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, 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 JACKSONVILLE

Yes, the Jaguars not only are contenders Derek Watt
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, 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, 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 TITANS

Tennessee has a first-time head coach who won three Super Bowl rings playing
linebacker in New England Kyle Juszczyk
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, 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 TEXANS

This 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 Kemal Ishmael
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, 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.

COLTS

Finally 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, 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 Patrick
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, Texans, Colts.

The Arizona Cardinals have
traded veteran offensive tackle Jared Veldheer to the Denver Broncos in exchange
for a sixth-round pick in this year's draft.

The 30-year-old Veldheer, at 6-foot-8 and 322 pounds, started 53 games in
four seasons with Arizona after coming to the team from Oakland, where he spent
his first four NFL campaigns. Veldheer played left tackle the first four seasons
and switched to the right side last year.

It was apparent Veldheer didn't figure in Arizona's plans under new coach
Steve Wilks, especially after the team signed free agent and ex-New York Giant
Justin Pugh, who figures to take the right tackle job with D.J. Humphries on the
left side.

The move Friday saves Arizona $6.9 million in salary cap space. The
sixth-round pick is the 182nd overall.

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