score of 0.18 -- almost exactly replacement level. They’re just as shaky a bet as the Colts to be active in the winter.

Three Was the Perfect Number: The Jacksonville Jaguars

It’s weird to consider the Jaguars still a decent contender for a playoff spot at this point in time; they currently hold the seventh overall selection in the 2016 NFL Draft, if the season ended today. Yes, the Jags are 4-7, but they still have a chance to dance. This is a young team, and a raw one. Quarterback Blake Bortles was the team’s first-round selection in 2014, and most of his primary weapons are Class of 2014 or 2015 members themselves. Bortles himself has been a valuable fantasy asset but is rough around the NFL edges; in terms of Total NEP among the 42 quarterbacks with at least 100 opportunities, he ranks just 25th. Due to his ineffectiveness, the Jaguars’ passing attack ranks 28th in the league with a combined 0.36 Adjusted Passing NEP.

The blame isn’t all on him, though. Rookie running back T.J. Yeldon has posted a -12.43 Rushing NEP through Week 12, good for 55th among the 65 running backs with at least 60 opportunities. He’s headed the Jaguars’ backfield straight to a bottom-of-the-league position in Adjusted Rushing NEP. The whole offense ranks 29th in the NFL in Adjusted NEP.

There’s also little-to-no good way to spin their defensive showing. For having a reputation as a defensive guru, head coach Gus Bradley has not been able to get anything going from his eleven on the other side of the ball either. The Jaguars’ defense ranks 29th in the NFL in Adjusted Defensive NEP (89.00). Can the big cats claw back into the race?

In short, no. Our algorithms project 6-10 as an optimistic goal for the Jags, as they sit with a -7.83 nERD score -- the worst in the league. To add insult to injury, we give them just a 0.9% shot to win the division and a 1.2% chance to make the playoffs at all.

When You Have to Shoot, Shoot

It looks like the Colts -- who were the preseason favorites of many pundits -- still have the best chances to win the AFC South. They won’t be a sexy pick to go far (0.6% chance to win the Super Bowl), but there’s something to be said about mundane consistency over flash. They also are slightly behind the Texans in nERD, but with just 0.54 nERD separating them, there’s no guarantee that either team is much better than the other.

As for the Jaguars? These playoffs ain’t big enough for the three of ya.