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What Sunday’s win over the Colts means to the Titans playoff hopes

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The Titans stacked their third straight win and remain firmly in both the race for both the AFC South and the wildcard. We break down the paths to securing a spot in the postseason.

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

The Titans did their part on Sunday, beating the Colts 31-17 and advancing to 7-5. However, they didn’t get much help from around the league. The Bills advanced to 9-3 with an impressive road win over the floundering Cowboys on Thanksgiving, the Steelers got to 7-5 with their 16th straight win over the Browns at Heinz Field, and the Texans beat a flu-ridden Patriots team on Sunday Night Football to maintain a one game lead in the division.

Tennessee’s playoff odds are now up to 42% overall with a 22% chance of winning the division according to FiveThirtyEight’s Elo model and Football Outsiders has them at 52.3% to get in and 32.1% to win the AFC South.

Obviously, the most important thing moving forward is continuing to stack wins. Everything the Titans want to accomplish is on the table as long as they keep winning football games. So let’s take a look at what the paths to the playoffs look like for the Titans heading into Week 14.


AFC South Division Race

First, the updated AFC South standings:

  1. Texans (8-4)
  2. Titans (7-5)
  3. Colts (6-6)
  4. Jaguars (4-8)

The Colts chances of winning the division cratered with their loss, dropping to just 3% according to FiveThirtyEight. They would need to win out and get a combination of Titans and Texans losses to get back on top which is further complicated by the fact that the Titans and Texans play each other twice in the last three games.

Realistically, this is now a two team race and the division title is going to almost certainly come down to the two Titans-Texans matchups in Week 15 and Week 17. Here are the remaining schedules for each team:

The Titans hopes of winning the division without sweeping the Texans is virtually zero after last night’s result. The Texans would win the tiebreaker if the two teams split their games and end up with the same overall record due to what would be a 4-2 AFC South record against the Titans 3-3 division mark.

That means that the Texans would have to lose to both the Broncos and Bucs while the Titans beat both the Raiders and Saints for Tennessee to win the AFC South while splitting their games against Houston. While you’ll be hard pressed to find a bigger proponent of “any given Sunday” than me, even I think the idea of Houston losing to both Denver and Tampa Bay is pretty far fetched.

Sweeping the Texans is a must if the Titans want a realistic chance at hosting a playoff game in Nissan Stadium.


AFC Wildcard Race

The results of this weekend really cleared some things up in the wildcard race. The Browns are effectively out of the picture now following their loss to the Steelers that dropped them to 5-7. From a Titans standpoint, they’re essentially a non-threat due to the head-to-head tiebreaker that Tennessee holds thanks to their Week 1 win over Cleveland. With the other three divisions all but locked up, that leaves five teams competing for two spots in the wildcard race.

  1. Bills (9-3)
  2. Steelers (7-5)
  3. Titans (7-5)
  4. Raiders (6-6)
  5. Colts (6-6)

The remaining schedules for the other four teams are as follows:

  • Bills: vs Ravens, at Steelers, at Patriots, vs Jets
  • Steelers: at Cardinals, vs Bills, at Jets, at Ravens
  • Raiders: vs Titans, vs Jaguars, at Chargers, at Broncos
  • Colts: at Buccaneers, at Saints, vs Panthers, vs Jaguars

The Bills have the toughest road forward with a home matchup with the best team in football this week followed by visits to the Steelers and Patriots. The Titans won’t have the head-to-head tiebreaker with Buffalo due to that dumb home loss in Week 5 and that means that the Bills would have to lose out for the Titans to pass them in the wildcard race. Possible, but not terribly likely.

The Steelers are hanging around in the playoff race thanks to their incredible defense, but they have two tough matchups remaining with the Bills and Ravens. They currently would hold the tiebreaker with the Titans thanks to their 6-3 conference record (Tennessee is 5-4 in the AFC). If both teams win out, the Steelers would hold the tiebreaker, but it wouldn’t matter since the Titans would be AFC South champs. However, if these teams both end up at 9-7, it will come down to where those losses occurred. Any combination of results that includes a Steelers win against the Cardinals, a Steelers loss to the Bills, and a Titans loss to the Saints would give the Titans the tiebreaker by virtue of their superior strength of victory. It’s complicated and specific, but when you look at what needs to happen, this isn’t really that unlikely.

The Raiders situation is simple. They’re done if the Titans knock them off on Sunday. They’d be at 6-7 and needing the Titans to lose out while Oakland wins out to climb back into the picture. If the Titans lose in Oakland things get much more complicated. They would still control their own destiny in the AFC South, but the wildcard scenarios would suddenly require a lot of outside help.

The Colts will still own the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Titans despite the win yesterday — unless the Titans win both Houston games which would, again, mean they likely win the AFC South — so they could still become a headache in the wildcard race for Tennessee if they’re able to rally down the stretch. Road games with the Bucs and Saints in the next two weeks are tough matchups for them — and they may not have T.Y. Hilton or Marlon Mack back for either of those games — but they close with the fading Panthers and Jaguars at home. The Titans need Indy to lose the next two if they want a chance to sneak in at 9-7.


If the Titans finish 11-5...

Congrats! They’ve won the AFC South and will be hosting a playoff game. It’s even possible — a 7% chance according to the New York Times Playoff Simulator — that the Titans wind up with a 2 seed and a first round bye in the playoffs, though that would require a collapse from either the Ravens (not happening barring an injury to Lamar Jackson) or the Patriots (possible, but they’re still the Patriots).


If the Titans finish 10-6...

Odds are they are in the playoffs, but it will depend on who the loss comes against. If the loss is to either the Raiders or Saints and the Colts don’t win out, the Titans win the AFC South and likely host the Bills in the wildcard round of the playoffs.

If the loss comes against Houston, the Titans would need the Steelers to lose twice and the Colts to lose once in their last four games. If that happens, the Titans are the second wildcard team in the AFC and are likely traveling to Houston for a second straight week for a playoff game.


If the Titans finish 9-7...

Help wanted... and it would depend largely on who the Titans losses came against.

If the losses are to the Raiders and Texans, the Titans would need the Raiders to drop two of three against the Jaguars, Chargers and Broncos, the Steelers to lose three of four against the Cardinals, Bills, Jets, and Ravens, and the Colts to lose two of four against the Bucs, Saints, Panthers, and Jaguars.

If the losses are to the Saints and Texans, the Titans just need the Steelers to lose two of three against the Bills, Jets, and Ravens and the Colts to lose two of four against the Bucs, Saints, Panthers, and Jaguars.

If the losses are to the Raiders and Saints, the Titans need the Texans to lose to either the Bucs or Broncos and the Colts to lose two of four to the Bucs, Saints, Panthers, and Jaguars to win the AFC South OR the Raiders to lose two of three against the Jaguars, Chargers and Broncos, the Steelers to lose two of three against the Bills, Jets, and Ravens, and the Colts to lose two of four against the Bucs, Saints, Panthers, and Jaguars.

If the losses both come against the Texans, the Titans would need the Steelers to lose three of four against the Cardinals, Bills, Jets, and Ravens, and the Colts to lose two of four against the Bucs, Saints, Panthers, and Jaguars.


If the Titans finish 8-8...

Now we’re in really crazy territory, but it’s still theoretically possible.

If the Titans win is against the Raiders, they’d need the Raiders to lose one of their final three, the Steelers to lose all of their remaining AFC games, the Colts to lose three of their final four, and the Browns to lose one more game.

If the Titans win is against anyone else, they’d need the Raiders to lose out, the Steelers to lose all their remaining AFC games, the Colts to lose three of their last four, and the Browns to lose one more game.

Getting in at 8-8 would qualify as a miracle and we would probably be feeling pretty down on the team’s chances to advance even if they did manage to back into a spot.


There are a couple scenarios that could complicate matters in Week 17 as we get to the point where teams may or may not rest starters. Titans fans should be rooting for the Ravens to drop a game or two between now and Week 17. They’re tied with the Patriots atop the AFC at 10-2 and hold the head-to-head tiebreaker with New England. If they remain two games up on the Chiefs — the only AFC contender who currently holds the tiebreaker with Baltimore — and one game up on the Patriots heading into Week 17, they may rest some guys against the Steelers which could be damaging to the Titans odds if they’re still in competition with Pittsburgh.

Things could break in a positive direction for the Titans in that regard as well though. If the Titans beat the Raiders and Saints, but lose their Week 15 matchup with the Texans, there is a good chance that Houston could have the AFC South division title wrapped up before kickoff in Week 17. Depending on the results from other teams around the league, it’s possible that the Texans could be locked into their playoff seed as well. For example, the Texans winning their next three and the Patriots winning their next three would mean Houston is the 3 seed regardless of other results.

If that happens, you could have a scenario similar to the 2017 finale when the Jaguars had the division wrapped up and played a Titans team needing a win to get in. The Jaguars didn’t rest starters in that game, but would the Texans? It’s hard to say for sure, but taking away some of the motivation of your opponent is generally helpful. Obviously, this isn’t a scenario that the Titans would like to see since it would involve a Tennessee loss in Week 15, but it could leave them in an advantageous spot to claim the second wildcard.

In the short term, a win over the Raiders this week would boost their odds of getting in substantially — from 42% to 56% according to FiveThirtyEight — and it would effectively wipe one of their three primary competitors for the second wildcard spot off the playoff map. We are at the point in the season where every game is absolutely massive for this team. It’s unfortunate that the bad start dug an early hole, but the Titans control their own destiny heading into the final quarter of the season and are playing their best football at the right time.