Breaking Down the AFC Wild Card Race: Tennessee Titans Style
The Tennessee Titans are in the midst of a turnaround that, in NFL terms, is unprecedented—they are the first team in league history to win four straight games following consecutive losses in the first six.
The streak has revived playoff hopes in Nashville. Hopes that approached terminal levels after the third week and were pronounced dead after the fifth.
Let’s take a look exactly how realistic these playoff hopes are.
I think it is safe to assume that trailing the Colts by six games with six to go rules out a division title. This leaves the Titans' playoff hopes riding in their ability to secure one of the two AFC Wild Card berths amongst some heavy competition within the conference.
We are going to concede division championships to the Patriots and the aforementioned Colts.
The Chargers currently have a one-game lead in the AFC West over the Broncos, but with the Broncos imploding at a magnificent rate and suffering a sweep to San Diego, I am going to concede this division to the Chargers.
The AFC North is another story—the Bengals are in the driver’s seat, thanks in large part to a season sweep of the Steelers and Ravens. The Bengals also have a favorable remaining schedule. Four of their six games are against teams with losing records. Chalk up the AFC North to the Bengals (I can’t believe I just typed that).
This leaves the Titans looking up at six teams to get one of the two spots. Let’s take a look at how the rest of the season is going to play out for these teams.
Denver Broncos 6-4
As was mentioned, the Broncos are falling apart and are doing it exactly as fast as the Titans are coming together. After winning their first six games, they have lost their last four and have looked bad doing so.
The Jaguars are lucky to be 6-4. They are an up-and-down team that plays better at home but seems to be living in a house of cards.
They play two of the division leaders—on the road against the Patriots and at home vs. the Colts. There is no reason to think the Jaguars will win either of these. Let’s mark those down as losses.
They are looking at a split in these four. I say they win one of the home games and manage to lose one of the road games, likely to the 49ers.
Miami Dolphins 5-5
The Dolphins are an interesting team. They have a below-average quarterback and wide receivers. They lost the player many believed to be their best, Ronnie Brown, and it didn’t seem to matter. Give a team a good offensive line and a solid defense and that team has a shot.
The Dolphins have one game remaining against the division leaders, when they host the Patriots. This is a loss.
The Dolphins also travel to Tennessee in a game that the Titans must win, and, since this entire article would be an exercise in futility if the Titans lose it, mark up another loss for the Dolphins.
This leaves four games for the Dolphins. They will host the Steelers and the Texans while traveling to take on the Bills and the Jaguars. To get to nine wins, the Dolphins would have to win all of these—a scenario that is hard to envision, but a 2-2 split is not.
Houston Texans 5-5
Houston has two games remaining against the division leaders. They host the Colts and the Patriots. Expectations of a Texan sweep in these two games would be foolhardy—while a split is possible, getting swept is more likely.
They travel to the play the Jaguars, Rams, and Dolphins and will host the Seahawks. A split here is the likely scenario, but it is not too big of a stretch to think they will win three of these. Balance out this possibility with them pulling an upset against the Patriots or Colts, and you get...
This leaves us with the defending AFC championship game participants: the Ravens and the Steelers. Two teams whose fates will largely be determined by their two remaining head-to-head matchups. Only not really—since they will split them.
Pittsburgh Steelers 6-4
The Steelers split with the Ravens.
The remaining four games find the Steelers hosting the Raiders and the Packers while traveling to battle the Dolphins and the Browns. They will likely be favored in all four of these games—I say they win three of the four.
Baltimore Ravens 5-5
The Ravens split with the Steelers.
It is not too big of stretch to say they will win all four of theses (they really don’t have a bad loss this season); however, I say the Ravens win three of four. After all, isn’t every AFC North team required to have at least one bad loss to an AFC West team?
So where does this leave the Titans? Well, they will have to get to nine wins in order to have a shot at the playoffs and then hope the tiebreakers go their way against the Ravens and Texans.
For those of you who do not like math, let me do it for you. This means the Titans can only afford three more losses. (Wait...that’s not right—damn, I hate math. Why did I volunteer to do this?) Upon further review, the Titans can only afford to lose one more game.
Is it possible? You bet your sweet ass it is. Let’s take a look.
The Titans have two games against teams with losing records and one team we already decided they would beat. They go on the road to take on Seahawks while hosting the Rams and the Dolphins. Three wins.
The rest of the schedule finds them hosting the Cardinals and Chargers while traveling to take on the Colts.
Let’s take a more in-depth look at those matchups since this is where the Titans' playoffs hopes will live or die.
The Arizona Cardinals, Nov. 29 at LP Field
When looking at the numbers on the season, the Cardinals' team strengths are their passing offense and their rushing defense—a combination that would appear deadly for the Titans.
The Titans are ranked first in rushing yards gained per game and 31st in passing yards allowed per game.
Over the last four games, these numbers have switched drastically for both teams.
In that span the Cardinals have allowed 5.9 yards per rushing attempt, which would rank them last in the league by a mile. The Titans, meanwhile, are surrendering 5.7 yards per pass attempt, which would rank them second on the season.
Combine this with the fact that Kurt Warner’s playing status for next week’s game is up in the air and they have a comfortable division lead and you get:
A win for the Titans
The Indianapolis Cots, Dec. 6 at Lucas Oil Stadium
The Colts had their way with the Titans in their first matchup this season. The Colts held Chris Johnson to his fewest yards on his fewest carries of the season. He also equaled his lowest yards per attempt of the season.
Peyton Manning carved up the Titans pass defense, going 36-for-44 with 309 yards. This will be a good barometer for the improved Titan pass D.
This is undoubtedly the toughest test of their season. OK, that probably didn’t need to be said since they are playing an undefeated team on the road:
A tough loss for the Titans
The San Diego Chargers, Dec. 25 at LP Field
The Chargers are a team that seems to be playing better as the season goes on. They currently have a healthy offensive line and backfield, which is helping balance an offense that was pass heavy early in the season.
The Chargers are ranked 13th in the league in yards allowed per rush and 16th in yards per pass attempt. Numbers that suggest the Titans have a shot.
This game is on a Friday and short rest provides a greater advantage for the Titans, who are the home team. The Chargers have shown that they can be out-physicalled* in a game. The Titans will need to take the fight to the Chargers, and they will.
This game is going to mean more for the Titans than the Chargers. The Chargers will be playing for positioning and the Titans for their lives. The Titans are going to hit the Chargers in the mouth, which will help the Chargers decide that they can stand a late season loss in this one:
*I know "physicalled" is officially not a word, but it should be.
This will leave the Titans at 9-7 and tied with the Texans and Ravens for the final AFC playoff spot.
Let’s look at the tiebreakers to see who will continue to play...On second thought, I will leave some mystery to unfold with the season...for now.
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