The Indianapolis Colts have owned the AFC South for almost its entire existence, winning the division nine times in the past 12 years. Part of that has been their own excellence, particularly behind Peyton Manning’s Hall of Fame prime. Part of that has been the ineptitude of their competition. They have often won the division. Some years, the Texans, Titans and Jaguars have more or less given it to them.
The Colts find themselves back on top of the AFC South at the 2015 quarter pole after their shield-your-eyes, 16-13 overtime victory over the Jaguars. They have played wretched football, their coach and general manager can barely agree on which uniform to wear and their injured franchise quarterback yielded Sunday to a 40-year-old who hadn’t started since 2012. There may be a long way to go, but this team is still the favorite win the AFC South, the NFL’s version of the kids table.
The Colts really should be 0-4. They were blown out in their first two games. They trailed Tennessee, 27-14, after three quarters in Week 3. Sunday afternoon, Jacksonville’s kicker, Jason Myers, missed a game-winning field goal at the end of regulation and whiffed on another game-winner on Jacksonville’s second overtime possession.
In their division, though, it just doesn’t matter for the Colts. Andrew Luck can play poorly for three games and then rest an injured shoulder in the fourth. Frank Gore can finally age behind a soft offensive line. Andre Johnson can disappear. All the Colts have to do is wait for the other three teams in the AFC South to self-destruct.
Given what a rock fight the Colts-Jags slog was, the AFC South team that looked best Sunday might have been the Titans, who were on their bye week. The Texans were crushed in Atlanta, 48-21, as Coach Bill O’Brien switched quarterbacks for the second time, Arian Foster showed ample rust and Jadeveon Clowney remained in search of his first career sack.
This season, the AFC South is 3-7 in 10 games outside the division, having been outscored, 264-186, in those games. Two of those three wins have come against the 1-3 Bucs. The other win came against the 1-3 Dolphins. It’s not just this season, of course. Since 2002, the year the Texans came into existence, the AFC South has accounted for five playoff victories and one conference title game entrant aside from the Colts.
The Colts may have plenty of problems, but none so bad that they can’t be covered up by the division. The Texans can’t even decide on a quarterback, and despite J.J. Watt’s greatness they have barely been competitive so far this season. Marcus Mariota has looked much more like a rookie quarterback since his sensational debut. Jacksonville remains in a perpetual rebuild with second-year quarterback Blake Bortles unable to make significant progress.
The most difficult challenge for the Colts to defend another division title will be their schedule. They have the good fortune of playing Houston on Thursday night. Over the next seven weeks, though, the Colts will have play New England, at Carolina, against Denver, at Atlanta and at Pittsburgh. If they can win a couple of those games, they should coast. But if they lose them all, it might open the door.
Of course, for the Colts to be threatened it would also require the Jaguars, Texans or Titans stepping through the door. The Colts have not played like a division winner this season, but in the AFC South that hardly matters.