As of this Friday, the Houston Texans are sitting in first place in the AFC South with a 5-3 record. The Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans follow behind them at with matching 4-5 records, while the Jacksonville Jaguars occupy last place with a 2-6 mark.
On the surface, the AFC South seems like a totally normal division -- it looks a lot like the NFC North, where the first place Minnesota Vikings also have a 5-3 record and are trailed by the 5-4 Detroit Lions, the 4-4 Green Bay Packers, and the 2-6 Chicago Bears.
Why the AFC South is so ... bad
The AFC South, though, is not like other divisions. Why? It is the only division in football where all four teams have been outscored by their opponents this season. If that holds the rest of the way (not out of the question, given the strength of the division's four occupants), it would be the first time that all four teams in any division finished the season with a negative point differential since 2010, and just the fourth time since the NFL expanded to 32 teams and adopted the eight-division format back when the Texans joined the league in 2002.
This is not an isolated blip for the AFC South, either. It narrowly escaped this fate last season, when only the Texans outscored their opponents -- and did so by a mere 26 points, less than 1.5 per game. In 2013 the Colts were the only team to do it, and by a scant 55 points. The division has been dreadful for years.
How dreadful? The division as a whole has also been outscored for an incredible six consecutive seasons (2010 through 2015), and it would take a minor miracle for that streak to not be extended to seven when this season ends.
How rare is that? The next-longest streak for any division is currently one year, and it's about to be snapped (NFC East). Since 2002, there have only been four other instances where a division was outscored in even three consecutive seasons.
The AFC South is also on track to finish last among the league's eight divisions in total point differential for the second straight season, and fourth in the last five. (Seemingly the only thing that can stop it from happening is the Cleveland Browns.) The last time that happened is the only reason we get to say that the AFC South's recent awfulness is not unprecedented.
Approaching the bottom of the barrel
The NFC West finished last among the eight divisions in total point differential in 2004, then did so for an unfathomable six straight seasons from 2006 through 2011. The division was also outscored by 150 points in the intervening year (2005), which means it had a streak of eight straight seasons with a negative overall point differential. Yes, one season longer than the streak AFC South will be on by the end of this season unless it outscores its opponents by 119 points the rest of the way.
And here's the thing: while the 2004-2011 NFC West was worse overall than the 2010-2016 AFC South, the margin separating the two is not that great.
The NFC West's combined record from 2004 through 2011 was 209-303 -- that's good for a .403 winning percentage, which is essentially the equivalent of every team in the division alternating with 6-10 and 7-9 records every season, for eight damn years. All four teams were outscored during that period of time, and the division's average one-season point differential was -242.1.
The AFC South's combined record since 2010 is 176-242 -- that's good for a 0.421 winning percentage, just barely better than that of the 2004-2011 NFC West. It's the equivalent of every team in the division averaging 6.7 wins a year for the last six-and-a-half seasons. Three of the four teams have been outscored during that time (the Texans are the lone holdout, though it's possible they could join the other three by the end of the 2016 campaign), and the division's average one-season point differential is -207.7.
That 34.4-point per season margin separating the recent AFC South from the NFC West of days gone by may seem like a lot, but it actually works out to just over a half-point per team, per game. In other words, the AFC South we are currently watching is just about as bad a division as we've ever seen in 15-year history of the 32-team NFL.
NFC West's turnaround points the way
The story of the NFC West since 2011 points the way forward for the current version of the AFC South. In 2012, the San Francisco 49ers (Colin Kaepernick, who eventually dropped off but bear with me here) and Seattle Seahawks (Russell Wilson) found themselves high-level quarterbacks. The Arizona Cardinals brought in Bruce Arians and Carson Palmer the next season, and all of a sudden the NFC West had three teams with at least 10 wins and had the best point differential of any division in the league by 2013. And this was just years removed from the eight seasons the NFC West spent as the worst division in football.
A similar turnaround does not yet appear to be in the offing for the AFC South, however.
There's plenty of work to do, especially on defense
The Colts have their franchise QB in Andrew Luck, but every other team in the division has serious question marks under center. The Jaguars' Blake Bortles took a step forward in 2015 but has regressed in every way imaginable this season. He does not look like the answer. Brock Osweiler has been a disaster for the Texans. The division's second-best quarterback is probably Marcus Mariota of the Titans, who can best be described as inconsistent, not just on a game-to-game basis but also from possession-to-possession.
Not only is there a major difference in the quality of quarterback play, but there is also the other side of the ball to consider. The Seahawks and and Cardinals of recent years and the Jim Harbaugh-era 49ers all had top-notch defenses to go with their high-level quarterback play. Their rise to the top of the standings was fueled by two-way football. None of the AFC South teams currently sports a top-10 defense, let alone an elite one.
The Colts have been dreadful on defense for almost the entirety of the Luck era, and were never exactly dominant on that side of the ball when they had Peyton Manning, either. The Jaguars have been trying to build up their defense ever since Gus Bradley got there, and while they've finally made some progress this season, they're still a long way off. The Titans defense has fallen off sharply after a good start. The Texans' defense is likely the closest of the four to reaching the level it needs to be, what with a trio of good corners and playmakers up front, but they will need J.J. Watt to come back healthy if they want to get there.
All of this is by way of saying: the AFC South still has a long way to go to dig itself out of this hole that it's in. The safe bet is probably that the division will match the 2004-2011 NFC West with an eighth consecutive season of being outscored in 2017. Unless these teams find true answers at quarterback or on defense, the streak may even continue beyond that.