Back in August, no one – well, at least outside the walls of the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center and Houston Methodist Training Center – could've envisioned what'll go down on Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Or, potentially, Sunday in Nashville.
The prevailing wisdom across NFL prognosticators was that the Jacksonville Jaguars would cruise to an AFC South title as champions of one of the league's worst divisions. This isn't supposed to be some told-you-so, can't-believe-the-haters type sentence. The Colts and Texans both picked in the top four of the 2023 NFL Draft. Picking either team to win the division this summer, let alone make the playoffs, would've been seen as a desperate-for-clicks play in a slow news period.
But here we are, four months later, with the winner of Week 18's Colts-Texans game – the first time the league's TV partners put either team on in primetime this season – at the very least making the playoffs. If the Jaguars lose to the Tennessee Titans on Sunday at Nissan Stadium, the winner of Colts-Texans will be crowned AFC South champions.
All of a sudden, the AFC South no longer looks like one of the league's weakest divisions. Its four teams will finish 2023, barring a tie this weekend, with 34 wins. Again, barring a Week 18 tie, that would rank fourth among the NFL's eight divisions:
- AFC North: 43 wins
- NFC North: 35 wins
- NFC West: 35 wins
- AFC South: 34 wins
- AFC East: 33 wins
- NFC East: 33 wins
- AFC West: 32 wins
- NFC South: 27 wins
Once the focus shifts away from this weekend and to the 2024 season, the landscape of the AFC South will look dramatically different than at the start of the 2023 offseason. Shane Steichen and DeMeco Ryans both have been discussed nationally as coach of the year candidates. The Jaguars' Doug Pederson has a Super Bowl and AFC South title to his name; the Titans' Mike Vrabel won AP Coach of the Year in 2021 and is a two-time AFC South-winning coach.
And all four teams have a promising young quarterback in place to pair with their head coach:
- Jaguars: 2021 No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence (24 years old)
- Colts: 2023 No. 4 overall pick Anthony Richardson (21 years old)
- Texans: 2023 No. 2 overall pick C.J. Stroud (22 years old)
- Titans: 2023 No. 33 overall pick Will Levis (24 years old)
(Levis, interestingly, is the oldest of the bunch – he was born about 3 months before Lawrence.)
Nothing is ever guaranteed in the NFL, of course. All four of these teams will be different in 2024. It's why Colts quarterback Gardner Minshew II, who's led the team to a 7-5 record in place of the injured Richardson, has emphasized to his teammates to not take this year's opportunity for granted.
But if we're zooming out a bit before Saturday night, this looming Colts-Texans game may not be the only time we see two AFC South teams battling it out for a playoff spot in the near future. The future of this division, based on what we've seen this year, looks to be incredibly competitive.