Three out of the five toughest non-division opponents that the Tennessee Titans will face in 2018 represent the NFC East. Where do they rank?
It’s no secret: winning in the division is a key ingredient to a postseason appearance. The Tennessee Titans posted the best record in their division last season, but a disastrous stretch against the NFC West derailed the Titans from securing the division trophy.
Despite essentially owning the division, the Jacksonville Jaguars won the AFC South instead.
The Titans are faced with the task of repeating division success while winning outside the division as well. Here are the five most critical games that will be the toughest challenges in 2018.
1. New England Patriots
As the legendary Ric Flair habitually stated, “to be the man, you have to beat the man”. If the Titans want to solidify themselves as AFC contenders, they have to beat New England.
The Titans host the AFC powerhouse Patriots in an AFC matchup that could have playoff implications down the stretch. Tennessee looked solid against the Patriots early in the divisional round game, but an injury to starting OT Jack Conklin combined with the damage suffered at the hands of RB Dion Lewis in the second quarter ended the Titans season in brutal fashion.
What a difference a year makes, right? The offensive weapon that scorched the Titans is now a member of the Tennessee backfield. The Patriots will know how to scheme against their former player(s), so the Titans have to view this game as a statement/retribution game. A home field advantage and a redesigned offense gives the Titans a chance, but beating the Patriots is never easy.
The Titans face the Patriots around the halfway mark of the season. By this point, both teams’ trajectory for success will be more clearly defined.
2. Philadelphia Eagles
The first toughest non-division opponent the Titans face will be early.
The Titans end the first quarter of the season with a home game against the defending Super Bowl champions. After two back-to-back division games against the Texans (home) and Jaguars (away), the Titans will either position themselves with a division lead or will need to rack up wins to keep pace.
The Eagles defense will be a stout test for the Titans’ new look offense. A win against the defending champs will be a great confidence builder, but it will not be easy. Defensively, Tennessee will face an Eagles team that lost both Frank Reich (HC, Colts) and John DeFilippo (OC, Vikings), both coaching minds that had a heavy hand in what the Eagles did well last season.
OC Mike Groh, the Eagles’ receivers coach last season, will aim to replicate Philly’s 2017 offensive success. The Titans’ secondary will face their biggest test four weeks into the season in stopping a high-powered Eagles offense.
3. Los Angeles Chargers
What? The Chargers are ranked third? Yes, and here is why.
A trip to London sounds fun, but playing against the Joey Bosa-led Chargers defense does not. The retooled offensive line will have their hands full and Bosa is an interchangeable piece along the defensive front. Combined with the ferocious pressure of Melvin Ingram and backed by a solid secondary, this game will be a difficult one.
Communication and execution in the trenches, as well as establishing an effective running game, will be essential in escaping London with a win and in one piece.
The Titans’ offensive line has to keep Marcus Mariota upright and keep him from getting banged up. Tennessee will need a healthy Mariota heading into the second half of the season.
4. Dallas Cowboys
It was difficult to decide the placement of four and five, as I truly believe the ranking of each is interchangeable. However, the Cowboys edge out my number five team due to the game being on the national stage.
The only advantage the Cowboys have in this game is that they are at home. Roster-wise (at least on paper), the Titans have a better defense. Offensively, it’s no mystery. Dallas will employ a heavy dose of RB Ezekiel Elliot, but the Titans’ run defense is equipped to contain him.
The Cowboys’ offensive line will make it difficult for the Titans to apply pressure on QB Dak Prescott. The Titans’ secondary, however, should be able to contain a thin receiving corps better than last season. A win at “Jerry World” on the national stage would put the Titans on the map as serious contenders, assuming they’ve taken care of business up to this point in the season.
5. New York Giants
The Giants? Yes. And if QB Eli Manning can find some of that old “aw shucks”, shoulder-shrugging magic, New York could emerge as the team to beat in the NFC.
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Saying the Giants underachieved last season is a monumental understatement. This team was my pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. A season-ending injury to Odell Beckham Jr. essentially ended the Giants season as well.
The Giants took it on the chin and focused on building a better team for the upcoming season. Now, the Giants aim to erase the nightmare of 2017 and have the talent to do so.
New York’s moves in the draft and in free agency highlighted the fact that the team is all in. The G-Men beefed up their offensive line and added an explosive playmaking RB in Saquon Barkley, who many pegged as the number one overall prospect of the 2018 draft class.
The Titans face a potential offensive juggernaut (again, on paper) late in the season, with the Giants likely vying for the NFC East crown. Stopping Beckham Jr. may be impossible, but slowing him down or getting in his psyche is not. A gritty group of defensive backs must focus on defending every target to the star receiver, because he can make even the most difficult catch look easy.
How do the Titans fare?
Make no mistake about it, some of the losses that will appear on the Titans record will come from this list. How many, exactly? It depends.
The Titans should earn wins against the Cowboys and Chargers. And, if Eli is truly in the twilight of his career, maybe the Giants will not be as big of a challenge as I hypothesized. The two “Mt. Everest” challenges are the teams that played for the Lombardi last season.
And the Titans host both.