Sorry I haven’t posted in a while – I was swamped covering the final MU-KU game on my Mizzou website last week and didn’t even get a chance to watch any of the early games on Sunday. Needless to say, the division race has gotten even more interesting since I last posted. A while back I wrote a post called “Does Matt Leinart Pass the Division Lead to the Titans?” that assessed the Titans’ and Texans’ remaining schedules. I’ve provided what’s left of the schedule and updated the records. This time around, the Titans’ margin for error is a lot smaller.
Current Record: 6-5
Week 13 – Buffalo Bills: The Bills aren’t as good as they looked at the beginning of the year or as bad as they looked the past couple of weeks. They’re the epitome of an average team.
Week 14 – New Orleans Saints: An offense that has been great for years has gotten even better with the emergence of tight end Jimmy Graham and running back Mark Ingram. The Saints are particularly effective throwing crossing routes, and the Titans’ linebackers struggle in pass coverage at times.
Week 15 – Indianapolis Colts: The Colts are just awful. If the Titans lose to them, they don’t deserve to make the playoffs. Period.
Week 16 – Jacksonville Jaguars: The Titans lost to the Jaguars on opening weekend, but it was quarterback Matt Hasselbeck’s first game with the Titans and both teams played a sloppy game. This time around the Titans have Hasselbeck playing better, and the Jaguars are even worse at the quarterback position than they were last time the two teams played.
Week 17 – Houston Texans: This could decide the division. The Titans need to find a way to get Johnson involved in the game plan a lot more than he was the last time these two teams played, when the crowd booed him as he amassed 18 yards on ten carries.
Current Record: 8-3
Week 13 – Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons’ run defense is among the best in the league, so for the Texans to win, their passing game will have to produce.
Week 14 – Cincinnati Bengals: This defense’s biggest weakness is its linebackers’ speed. The Texans can win this game by running to the outside early and often.
Week 15 – Carolina Panthers: The Texans can get away with running the ball down the Panthers’ throats. Cam Newton is great, but there’s only so much one player can do for such an awful team.
Week 16 – Indianapolis Colts: An early Christmas gift for the Texans.
Week 17 – Tennessee Titans: The Texans have to keep the Titans’ running game in check, because the Titans’ passing game isn’t good enough to succeed on its own if the running game gets shut down.
NFL tiebreaking procedures give the Texans the advantage if both Tennessee and Houston finish with the same record. In my previous piece, I wrote the Titans’ best chances of making the playoffs came from beating the Falcons. They failed to do so, and now the best they can finish is 11-5. An upset win by the Jaguars over the Texans last weekend would have provided the Titans some leeway, but the Jaguars couldn’t do it. As a result, the Texans have to lose to Atlanta, Cincinnati and Tennessee.
The more video I watch, the more convinced I become that Week 14 is the Titans’ last hope of winning the division outright. The Saints are the toughest team remaining on the Titans’ schedule, and the Bengals are the team whose fortune against the Texans is hardest to predict.
Optimists are going to hate this, but maybe it’s time to start looking at wild-card possibilities. The Bengals don’t match up very favorably against the Texans, because their biggest weakness is their linebackers’ lack of speed. If the Texans’ line blocks in one direction against the Bengals’ defense and Arian Foster makes a quick cutback, he’s going to pick up significant yards on the play. Andy Dalton’s quick decision-making will give the Bengals a chance, but a variety of exotic blitz looks from Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips would help the Texans tremendously by forcing the rookie out of the pocket.
The Saints’ rare vulnerability on defense is that they can be exploited if you send tight ends straight down the field and toss the ball over the top. They also don’t have a tremendous pass rush, unless you’re a certain overrated New York Giants quarterback lacking in pocket presence. They beat opponents by flying to the football when it’s in the air, and going for the strip every time they tackle the ball-carrier. It’s a turnover-based defense, and the best way to beat it is to methodically run the ball. Doing so would also keep the ball out of Drew Brees’ hands, and he excels at getting the ball to receivers or tight ends who are favorably matched up against linebackers, so the Titans’ chances of winning against the Saints lie in the hands of the enigma that is Chris Johnson.
In short, the Titans could still win the division, but it’s a long shot.