Vrabel will face vastly improved AFC South

Friday, February 2, 2018, Vol. 42, No. 5

In case you haven’t noticed the stakes have been raised considerably in the AFC South for 2018.

While new Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel is busy trying to put a staff together, the group he assembles will have to hit the ground running just to keep up in a division that suddenly looks much improved from past seasons.

Vrabel got a start on that staff by hiring Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur for the same position in Tennessee, and he brought his old defensive coordinator in New England, Dean Pees, out of a brief retirement to run the defense.

Both these hires, on the surface at least, appear to be solid moves that could help the Titans keep up with the changing times inside their division.

Of course, it’s hard to imagine how the 2018 season will look. How many of you had Philadelphia pegged for the Super Bowl in the preseason?

Still, you would have to admit that a lot of things went right for Tennessee just to get to 9-7 this season and squeeze in the back door of the playoffs. The Titans, despite lofty early-season expectations, in some ways underachieved but benefited more from the misfortunes of others than the merits of their own accomplishments.

Their projected toughest competition in the division – Houston and Indianapolis – both lost their starting quarterbacks. Despite that, the Titans still didn’t live up to their preseason potential and wound up settling for a wild-card bid as upstart Jacksonville grabbed the division crown even with being swept by the Titans.

Despite a playoff win in Kansas City, there is a still a certain sense that the Titans moved on from Mike Mularkey and brought in Vrabel in an effort to better keep up with the Joneses in the AFC South.

Super Bowl prediction

The easy way out in Super Bowl LII is to pick the New England Patriots and Tom Brady to figure out some way to earn their sixth championship.

The underdog Philadelphia Eagles would be much easier to pick for an upset if they still had quarterback Carson Wentz. Yes, Nick Foles has played well in the postseason filling in, but there is an underlying uneasiness in a backup quarterback having to overcome Bill Belichick and his schemes with a Lombardi Trophy on the line.

But there seems to be something about this Eagles team that just might make the game interesting despite the odds.

The Eagles have already been home underdogs in their previously two playoff games, despite being the NFC’s top seed. It didn’t seem to faze them as they eliminated the Falcons with a late goal-line stand, and then destroyed the Vikings to reach the Super Bowl.

We know exactly what Brady and the Patriots are and have been for nearly 20 years of dominance.

But the Eagles seem to be overcoming obstacles at every turn on their way to the title game.

Can the Eagles overcome the odds one more time this postseason and win the organization’s first championship since 1960?

Sure, why not? Eagles 27, Patriots 24

In announcing Vrabel’s hire just two weeks ago, General Manager Jon Robinson stood before the media and stated that the hiring of Vrabel was taking “the next step” for the Titans’ organization.

The question, however, might be will that next step be back before it goes forward for the long haul. While Vrabel will guard against the Titans taking a step back on his watch, the first-time head coach knows that the stakes have been raised considerably.

“The first thing we’re going to do is we’re going to do everything we can to win the division, and our division has gotten better,” Vrabel said. “Since I was in Houston and you watch it, it’s changed. We’ve got our work cut out for us there. But then, once we do that, that allows you to host some home playoff games and try to go from there.”

It also appears certain the Jaguars aren’t going away anytime soon. They came out of nowhere seemingly in Coach Doug Marrone’s first year to reach the AFC Championship Game and come within a Tom Brady rally of the Super Bowl.

And that was with Blake Bortles at quarterback. Their big decision of the off-season is whether to soldier on with Bortles under center or gamble that pairing a veteran QB like Kirk Cousins or Alex Smith with their championship-caliber defense is the right recipe.

Vrabel’s familiarity with Bill O’Brien and the Texans should be a bit of an advantage for the Titans. But the big thing to watch for here is the return of Deshaun Watson from a knee injury.

The Colts’ season was lost when Andrew Luck missed it. But if Luck returns and is paired with new coach Josh McDaniels, the Colts could be good.

All of this is not to say that the Titans and Vrabel are set up for failure. If he can get Marcus Mariota back on track, fill a few holes here and there, the Titans’ window of postseason opportunity should remain open. But the path back to the playoffs definitely will not be the path of least resistance anymore in the AFC South.

Terry McCormick covers the Titans for TitanInsider.com