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NFL Playoff Picture: Unraveling the messy knot that is the Titans path to the playoffs

Yes, Tennessee is still alive, but they need some help.

NFL: Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

This could have been simple this week with multiple scenarios where the Titans could clinch the division or a playoff spot, but when are things ever easy with this football team?

Sure, the Titans are down after the disappointing loss to Houston, but they’re far from out. In fact, FiveThirtyEight still has Tennessee with better than 50-50 odds to get into the postseason after the Bills road win over the Steelers on Sunday Night Football.

We know a few things for certain heading into Week 16:

  1. The Titans will head to Week 17 with a shot at making the playoffs no matter what happens in Week 16.
  2. There is a scenario where the Titans win out and miss the playoffs.
  3. There is also a scenario where the Titans lose out and make the playoffs.
  4. Neither scenario in points #3 and #4 above is that far fetched.

So let’s jump into the different routes available for the Titans to make the playoffs, starting with the simple one.

To win the AFC South...

The Titans will need three games to go their way to win the division:

  1. Buccaneers beat Texans on Saturday in Tampa Bay.
  2. Titans beat Saints at Nissan Stadium on Sunday.
  3. Titans beat Texans in Houston in Week 17.

Those three results combined would give Tennessee the division crown and a home playoff game, likely against the Bills in Nashville around the 20 year anniversary of the Music City Miracle, which would be incredibly fun.

But how likely are each of these results? Probably not as low as you might think.

The Texans will travel to Tampa on a short week to play a hot Bucs team that has won 5 of their last 6. Houston is currently listed as a 1-point favorite on the road so Vegas sees this as a pretty close matchup.

If you buy into the idea that travel and rest matters this time of year, it’s a less than ideal set up for Houston. They’re coming off a road game and going to play another road game 6 days later. Both the Texans and the Bucs have a good deal of Jekyll and Hyde tendencies, but Tampa’s ability for spectacular highs and soul crushing lows are really something to behold. If Good Jameis shows up next week, this result could go the Titans way.

Beating the Saints seems like a tall task as well, but again, the schedule plays a little bit in the Titans favor. The Saints are hosting the Colts on Monday Night Football and then traveling on a short week to Nashville to play Sunday. They’re already without two starting defensive linemen in Sheldon Rankins and Marcus Davenport who went on IR last week and have several others banged up. The Saints are listed as 2-point road favorites over the Titans. Again, a close game in Vegas’ eyes.

Finally, you have the rematch between the Titans and Texans. If both of the games in Week 16 go in the Titans favor, Week 17 will be for the division title. The first matchup was pretty even, though the Texans were ahead for most of the game. What the second meeting could look like is anyone’s guess. The Titans have played well on the road for most of this season and they could have key starters Adoree’ Jackson and Adam Humphries back by then.

FiveThirtyEight puts the odds of all that happening right around 12%. It’s a longshot, but not impossible.

To win the second wildcard spot...

This race is much more complicated, but the odds are better. The Titans have a few different paths to make the playoffs as the 6 seed. Now that the Bills are locked into the playoffs, Tennessee only truly needs to worry about two teams — the Steelers and the Colts — in the race for the final playoff spot.

Let’s start with the Colts. They play the Saints in New Orleans tonight for Monday Night Football. If the Colts lose to the Saints, their playoff hopes are over, but they could still potentially sabotage the Titans if Indy, Pittsburgh, and Tennessee all end up 8-8 (I’ll explain later).

If the Colts win in New Orleans, things get hairy in a hurry for the Titans due to Indy carrying the tiebreaker against Tennessee. The Colts host the Panthers and then travel to Jacksonville in Week 17. Getting to 9-7 is very possible if they can knock off the Saints.

However, the Steelers — who are tied with the Titans at 8-6 — remain the primary threat and the situation is extremely complicated due to tiebreakers. First, let’s look at what the tiebreaker procedures are for the wildcard if there are two teams tied with the same record.

NFL tiebreakers for wildcard spots between two teams.

This is how the Titans and Steelers matchup in those tiebreakers as things stand today;

  1. Head-to-Head: Not applicable
  2. AFC Record: Steelers (6-4), Titans (6-5)
  3. Common Opponents: Steelers (3-2), Titans (3-2) — the common opponents are the Browns, Colts, Chargers, and Bills
  4. Strength of Victory: Titans (50 wins), Steelers (34 wins, 1 tie)

Strength of victory is simply a comparison of the records of the opponents each team has defeated. The Titans have already clinched that tiebreaker if it gets to that point so we can stop there in our comparison (also, the half the Steelers wins have come against the Bengals, Dolphins, and Cardinals... gross).

There are four different scenarios where the Titans and Steelers finish the season with the same record:

  1. Both 10-6: Steelers get tiebreaker thanks to conference record (8-4 vs 7-5).
  2. Both 9-7 with Titans win coming against Saints: Steelers get tiebreaker thanks to conference record (7-5 vs 6-6).
  3. Both 9-7 with Titans win coming against Texans: Titans get tiebreaker thanks to strength of victory (conference records are even at 7-5).
  4. Both 8-8: Titans get tiebreaker thanks to strength of victory (conference records are even at 6-6).

The odd tiebreak flip makes things very interesting due to the order of the games in Week 16. If the Texans beat the Bucs and eliminate the AFC South road to the playoffs, the Titans would be looking at a situation where a win over the Saints is almost meaningless.

The Steelers have to finish 9-7 or worse for the Titans to have a shot at the wildcard and Tennessee would get in over a 9-7 Steelers team as long as they win in Houston in Week 17. An 8-8 Steelers team also loses it’s tiebreaker with an 8-8 Titans team so while winning against the Saints would be nice, the game truly has no bearing on the race between the Titans and Steelers, unless... the Colts also wind up at 8-8.

The Colts are the sole reason the Titans might not want to rest starters in Week 16 if the Texans win on Saturday. Even if Indy loses to the Saints tonight, they would still have a shot at getting to 8-8 and if the Colts, Titans, and Steelers all end up 8-8, the Steelers win the tiebreaker and get in.

The reason the 8-8 Titans would win a head-to-head tiebreaker with the Steelers, but not a three way tiebreaker that involves the Colts is due to the way the NFL breaks ties between three or more teams:

NFL tiebreaking procedure for wildcard with three or more teams tied.

Step one is to run the division tiebreaker which, in this case, would pit the Titans and Colts against each other with Indy emerging thanks to a better division record. The Colts would then lose the tiebreaker with the Steelers thanks to a head-to-head Week 9 win for Pittsburgh.

So what needs to happen for the Titans to get into the playoffs as a wildcard? Let’s break it down by potential results, starting with the best case scenario and working our way down to the worst:

Titans win both, finish 10-6...

Titans get in if Steelers lose either at the Jets OR at the Ravens.

Titans beat Texans, lose to Saints, finish 9-7...

Titans get in if Steelers lose either at Jets OR at Ravens AND Colts lose at Saints OR vs Panthers OR at Jaguars.

Titans beat Saints, lose to Texans, finish 9-7...

Titans get in if Steelers lose both games AND Colts lose at Saints OR vs Panthers OR at Jaguars.

Titans lose both, finish 8-8...

Titans get in if Steelers lose both games AND Colts lose two of final three.

Will anyone potentially be resting starters that would impact some of these important games?

The biggest threat to hurt the Titans by resting starters is Baltimore. If the Ravens beat the Browns in Week 16, they clinch the 1 seed and reports already suggest that they would rest Lamar Jackson and start Robert Griffin against the Steelers in Week 17 if they have things wrapped up. The Ravens would also clinch the 1 seed with losses by both the Patriots (vs BUF) AND the Chiefs (at CHI) in Week 16.

I don’t think it’s a slam dunk that the Steelers beat an RG3-led Ravens squad in Baltimore. Given the history of that rivalry, I’d suspect that the players who are suiting up for the Ravens would take some pleasure in keeping Pittsburgh out of the postseason. It’s not like the Ravens can sit everyone either. Sure, they’ll probably get stars like Lamar Jackson and Mark Ingram the day off, but with 53-man rosters, there are only 7 who can sit out entirely. It’s not like Pittsburgh would be playing an entire team of backups.

The Saints have their division title locked in, but they’re still going to be in the midst of a battle for playoff seeding when the Titans kickoff with them next week. A win tonight would put them even with San Francisco, Green Bay, and Seattle atop the NFC at 11-3. A loss would leave them just a game back with a head-to-head tiebreaker already in hand with the Seahawks. There is no scenario where the Saints don’t have motivation to win in Week 16.

There is a scenario where the Texans could enter Week 17 with nothing to play for. If Houston loses to the Bucs, the Titans lose to the Saints, and the Chiefs beat the Bears, the Texans would be locked into the 4 seed regardless of the outcome in Week 17 and would likely consider resting starters.

The question of whether the Titans should rest some starters — particularly Derrick Henry — against the Saints will become an interesting one if the Saints beat the Colts tonight and the Texans beat the Bucs on Saturday. That scenario leaves Week 16’s game very little meaning for the Titans. The only way a win over New Orleans helps them in that case is if the Steelers lose both their remaining games, the Colts win their last two, and the Titans lose in Houston. That’s a very specific and relatively low odds path so the Titans will have to decide if the chance of that exact scenario playing out is great enough to overcome the potential benefit of getting Derrick Henry healthy for Week 17 and potentially a playoff run.

As things stand today, I think I’d rest Henry against New Orleans if the Colts lose tonight and the Texans win on Saturday. He’s too important and getting his hamstring right — or at least closer to right — for Week 17 is more valuable than protecting one hyper-specific scenario where the team could back into the playoffs at 8-8.

FiveThirtyEight gives the Titans an 89% chance of making the playoffs if they simply beat Houston in Week 17. A Colts loss tonight would bump that number to 93%. That’s the game that Tennessee is going to have to win if they want to get in.

Week 16 Rooting Guide

Buccaneers over Texans

The Texans clinch the division with a win in this game so obviously the Titans don’t want that to happen. It sounds like Tampa is going to be without Mike Evans and Chris Godwin for this game which dampens my enthusiasm a bit, but Jameis Winston is the ultimate equalizer. He’s capable of winning or losing against anyone any given week.

A Texans loss here only boosts the Titans playoff odds from 54% to 57% according to FiveThirtyEight, but it does put the AFC South back in the Titans control.

Jets over Steelers

This game actually means more to the Titans playoff odds than the Titans-Saints game believe it or not. By virtue of the tiebreaker scenarios laid out above, a Steelers loss to the Jets — combined with a Colts loss to the Saints tonight or a Colts loss to the Panthers in Week 16 — would put the Titans in “win and in” mode for Week 17 regardless of their result against the Saints.

A Steelers loss in New York boosts the Titans playoff odds from 54% to 74%.

Panthers over Colts

The Colts can be eliminated from playoff contention with a loss tonight, but they can’t be eliminated from ruining the Titans playoff hopes. If the Colts manage to beat the Saints, this game becomes pretty important.

Browns over Ravens

Patriots over Bills

Chiefs over Bears

The Titans need a Ravens loss combined with either a Patriots or Chiefs win to keep Baltimore from resting starters against Pittsburgh in Week 17.