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NFL playoff picture: Titans must win out to get in

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The margin for error is gone and so is the hope for a home playoff game, but there is still a path to the playoffs for the Titans.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

According to the New York Times NFL Playoff Simulator — a tool that I enjoy playing with every year around this time — the Titans currently have a 12% chance at making the playoffs. It probably feels like that number is high given the way the team has played the last two weeks and maybe it is. The NYT Simulator is just treating each game like a 50-50 proposition, not factoring in the strengths of each team. Football Outsiders, who does consider those factors in their formula, gives the Titans a 5.6% chance of making it to the postseason.

The odds of winning the division are virtually gone — NYT has it at 3%, FO has it at 1.5% — so let’s focus on the wildcard race that the Titans still have a semi-realistic shot to be a factor in. Here are the wildcard standings as things sit today with each team’s remaining schedule:

Chargers (8-3) - @PIT, vsCIN, @KC, vsBAL, @DEN

Ravens (6-5) - @ATL, @KC, vsTB, @LAC, vsCLE

Colts (6-5) - @JAX, @HOU, vsDAL, vsNYG, @TEN

Dolphins (5-6) - vsBUF, vsNE, @MIN, vsJAX, @BUF

Bengals (5-6) - vsDEN, @LAC, vsOAK, @CLE, @PIT

Broncos (5-6) - @CIN, @SF, vsCLE, @OAK, vsLAC

Titans (5-6) - vsNYJ, vsJAX, @NYG, vsWAS, vsIND

Browns (4-6-1) - @HOU, vsCAR, @DEN, vsCIN, @BAL

If you’re looking for some silver linings as a Titans fan, I think you can find some in the schedules. The Titans are the only team in this group with four home games left. The Dolphins are next closest with three, but everyone else has just two home games remaining. Every team on this list has a losing record in road games this season, and while Tennessee has been maddeningly inconsistent overall from week to week, they have been a consistently good home team over the past couple seasons. The Titans have won 13 of the last 16 games played in Nissan Stadium.

Here are the combined schedules for each team’s remaining opponents sorted from hardest remaining schedule to easiest:

Chargers 32-22-1

Browns 30-25

Ravens 29-25-1

Bengals 26-27-2

Dolphins 25-29-1

Broncos 21-33-1

Titans 21-34

So the Titans have both the easiest schedule by record and with regards to travel. The Broncos aren’t far behind though and they have the benefit of having their toughest game of the season in the final week when they host the Chargers who could have a playoff spot locked in with little incentive to play starters in Week 17.

However, as Titans fans know well by now, just looking at the schedule and saying that your team “should” win this game or that game is never quite as easy as it seems. This is, after all, a team that lost to the Bills earlier this season. Nothing should be taken for granted and every single team remaining on the schedule is capable of beating them regardless of record if the Titans pull one of their patented no-show performances.

The bad news here is that the Titans are set to lose almost every tiebreaker with teams in this group. If it ends up being only the Titans and Colts tied for the last wildcard spot, the tiebreakers will follow the division tiebreaker format which is head to head record, then division record, then record against common opponents. It won’t get past the records against common opponents because the Titans will own that one if they finish with the same record. If the Titans and Colts are within one game of each other in the standings heading in to the final week of the season (in either direction), then the winner of that game will own the tiebreaker for those two teams.

If the Titans finish tied with any of the other teams from outside of the AFC South, the tiebreaker priorities are as follows per the NFL’s website:

Two Clubs Tied

  • Head-to-head
  • Best conference record
  • Best record in common games (minimum of four)
  • Strength of victory (strength of schedule just for games won)
  • Strength of schedule
  • Best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed
  • Best combined ranking among all teams in points scored and points allowed
  • Best net points in conference games
  • Best net points in all games
  • Best net touchdowns in all games
  • Coin flip

Three or More Clubs Tied

  • Apply division tie breaker to eliminate all but the highest ranked club in each division prior to proceeding to step 2. The original seeding within a division upon application of the division tie breaker remains the same for all subsequent applications of the procedure that are necessary to identify the two Wild-Card participants.
  • Head-to-head sweep. (Applicable only if one club has defeated each of the others or if one club has lost to each of the others.)
  • Best conference record (the tiebreakers from best conference record on are exactly the same as the two team tiebreaker above).

The problem for the Titans is that they already have head to head losses to the Ravens, Chargers, and Dolphins so they would have to finish with a better record than those teams to get in ahead of them. They won’t play the Bengals, Browns, or Broncos so tiebreakers with those teams would default to conference record. The conference records for those teams are below:

Browns (3-4-1)

Bengals (3-4)

Broncos (3-5)

Titans (3-6)

Theoretically the Titans could climb above these teams if they win all three of their remaining AFC games while the others drop an AFC game or two down the stretch. If they move to the next tiebreaker (common opponents), the Bengals have already clinched the season-long advantage over the Titans while the Titans would need a Broncos loss to the Chargers to force a tiebreak down to the next line (strength of victory) with them.

The Titans will need some help to reach the playoffs. Even if they win out, they would need 4 losses from the Chargers or 2 losses from the Ravens to have a chance to sneak in. They also need the Dolphins, Bengals, and Broncos to lose at least one game down the stretch.

Realistically, I think you can probably scratch off the Bengals, Dolphins, and Browns. The Bengals just lost Andy Dalton for the season and have several tough games remaining including a matchup this week with the Broncos that will pretty much eliminate one of those two teams. The Dolphins get the Bills twice and just got Ryan Tannehill back, but they’ve lost 6 of their last 8 and also have games against the Patriots and Vikings that would make a late season miracle run unlikely. The Browns are a half game behind the Titans so Tennessee controls their own destiny there and Cleveland plays a very tough schedule.

The big threats to the Titans, even if Tennessee wins out, are the Ravens and Broncos. The Ravens have to lose at least two games for the Titans to have a chance, but the schedule is pretty tough for Baltimore. They have trips to play the Chiefs and Chargers on the road in the final five games that look like potential losses on paper (not that “on paper” really matters). Even a road trip to Atlanta and home tilts against the Bucs and Browns won’t be cakewalks.

The Broncos remaining schedule of Bengals, 49ers, Browns, Raiders, and Chargers is pretty cushy. Especially if the Chargers are already locked in to the 5th seed prior to Week 17. The Broncos are also playing pretty good football. They have a tough defense and a strong running game that should play well in cold weather. That makes them a serious threat to the Titans playoff chances in my opinion.

So yes, there is still a chance to make the playoffs Titans fans. The Titans have to win out and get some help along the way, but there’s a chance.

It would be nice to start with some assistance from the Falcons, Bills, and Bengals this weekend.