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  • 10 Aug

    id=content_id>NASHVILLE ,
    Tenn. (AP) — For so very long, the AFC South easily ranked among the NFL’s worst
    divisions.Not anymore.Both Jacksonville and Tennessee are coming off playoff
    berths, with the Jaguars a blown lead in the AFC championship game from playing
    in the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history. The Jaguars and
    Titans also have their rosters from those trips back largely intact. Deshaun
    Watson and J.J. Watt are healthy again in Houston. Even Andrew Luck is throwing
    passes and ready for the season in Indianapolis.“It’s crazy how nobody wanted to
    play in the AFC South a couple years ago,” Jaguars linebacker Telvin Smith said.
    “Now it seems like it’ll be one of the premier (divisions) in the league.”The
    Jaguars not only are defending division champs, they are looking for a second
    straight playoff berth for the first time since 1998-99. The Titans changed
    coache s after consecutive 9-7 seasons because sweeping Jacksonville last season
    wasn’t enough to win the AFC South, and another postseason would be their first
    back-to-back berths since 2007-08. If the Texans stay healthy, they are chasing
    their third division title in four years.The Colts have a lot of rebuilding
    ahead, but a healthy Luck is so good that Indianapolis always has a
    chance.Here’s what to look for out of the AFC South this season:SURGING
    JACKSONVILLEYes, the Jaguars not only are contenders, they are a popular pick to
    reach their first Super Bowl. That means dealing with high expectations from the
    start.“That’s a big jump, but I feel like we’re going to put ourselves in the
    right position to be an immediate contender,”defensive tackle Malik Jackson
    said. “I think with the defensive product that we put out there, the offensive
    product we put out there, and special teams, if we do anything less than what we
    did (last) year, it’d be a huge disappointment. I know we’re going to be
    consistent. I can promise you that.”All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey is keeping
    Jacksonville lively with his comments — positive and disparaging — on NFL
    quarterbacks. But Jaguars coach Doug Marrone has every key starter
    back Jaylon
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    , including 10 of 11 on one of the league’s stingiest
    defenses featuring six Pro Bowlers. Blake Bortles‘ right wrist has been
    surgically repaired , and he has an offense that led the NFL in rushing last
    season.CONFIDENT TITANSTennessee has a first-time head coach who won three Super
    Bowl rings playing linebacker in New England, Mike Vrabel . This franchise also
    has been busy building the past three years trying to compete not only in the
    division but the AFC. The Titans gave themselves a big confidence boost by
    rallying for a wild-card win in Kansas City before a divisional loss in New
    England . It was an eye opener.“To be able to experience that was huge,”
    quarterback Marcus Mariota said. “You understand that the postseason, everything
    kind of intensifies just a little bit more, and to go through that, to
    experience that in year three was huge. I do believe that it was a good stepping
    stone for this season, hopefully for future years as well.”The Titans have new
    coordinator Matt LaFleur teaching Mariota his third offense in four seasons, and
    they replaced aging DeMarco Murray by signing Dion Lewis to work with Derrick
    Henry. They also bolstered the defense by signing cornerback Malcolm Butler and
    drafting linebackers Rashaan Evans and Harold Landry.HEALTHY TEXANSThis season
    has to be better for Houston if only because the Texans are healthier. When they
    finished their first losing season since 2013 at 4-12 last year, 22 Texans were
    on injured reserve. Losses of Watson , Watt and LB Whitney Mercilus were most
    costly. So even with the Texans’ run at a third straight division title over,
    coach Bill O’Brien got a new general manager and a contract extension .Watson
    was so thrilling while healthy. Yet the second-year quarterback will be tested
    if an offensive line anchored by center Nick Martin and featuring three new
    starters can’t protect Watson any better than a year ago, when the Texans gave
    up the second-most sacks in the NFL.As dominant as Watt was in winning the NFL
    Defensive Player of the Year award three times in four seasons, he now has to
    prove his body can survive a full season. Watt played only eight games combined
    over 2016 and 2017.COLTSFinally improving the offensive line has been a big key
    for general manager Chris Ballard in trying to end a three-year postseason
    drought. The Colts gave up a league-worst 56 sacks last season, and Luck won’t
    stay healthy for long if they can’t protect him better. Ballard drafted guard
    Quenton Nelson at No. 6 overall, signed two free
    agents Quinnen
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    , and has center Ryan Kelly coming back off an
    injury.Owner Jim Irsay also fired Chuck Pagano and hired Frank Reich when Josh
    McDaniels decided to stay in New England . Reich now has watched Luck return to
    the field; Luck is feeling much more confident in his own throwing shoulder.“I
    feel like I can make all the throws I need to make with confidence,” Luck
    said.Safety Malik Hooker is back from knee surgery that ended his rookie season
    after just seven games. But not even Luck might be able to cover up the roster
    issues that Ballard needs more time, draft picks and money to fix.PREDICTED
    ORDER OF FINISH: Jaguars, Titans, Texans, Colts. When a head coach gets fired
    during an NFL season, it’s as much about the culture of his team as it is about
    performance.That was the case in Green Bay, which in a move almost as stunning
    as its feeble showing against Arizona on Sunday, Mike McCarthy was canned. The
    same McCarthy who was 125-77-2 in almost 13 seasons at the helm. The same
    McCarthy who guided the Packers to the 2010 championship. The same McCarthy who
    helped nurture Aaron Rodgers into a seeming shoo-in for the Pro Football Hall of
    Fame.Yet, with what the Packers have become recently and where they appeared
    headed at 4-7-1 in a season when NFC wild-card berths are up for grabs, it
    probably was the correct move to let McCarthy go.The offense, even with Rodgers,
    has stagnated. The secondary, as it is pretty much every year, is ravaged by
    injuries. The offensive line is a mess more often than it is a plus.And the
    skills of one of the great quarterbacks of his era — an era when offense is
    paramount for success — are being wasted.Team president Mark Murphy in a
    statement said the 2018 season “has not lived up to the expectations and
    standards of the Green Bay Packers. As a result, I made the difficult decision
    to relieve Mike McCarthy of his role as head
    coach ,
    effective immediately.”“Mike has been a terrific head coach and leader of the
    Packers for 13 seasons, during which time we experienced a great deal of success
    on and off the field,” Murphy said.True. McCarthy also might find himself
    employed running another team in need of developing a quarterback (Jets?
    Buccaneers? Browns?) in 2019. For now, though, with the Packers severely
    underachieving and McCarthy unable to find answers against strong opponents or
    weak ones, his departure made sense.“We haven’t played very well,” Rodgers said
    before being told McCarthy was fired. “We all take part in the disappointments
    and the failures that we’ve had this season. We’ve had a number of
    opportunities. It’s not like we’re getting blown out in a bunch of games. We’re
    in games.“I hate to repeat myself, but it’s applicable. … We’re not executing
    the right way.”Rodgers has never started a game for another coach, and he
    deserves some input into who replaces McCarthy. Whoever that might be, the least
    of his problems is quarterback, barring more injuries to Rodgers, who turned 35
    on Sunday. Rodgers should have a few excellent years left.The deeper problems in
    Green Bay stem from years of injuries to key players, particularly on defense,
    that approach an epidemic. Is players’ health not being vetted properly before
    they join the team? Are they not diagnosed or treated properly when they get
    hurt? Is it bad luck?The Packers probably need to look into adding some talent
    through free agency before Rodgers is past his prime. That’s rarely been the
    approach on the tundra — yes, we know about Reggie White and Julius Peppers —
    but with Ted Thompson no longer the general manager, perhaps the thinking will
    change.In the NFC
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    , where Chicago is on the rise and Minnesota has more
    overall talent than Green Bay, a quick infusion of talent is essential.It would
    be somewhat ironic if McCarthy surfaced in Cleveland to work with Baker
    Mayfield. The Browns are the only other team to fire its head man thus far, and
    it would be surprising if Browns GM John Dorsey, who formerly worked for the
    Packers, isn’t interested.The Jets, who lost their sixth in a row in ignominious
    fashion at Tennessee on Sunday, almost certainly will be letting go of Todd
    Bowles soon. They also have a rookie QB in need of a guru.Meanwhile, the Packers
    begin a search they rarely make. Since 2000, they’ve had two coaches, Mike
    Sherman and McCarthy.Joe Philbin is the interim. Whoever is next, Green Bay,
    make sure Rodgers has a say.