Indianapolis Colts’ quarterback Andrew Luck has been under center for the horseshoe five seasons, but before he enters year number six, let’s take a comparative look back at how the AFC South looked for Peyton Manning entering year number six and onward.
A Look at Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck’s AFC Souths
For a recap of the division’s current state, the Houston Texans have been the frontrunners of the AFC South each of the last two seasons with 9-7 records in 2015 and 2016. The Colts finished each of those season at .500 with 8-8 records, landing them second and third in ’15 and ’16 respectively. Going back to the Manning era, the NFL was rather different. The league had six divisions instead of eight, and neither conference contained a south division. At that time, the Colts went 6-10 in the former five-team AFC East. Their record was only good for fourth during the 2001 season. The Miami Dolphins won the AFC East in 2001 with an 11-5 record, beating out the 11-5 the New England Patriots in a tiebreaker.
The following season, in 2002, the NFL expanded and added the Houston Texans. The league’s 32nd team led to a division realignment, which the NFL owners unanimously approved, and the birth of a southern division for the AFC & NFC. Indy did not find immediate success after moving to the AFC South. Similar to the division’s 2016 standings, only two teams had winning records. In 2002, the Tennessee Titans won the division at 11-5, and the Colts finished second at 10-6. Last year, the Titans tied the Texans with a 9-7 record, but they did not claim the division title due to a poor divisional record. Houston went 5-1 in the division, and Tennessee tied the Jacksonville Jaguars for the AFC South’s worst division record at 2-4.
In 2003, during his sixth season, Manning led the Colts to their first divisional title with a 12-4 record. Tennessee put up the same number of total wins, but Indy’s 5-1 divisional record was one win better than the Titans’. The former Tennessee Volunteer proceeded to elevate the Colts to divisional dominance. The Colts won the AFC South every year from 2003 to 2010 except for 2008, meaning Manning’s longest divisional title streak is five. The Tennessee Titans won in 2008 with a 13-3 record.
Luck’s longest divisional title streak is just two, 2013 and 2014 respectively, but the he did lead the Colts to three straight 11-5 records to start his career. The Colts have either won the division or been within a game of the division’s best record since the Luck-Chuck Pagano era started. However, the difference in competition is not hard to see.
When the Manning-era Colts won those five divisional titles, the AFC South was just as competitive, but the teams were on another level. The Colts and Titans had the same record in 2003 at 12-4. In 2005, the Colts won the division 14-2, but the Jaguars posted a 12-4 record as well. As mentioned earlier, the Titans won in 2008 with a 13-3 record, but the Colts had a 12-4 record.
For the majority of Manning’s time in the AFC South, the competition at the top was heavy, but the bottom was subpar. The 2003 Jaguars and Texans both had 5-11 records. The Titans went 4-12 in 2005, with the Texans two games worse at 2-14. In 2008, the competition was slightly better; the Jaguars had the AFC South’s only bad losing record at 5-11. The Texans went 8-8.
Looking forward for the current Colts, the competition may increase. The Texans have the divisional title momentum and have drafted Deshaun Watson to throw passes towards DeAndre Hopkins. The Jaguars drafted another franchise running back in Leonard Fournette, and the Titans are coming off a better season than Indy. If Luck is able to come back healthy and his offensive line keeps him upright, the Colts have a chance at reclaiming dominance, but with the three time Pro Bowler yet to throw this off-season, fans in the Circle City may be facing another tough season.