NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The popular pick to win the AFC South all offseason has been Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts. The ever-changing diagnosis for his strained left calf and ankle is dredging up bad memories of 2017, when his recovery from shoulder surgery kept him out all season.
And dampened the soaring expectations for a team coming off its first playoff berth in four seasons.
Colts general manager Chris Ballard insists this is not 2017 all over again.
“When I came in the door, one of the things we talked about was building a team and it wasn’t all going to be about one guy,” Ballard said. “I understand the importance of Andrew Luck. Look, he’s a top-five quarterback in the league, but we have another guy we like. So we’ll treat it and we’ll move forward and we’ll deal with whatever we have to deal with going forward.”
Ballard has backup Jacoby Brissett and bulked up his roster. But Luck is the four-time Pro Bowler and 2018 Comeback Player of the Year who makes Indianapolis a top bet not only in the AFC South but to win the conference. Questions over whether Luck will be ready Sept. 8 against the Los Angeles Chargers opens the door wide open in the only division in the NFL featuring three teams with winning records in 2018.
Defending AFC South champ Houston has Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins along with J.J. Watt back healthy and in his prime. The Titans lost their playoff spot to the Colts in the regular-season finale with Marcus Mariota out, and they protected themselves by upgrading their backup spot. Even Jacksonville has high hopes with Nick Foles now at quarterback; the Jags are coming off a miserable 5-11 season after playing in the AFC championship game in 2017.
Some things to know about the AFC South:
Ballard does have a much stronger supporting cast than in 2017. Even if Luck isn’t ready immediately, the Colts can lean on second-year coach Frank Reich and an improved Brissett, who started the final 15 games in 2017. All-Pro guard Quenton Nelso n solidified an offensive line that allowed the NFL’s fewest sacks (18) . The Colts have two Pro Bowl tight ends in Eric Ebron and Jack Doyle , a Pro Bowl receiver in T.Y. Hilton, and running back Marlon Mack, who nearly cracked the 1,000-yard mark despite missing four games.
All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard led the league in tackles as a rookie, and a secondary that has long been a weakness now appears to be a strength. Both Nelson and Leonard achieved such status as rookies.
The Texans are without a general manager while coach Bill O’Brien works to improve an 11-6 record and find a way to win in the postseason after Indianapolis beat Houston on its own field. The Texans still are trying to figure out the best offensive line to protect Watson after giving up the most sacks in the NFL (62). They’re leaning on left tackle Matt Kalil, who sat out 2018 recovering from a knee injury, hope right tackle Seantrel Henderson has recovered from his broken ankle in the 2018 opener, and have high hopes for versatile lineman Tytus Howard — their first-round draft pick.
Hopkins is coming off a career-best 1,572 yards receiving, second best in the NFL. Watt often looked like a three-time Defensive Player of the Year last season, but the Texans are still waiting to see when defensive end Jadeveon Clowney shows up to work under his franchise tag. The Texans also revamped half their starting secondary after losing safety Tyrann Mathieuand Kareem Jackson to free agency.
Tennessee has surrounded Mariota with the most offensive talent he has had since being drafted No. 2 overall in 2015, but the Titans are letting him earn a contract extension after missing three starts in 2018. With three straight 9-7 seasons, the Titans are tied for fifth best in the NFL in that stretch, but with only one playoff berth to show for it . They want much more after signing wide receiver Adam Humphries and left guard Rodger Saffold in free agency and drafting receiver A.J. Brown.
Mariota is among at least 14 Titans , including seven starters, in the final year of their deals. They also have coordinator Dean Pees back for a second season with a unit that was the NFL’s third-stingiest scoring defense.
FOLES TO RESCUE
The Jaguars believe signing the MVP of the 2018 Super Bowl is the key to fixing a team that finished last in the AFC South for the second time in three years — most recently just months after playing for the AFC championship. They gave Foles a four-year, $88 million contract with $50.125 million guaranteed and paired him with former Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo as his coordinator. If they get the quarterback who won four playoff games for Philadelphia over the past two seasons, that could be enough to revive the Jaguars with their strong defense.
They also need running back Leonard Fournette to return to form in a make-or-break season, and left tackle Cam Robinson to heal up quickly after starting camp on the physically unable to perform list.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
Colts, Titans, Texans, Jaguars.
AP Sports Writer Michael Marot contributed to this report.
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