The message coming out of Saint Thomas Sports Park this off-season has been plain and simple: the expectation is for the Titans to challenge for the AFC crown for the foreseeable future. Given their overall late-season performance, the team was lucky to make the playoffs last year. With Mike Vrabel now in the driver’s seat (with Matt LaFleur riding shotgun and Dean Pees controlling the iPod), the hope is that Tennessee won’t have to rely as much on good fortune moving forward. The last remaining obvious roster deficiencies were addressed via free agency and the draft. On paper, this is one of the most (if not the most) talented Titans squads ever. There’s a case to be made that Tennessee has the most “complete” roster in the entire conference. In a vacuum, a playoffs appearance should be the bare minimum acceptable outcome for 2018. However, there are 15 other AFC teams eyeing the same 6 vacancies, all whom have made changes this off-season in hopes of contending.
As objectively as possible, let’s preview where the Titans are nested within the “weaker” conference. I’ll breakdown each AFC foe’s schedule and roster and organize the teams into tiers based on their likelihood of challenging for a seat at the table come January.
New England Patriots
Toughest 4-Game Stretch: Weeks 12-15: at NYJ, MIN, at MIA, at PIT
Easiest 4-Game Stretch: Weeks 3-6: at DET, MIA, IND, KC
At this point, no one should waste breath attempting to predict when the dynasty will fall. One of these years, the Brady Bunch will wind up in the mud with the peons, but only a liar will be able to say they saw it coming that year. Both Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowksi have been rumored to be somewhat “out of sync” with Bill Belichick’s approach as of late, so it may be interesting to see how fiery their motivation level is in 2018.
Schedule: The Pats have, in my estimation, three separate hurdles thrown into their schedule. They start the season against both of the Titans’ anticipated divisional competitors, opening in Foxborough against the Texans before heading to Duval County (What’s with people from Florida repping counties, by the way?) to face the Jags. In weeks 9 and 10, right before their bye week, they face the Packers and Titans (home and away, respectively). They then meet likely their toughest overall test in weeks 13 and 15 against the Vikings and Steelers (home/away), with a week 14 road match-up with the Jets serving as the meat of a very “bready” sandwich. Outside of those potential potholes, the rest of their schedule looks like Belichick fodder. It wouldn’t be entirely shocking to see Patrick Mahomes or Mitchell Trubisky engineer some offensive magic and stub New England’s toe, but young QBs almost always seem to fall short in their quest to slay the G.O.A.T. A now perennially weak division continues to make life easier for the Pats.
Roster: Notably, New England let a lot of contributors walk in free agency. A look at their current roster/projected starters sort of makes you wonder how Belichick does it, or at least how he plans on doing it again. Their defensive front seven has definite potential, though it will be counting on some young names finally playing close to their ceiling for 16 games. Three question marks that standout: 1) How much swagger can Julian Edelman recapture coming off a torn ACL? If Edelman doesn’t regain his pre-injury form, New England lacks a go-to, play-making wide-out. 2) What will the run game look like outside of the red zone with Sony Michel replacing Dion Lewis’ touches? 3) Who is going to be starting at CB opposite Stephon Gilmore? To me, that CB spot should be NE’s biggest concern. They’re currently looking at either Eric Rowe or former Titan grizzled vet Jason McCourty manning the outside, on top of rookie Duke Dawson being relied upon to oversee slot duties. If you watched the same Super Bowl I did last year, it didn’t appear to be the offense that held things back.
Semi-Obligatory Record Prediction: 12-4 (note: out of fear of public ridicule, all record predictions in this series have a one game variance implied, so, really, this is to say between 11-5 and 13-3)
Toughest 4-Game Stretch: Weeks 2-5: at KC, at DAL, HOU, PHI
Easiest 4-Game Stretch: Weeks 10-13: at IND, PIT, at BUF, IND
Sacrilege, you say? I don’t necessarily see Jacksonville as much-improved world beaters. However, their schedule plays into their (defense’s) hands, making a playoffs return all but certain. Blake Bortles is figuratively at the helm of a self-driving car. It will be difficult, albeit not impossible, for him to screw up badly enough to reincarnate the inept Jags we Titans fans know and love. The Jaguars’ 2017 offense relied on fairly simple passing concepts. If they don’t/are unable to evolve their aerial attack, they could experience a Mularkeyan offensive regression as opposing defensive coordinators catch up. Truth be told, the Jaguars can trot out a bad or imbalanced offense and still win plenty of games thanks to their defensive prowess.
Schedule: Jacksonville faces a relatively lopsided line-up of opponents, with their first half-season of contests appearing much more challenging than their second. Part of that lopsidedness has to do with their apparent, Rooney-esque ownership of the Steelers. Nothing significant has changed in that specific matchup—if anything, the Jags have made more strides than Pittsburgh coming off last season. Theoretically, even if Jacksonville splits their first 8 games, they would still be in prime position to finish 10-6 or better. If they can somehow enter their in-season bye week with a winning record, they will have a very good chance at a first-round bye in the playoffs. The Titans (and Texans) have some control, of course, over how the Jags’ regular season turns out. If either can split or sweep their series against Jacksonville, they can likely remain in range for the division title (and in turn, a superior playoff seed). If either team wilts against the Jags’ defense twice though, the Sparkle Kitties will very likely be repeat AFC South Champions (much to the dismay of Mitch Firkins) for the first time in their history.
Roster: Since the Jags’ M.O. is stopping opposing offenses, let’s start there: their defense must replace two of their 2017 starters, Paul Posluszny and Aaron Colvin. While those players manned specific roles (run-down LB and slot CB, respectively), neither appeared so critical to the team’s defensive success as to warrant concern for 2018. Tyler Patmon or Jaylen Myrick will slot in for Colvin (no pun intended). For what it’s worth, both earned respectable coverage grades from PFF. Myles Jack will slide to the inside on all three downs instead of solely in passing situations. In run defense, the Jags have a few bodies they can audition for Posluszny’s vacancy. Jacksonville also added raw-but-intriguing Florida DL Taven Bryan as well as Alabama S Ronnie Harrison in the draft. The rookies may see the field in certain packages, but they project more as long-term replacements for the current starters at their respective positions.
On offense, former Panther guard Andrew Norwell was the splash addition. He should fit in and improve their power rushing attack. Jacksonville will be relying on a very young, mostly unproven cadre of pass catchers. There is a lot of skill overlap in the group, with 2-3 similar slot receivers and 2-3 similar deep threats. Given the indefinite nature of their options, they also could wind up having 0 slot receivers or 0 effective deep threats, so to speak. Former Tampa Bay first-round TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins doesn’t help to clarify matters. My guess is that the ball gets spread around quite a bit, drive to drive and game to game. While my opinion may not be popular outside of Titans nation, I’ve yet to see enough from Leonard Fournette as a pro to convince me he can carry an offense centered around feeding him the ball. We shall see—we know Bortles isn’t going to do it.
Record Prediction: 11-5
Toughest 4-Game Stretch: Weeks 13-16: LAC, at OAK, NE, at NO
Easiest 4-Game Stretch: Weeks 6-9: at CIN, BYE, CLE, at BAL
The Steelers are a very interesting team heading in 2018. They’re coming off another failure to break through in the postseason, and it’s tough to gauge exactly what kind of QB Ben Roethlisberger is at this point in his career. Their defense was up and down last year (especially after losing Ryan Shazier), and it remains fairly unchanged unless you count Morgan Burnett’s presence as a huge boon to their coverage unit. Nonetheless, they remain a team that shouldn’t struggle to punch their playoffs ticket. The question is: What’s different this time around once they get there?
Schedule: The crux of the Steelers’ schedule, to me, will be how the rest of their division fares against them next season. Specifically, the Browns have a chance to be more than penciled-in Ws on Pittsburgh’s docket for the first time in a long time. Has Cincinnati simply traded places with Cleveland? Do the Ravens pack enough punch on either side of the ball to split the season series? The Steelers’ out-of-division schedule is peppered with formidable opponents: the Chiefs, Falcons, Panthers, Jaguars, Chargers, Patriots and Saints all get their crack at the Black & Yellow. If Pittsburgh surrenders 2 or more victories to their AFC North brethren, they could end up lower on the AFC food chain than they’ve become accustomed. Still, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which Tomlin and Co. don’t make the playoffs.
Roster: Though it seems almost like old hat nowadays, one should be reminded that the Steelers wield, arguably, both the best WR and best RB in all of football. That gives first-year OC Randy Fichtner about as strong a base to build from as he could ask for. Having only been a part of Steelers’ staffs during his NFL coaching tenure, expect his offenses to resemble Pittsburgh offenses of recent memory. As mentioned above, not much has changed overall roster-wise, but it would be disingenuous to spin that as an entirely bad thing, since Pittsburgh has averaged 11 wins over the last 4 seasons.
The Steelers’ ceiling will likely depend on the outcome of three roster “replacements” they opted for this off-season: 1) They traded Martavis Bryant to the Raiders and selected Oklahoma State product James Washington to take his place. I don’t see Washington as quite the electric playmaker Bryant (sporadically) was, so much will also depend on the continued emergence of JuJu Smith-Schuster. 2) Ryan Shazier’s horrific injury left a void at MLB that the Steelers were unable to sufficiently address (Thanks to Jon Robinson?). You could see an unusually weak unit unless one of their current options improves drastically this off-season. 3) The Steelers have a very curious safety situation on their hands. Morgan Burnett is a good-not-great, versatile DB on the back nine of his career who was brought in to replace Mike Mitchell. Sean Davis is young but has struggled as a starter. The Steelers settled for/over-drafted Terrell Edmunds as another option. Personally, I see a mishmash of meh on Pittsburgh’s last line of defense.
Record Prediction: 10-6