Let’s examine how Thursday Night’s disaster against the Steelers affected the playoff chances in the AFC South and why the ramifications are not as many Tennessee Titans fans might believe.
Let’s get this out of the way first: the Tennessee Titans, and especially QB Marcus Mariota, had a horrible second half against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday. Penalties, mistakes, blown coverages, and missed opportunities meant that the Titans could not get anything going offensively and gave up numerous big plays defensively after a great defensive effort in the first half. Mariota experienced his worst outing as a pro by throwing four interceptions in one game, which gave him more interceptions than passing touchdowns on the season.
That said, the notion that the Titans should look to move on from Mariota is a knee-jerk reaction and frankly ludicrous. Although his stats have been very subpar this season, especially when compared to the stellar numbers he put up last season, Mariota’s injuries limited him for several weeks and the offense around him has taken a significant step back. Neither the offensive line nor the running game has been as dominant as last season, and even in the last two weeks, Mariota has lost out on the opportunity to have three more touchdowns thanks to two concentration drops and a fumble out of the back of the end zone. These are the kinds of things that Mariota’s stats don’t illustrate.
Mariota has proven in the past that he can lead the team to wins and put the team on his back late in the game. In 36 career games, Mariota may have not played well at times, but Thursday was one of the few times that his play has prevented the team’s ability to compete. In every one of his other games, he has played at or above the level of his surrounding roster, which has translated to six wins through only 10 games in 2017. Mariota should rebound and learn from this Pittsburgh game and is more than capable of leading this team for years to come.
As a whole, this team’s performance needs to take a step forward in order to win the AFC South, since the Jacksonville Jaguars have played at a much higher level this season than the Tennessee Titans. Years of top ten draft picks and splashy free agent signings finally have started to pay dividends in Jacksonville. The running game, spearheaded by Leonard Fournette, and a defense full of playmakers creates a new, more physical identity in Jacksonville that doesn’t rely on Blake Bortles (thankfully). Like the Titans, this team has also struggled to perform on a consistent basis after they look unstoppable one week and then get blown out the next. Just last week, they faced a severely undermatched Los Angeles Chargers team that dominated for four and a half quarters before collapsing, as is their wont.
Though this poor performance by Jacksonville might’ve seemed encouraging heading into Week 11 with a game against the desperate, winless Cleveland team, the Jaguars were never going to lose to the Browns in Week 11. Jacksonville now heads into Week 12 in sole possession of first place with Tennessee struggling to play catch up.
With an important head-to-head matchup in Week 17 between Tennessee and Jacksonville looming, the Titans just need to win their remaining division games against the push-over Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans teams while staying one game or less behind Jacksonville in order to compete for first place in the division. Should the division end with a tie for first and Tennessee holds the head-to-head advantage, Tennessee will be in first place in the AFC South.
This AFC South is very winnable, but what has gone largely unnoticed by many is that neither the Titans nor the Jaguars need to win the division for a playoff spot. Whereas in years past a weak 9-7 Texans team has snuck into the playoffs, both Jacksonville and Tennessee both trend towards double digit wins and Wild Card contention. The AFC has not put forward very many strong contenders this season. Only six teams are above .500 and Tennessee and Jacksonville are two and three wins above .500, respectively.
Looking ahead at Tennessee’s schedule, they should win their next four games against Indianapolis, Houston, Arizona, and San Francisco. They should be able to split at least against the Los Angeles Rams and Jacksonville, which would give them an 11-5 record. Even if they drop both of their last two games, in a worst case scenario, the Titans would still likely earn a playoff bid with a 10-6 record, given the poor state of the AFC this season. Two of the other inconsistent AFC teams would need to go on a six-out-of-seven win tear to end the season in that case, which is highly unlikely.
The Jaguars, on the other hand, face all of the same basement-dwelling teams except for the Seattle Seahawks, who just lost two of their stars in Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman. In all likelihood, the Jaguars should win six out of their last seven barring a huge upset by winning against every team except Tennessee or Seattle en route to a 12-4 record.
Due to a combination of easy schedules, a weak AFC conference, and strong play from both Tennessee and Jacksonville, the AFC South should field multiple playoff teams. The Titans still have time to hit their stride heading into January. It’s a cliche phrase, but that’s because it rings true. It isn’t how you start, but how you finish. This Titans offense has the talent to put up huge numbers and the defense has improved week by week as the secondary has gelled and grown. Tennessee’s poor play will be forgotten if they can heat up down the stretch. Because the Titans, and to a lesser extent Jacksonville, did enough to win in the first half of the season, they are positioned to find the consistency that marks a true contender during the latter half of the season.