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Football's next great division: The AFC South?

BOCA RATON, Florida -- Is the AFC South set to become the NFL's next great division?

Laughed about for years as the league's least imposing four-pack of teams, the South hasn't produced a championship club since Peyton Manning's Colts beat the Bears in Super Bowl XLI.

People inside the division, though, see a shift underway now that all four teams -- the Colts, Texans, Jaguars and Titans -- house promising young quarterbacks in the form of Andrew Luck, Brock Osweiler, Blake Bortles and Marcus Mariota.

"I think the AFC South sometimes gets a bad rap," Texans coach Bill O'Brien told Around The NFL during Tuesday's AFC Coaches Breakfast. "We've got really good coaches. I know preparing for these teams every week about twice a year -- it's tough."

O'Brien noted that coaches outside the division also spoke highly this week about the bubbling promise inside the South. That said, the Jaguars haven't enjoyed a winning season since 2007 and the long-suffering Titans hold the first pick in the draft after selecting at No. 2 last year.

Forget the past, though, says Jaguars coach Gus Bradley, who isn't a stranger to watching lowly divisions rise to prominence.

"I've been a part of that," said the former Seahawks defensive coordinator, "where the NFC West was a division that everyone was commenting on, and then it came out to be one of the strongest. So, a lot of the same traits. You know, the quarterback situation now, with each team having a guy that they have a lot of faith in. And you're starting to see, you know, one side of the ball for each of these teams really pick it up: For us, offensively. Houston, defensively. Tennessee, the defense was showing some good things. With Indy, obviously, with a guy like Andrew Luck, their offense. I think you're going to start to see these teams build complete teams."

Colts coach Chuck Pagano wasn't thrilled with my suggestion that the South has operated as a "laughingstock" in recent history, saying: "I've never looked at it that way. I don't think any of the other coaches in the AFC South have looked at the division that way. Everybody's getting better. Everybody made acquisitions in the offseason to improve their football teams. There are four young, legitimate quarterbacks in our division who are all outstanding football players ... and everybody's got a shot to win this thing."

Even Tennessee. While Mike Mularkey runs a Titans club that finished dead last in the NFL in 2015, the presence of Mariota offers hope. The second-year passer flashed moments of brilliance as a rookie and gives the franchise its most legitimate building block under center since Steve McNair.

"I think it's gotten stronger," Mularkey said of the South, pointing to successful drafts and free-agency acquisitions across the board. "I think it's gone up a notch."

It all looks good in March, but each of these teams are under the gun to make strides in 2016. The Colts want to wipe away the memory of last year's disaster, while the Texans need Osweiler to deliver on the massive contract they handed him. The Titans and Jaguars, meanwhile, could face major changes if they don't show signs of true progress this autumn.

These coaches, though, don't lack for confidence, with Bradley promising: "I think you're going to see this division really take a step."

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