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Taking stock of the Titans standing in the AFC South race with six games left to go

The division race has tightened up (pun intended) over the last couple weeks.

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Tennessee Titans Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to believe that it’s already about to be Week 12 of the NFL season, but here we are. For the fourth straight year the Titans find themselves firmly in the mix for an AFC playoff spot. That means that it’s time to start closely watching schedules and tiebreakers around the division.

This time last year the Titans were 5-5, tied with the Colts for second in the AFC South coming off an embarrassing beatdown in Indy that saw Marcus Mariota get knocked out of the game with an injury after a horrendous start to the game. The Texans were 7-3, comfortably ahead of the pack while the Jaguars were last at 3-7 and on the verge of benching Blake Bortles.

This year things are largely similar, but a little tighter top to bottom. The Texans and Colts are tied for the division lead at 6-4 with the Colts currently getting the nod thanks to their head to head win over Houston a few weeks ago. The Titans are just a game behind at 5-5 while Jacksonville pulls up the rear at 4-6. Everyone is still alive at this point, and with six division matchups left to play, things could get very interesting down the stretch.

So let’s take a quick look at the AFC South as things stand today and moving forward over the close to this 2019 NFL season.

Indianapolis Colts (6-4)

Division Record: 3-0

Last Four:

Key Injuries: Marlon Mack (broken hand), T.Y. Hilton (calf), Parris Campbell (hand), Pierre Desir (hamstring), Rock Ya-Sin (ankle), Devin Funchess (clavicle)

The Colts sit atop the AFC South standings this week after pasting the Jaguars 33-13 in Jacoby Brissett’s return from injury. Brissett himself was pretty unimpressive in the game, but that didn’t matter as Indy rolled up 264 rushing yards against a helpless Jacksonville run defense.

However, the big win did come with a price tag. The Colts lost leading rusher Marlon Mack with a broken right hand that is expected to keep him out at least one week, possibly more. Rookie cornerback Rock Ya-Sin also left the game with an ankle injury and did not return. His status for this week and moving forward is unclear.

The Colts are likely going to get some of these guys back in the next few weeks. T.Y. Hilton — the most impactful player in this bunch — was initially given a 3 to 4 week return time frame after suffering the calf injury during practice on October 30th. Assuming that projection is still accurate, that would likely mean he returns ahead of the Titans Week 13 matchup with the Colts in Indy (yippee). Devin Funchess is also working towards his return from IR after beginning practice last week and Pierre Desir seems likely to be back in relatively short order after missing the last four games with a hamstring injury.

Remaining Schedule:

  • at Houston (Thursday Night Football)
  • vs Tennessee
  • at Tampa Bay
  • at New Orleans (Monday Night Football)
  • vs Carolina
  • at Jacksonville

That’s a relatively tough closing stretch for the Colts. Four out of six games are on the road and four out of six are against teams with a .500 record or better. However, the Colts are coming off their first double digit win of 2019 and play a brand of football that tends to age well during the later parts of the season. They have a chance to deal a big blow to Houston this week on Thursday Night Football, but traveling on a short week is always a tough situation.

Houston Texans (6-4)

Division Record: 2-1

Last Four:

  • 30-23 L at Colts
  • 27-24 W vs Raiders
  • 26-3 W at Jaguars (London)
  • 41-7 L at Ravens

Key Injuries: J.J. Watt (torn pectoral), Lamar Miller (torn ACL), Will Fuller (hamstring), Bradley Roby (hamstring), Justin Reid (shoulder), Lonnie Johnson Jr. (foot)

The Texans got embarrassed in Sunday’s marquee matchup against the Ravens. Despite having a bye week to prepare, Houston looked completely lost trying to deal with Lamar Jackson and the Ravens in their 41-7 loss.

They clearly miss J.J. Watt on their defensive front. He was playing at an elite level before suffering a season ending torn pectoral against the Raiders a few weeks ago. Without him, the Texans defense is largely starless. Sure, Whitney Mercilus, D.J. Reader, and Bernardrick McKinney are nice players, but they simply aren’t good enough to lift a unit comprised of mostly average to below average starters around them. If the shoulder injury suffered by safety Justin Reid in yesterday’s loss proves to be serious, that would only further downgrade an already suspect secondary.

The Texans are likely going to get Will Fuller back soon on offense which is a huge deal for them. He’s been out for the last three games with a hamstring injury suffered against the Colts, but started practicing in a limited capacity last week. His return will make an already dangerous offense that much more explosive.

Remaining Schedule:

  • vs Colts (Thursday Night Football)
  • vs Patriots (Sunday Night Football)
  • vs Broncos
  • at Titans
  • at Buccaneers
  • vs Titans

The Texans get four of their last six at home in Houston, including this Thursday’s massive matchup with the Colts. The Texans will need to hold serve at home after losing in Indy earlier this season to keep from effectively falling two games behind the Colts in the division race due to the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Hosting the Patriots the following week in Houston is a tough matchup as well. Bill O’Brien is 0-5 against his former boss, however just one of those games was played in Houston. The Texans could find themselves in a real hole if they lose the next two.

Tennessee Titans (5-5)

Division Record: 0-2

Last Four:

Key Injuries: Malcolm Butler (arm), Jurrell Casey (shoulder), Jayon Brown (groin), Delanie Walker (ankle), Corey Davis (hip)

Coming off their bye week, the Titans figure to be in pretty good shape from a health standpoint. Malcolm Butler is done for the year, but Jurrell Casey, Jayon Brown, Delanie Walker, and Corey Davis all have a chance to return this week ahead of their matchup with the Jaguars. This team will miss Butler down the stretch, but it’s certainly one of the healthier teams in the league right now.

Remaining Schedule:

  • vs Jaguars
  • at Colts
  • at Raiders
  • vs Texans
  • vs Saints
  • at Texans

The Titans remaining schedule is tough. They have an even home-road split, but five of the six remaining games are against teams with winning records and two of them are in buildings that have been haunted for this franchise for years. Tennessee is 1-10 in 11 games in Lucas Oil Stadium dating back to its opening in 2008 and they’re 2-9 in Houston during that same stretch, including a current run of seven straight losses. They’re going to have to break through in at least one of those houses of horror if they’re going to have a shot at the division.

They also host the 8-2 Saints and travel to Oakland, where the Raiders are 5-1 in The Black Hole. There is no doubt that it’s a very tough road from here, but going through the schedule and writing down W’s and L’s is a fool’s errand as we found out against Kansas City last week.

Jacksonville Jaguars (4-6)

Division Record: 1-3

Last Four:

  • 27-17 W at Bengals
  • 29-15 W vs Jets
  • 26-3 L vs Texans (London)
  • 33-13 L at Colts

Key Injuries: Marcel Dareus (abdomen)

The Jaguars are coming off a pair of embarrassing division losses, but with Nick Foles back from his collarbone injury early in the season this is a pretty healthy roster. Whether or not Foles actually makes the Jaguars better remains a question, but they are very healthy.

Remaining Schedule:

  • at Titans
  • vs Buccaneers
  • vs Chargers
  • at Raiders
  • at Falcons
  • vs Colts

The Jaguars probably have the easiest remaining schedule of the AFC South teams, but their odds of getting back in the race are virtually non-existent. They trail Houston by two games and the Texans already have the head-to-head tiebreaker locked up so they’re effectively three games back.

Despite the records, the Chargers, Bucs, and Falcons are not layups. Atlanta has won two straight in impressive fashion, the Chargers have won two of their last three, and Jameis Winston runs so hot and cold that they’re both capable of winning or losing any given week against any opponent.

Wildcard Contenders

Bills (7-3): vs Broncos, at Cowboys, vs Ravens, at Steelers, at Patriots, vs Jets

Texans (6-4): vs Colts, vs Patriots, vs Broncos, at Titans, at Buccaneers, vs Titans

Raiders (6-4): at Jets, at Chiefs, vs Titans, vs Jaguars, at Chargers, at Broncos

Steelers (5-5): at Bengals, vs Browns, at Cardinals, vs Bills, at Jets, at Ravens

Titans (5-5): vs Jaguars, at Colts, at Raiders, vs Texans, vs Saints, at Texans

Browns (4-6): vs Dolphins, at Steelers, vs Bengals, at Cardinals, vs Ravens, at Bengals

Jaguars (4-6): at Titans, vs Buccaneers, vs Chargers, at Raiders, at Falcons, vs Colts

Chargers (4-6): vs Chiefs (tonight), BYE, at Broncos, at Jaguars, vs Vikings, vs Raiders, at Chiefs

This is a very crowded field as things stand today. The two AFC North teams — Browns and Steelers — have ridiculously easy remaining schedules outside of their respective matchups with the division leading Ravens so I would keep an eye on them for potential late runs.

The Bills on the other hand, have a pretty tough stretch from Week 13 through Week 16 with the Cowboys, Ravens, Steelers, and Patriots on the slate and three of those four being on the road. I would suspect that they’ll come back to the pack a little bit.

The Titans have head-to-head tiebreakers in the bag against the Browns and Chargers, but would obviously lose a tiebreaker with the Bills. If the Chiefs — who have a relatively difficult stretch run themselves with at LAC, BYE, vs OAK, at NE, vs DEN, at CHI, and vs LAC remaining — end up slipping behind the Raiders in the AFC West, the Titans would hold a tiebreaker with them as well. The remaining matchups with the Colts, Texans, Raiders, and Jaguars will have big wildcard implications.

The tiebreaker procedure within the division goes head-to-head record, division record, record versus common opponents, conference record, then gets into strength of victory and more complicated steps that are rarely reached. Obviously, there is still much to be determined when it comes to head-to-head and division records, but the records versus common opponents tiebreakers have already largely been determined. The Titans would lose a tiebreaker with the Colts based on common opponents. They would also lose the common opponent tiebreaker with the Texans if Houston loses to New England in two weeks. The Titans will win the common opponent tiebreaker with the Jaguars.

Tennessee currently has a 17% chance of making the playoffs and a 9% chance of winning the division according to the New York Times Playoff Simulator (Football Outsiders likes their odds a little better at 21.7% for the playoffs and 10.5% for the division). Those odds more than double if they can pull off back-to-back division wins against the Jaguars and Colts.

It’s probably a little early to call these next two weeks “must win” games for the Titans. They would certainly still be alive if they split these games, but the road gets much more manageable if they can even their division record at 2-2.

Titans fans should be rooting for the Texans to win over the Colts on Thursday Night Football this week. The Titans control their own destiny to a far greater degree when it comes to Houston and a Colts win over the Texans would guarantee Indianapolis the tiebreaker over the Titans at the end of the season, regardless of the outcome of the Week 13 matchup.

The ideal scenario over the next two weeks features a Texans win over the Colts, a Texans loss to the Patriots, and Titans wins over the Jaguars and Colts. That would leave the Titans tied for the division lead with Houston at 7-5 and the Colts a game back at 6-6.

The toughest portion of that equation is the part that requires the Titans to get back-to-back wins over the Jags and Colts, particularly the winning on the road in Indy part, but I remain unconvinced that this is a particularly special Colts team. Over the last month they’ve narrowly escaped Denver at home, lost to Mason Rudolph’s Steelers, and lost to the terrible Dolphins at home. The blowout win over Jacksonville was their first multiple score victory of 2019. If we’re discounting every Titans close win based on “what ifs”, then we should be discounting most of the Colts season as well.

Tennessee would obviously make it to the playoffs if they win out and go 11-5. If they go 5-1 their odds will be above 90% no matter who they lose to according to the New York Times simulator, but a loss to the Saints would be the least damaging among the remaining six games due to tiebreakers. Their odds remain north of 50% if they go 4-2 with one of the losses coming to the Saints. If the two losses are both to AFC teams, those chances plummet to somewhere between 25-40%. Going 3-3 would put them in a spot where they would need some really fortunate breaks from other teams.

The Titans still have a ton of work to do, but they’ve put themselves in a position to make a run with their 3-1 run against the Chargers, Buccaneers, Panthers, and Chiefs. If you believe that the bounce on offense under Ryan Tannehill is sustainable — not necessarily at the top 5-10 level they have hit in the last month, but as an at least above average unit — there is reason to have hope for a playoff push.