Plotting Possible Titans' Playoff Paths

David Boclair

NASHVILLE – Last week’s bye helped the Tennessee Titans in a lot of ways, including their playoff chances.

According to The New York Times’ playoff simulator, the current probability that Tennessee makes the postseason is 16 percent, twice what it was a week earlier. Based on the program’s projections of every possible combination of outcomes over the remainder of the season, the Titans (5-5) are still more likely than not to finish behind Houston and Indianapolis in the AFC South and to miss out on the playoffs for the second straight year. In fact, the best bet, according to the program, is for them to finish 8-8.

The NFL, though, often is unpredictable.

“Not many teams have more than seven wins,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “People remember November. I think this is when you separate yourself as a team and you make a playoff push. Each game is critical.”

Given the makeup of their schedule over the remaining six weeks of the regular season, there are some fairly obvious ways for the Titans to navigate their way to the postseason.

A look:

• Dominate the division: Four of the remaining contests are against AFC South teams. The Titans will play Houston twice (Dec. 15, Dec. 29) with one matchup each against Jacksonville (Sunday) and Indianapolis (Dec. 1).If Tennessee just wins those four and loses the other two, it will be 9-7 and – at worst – alone in second place in the division. In that scenario, the Colts can claim the division outright by winning the remainder of their games to get to 11-5 (or even at 10-6). That would include a triumph over Houston on Thursday, which would mean the Texans (currently 6-4) finish no better than 9-7 but have two losses to the Titans, who then likely would have to hope for help in a tiebreaker against a team from another division for a wild card spot. If Houston wins Thursday, Tennessee needs help to make sure the Colts and or Texans lose again and get to seven defeats.

Still, if you’re only going to win four of the final six, those are the four to win.

• Eye on the wild card: Say the Titans lose at Indianapolis on Dec. 1. That would mean the Colts sweep the season series and would difficult to catch. Remember, Indianapolis currently is one game up on the Tennessee and has a head-to-head victory. At that point, the focus would turn squarely to the wild card.

Entering the week, the Titans are fifth in the AFC wild card race. Buffalo (7-3) occupies the top spot, has a two-game lead on Tennessee and a head-to-head victory, which puts the Bills all but out of reach and means the second – and last – wild card is the only realistic possibility.

To get there, the Titans have to jump over Houston, which currently holds the spot. Win two wins head-to-head, Tennessee jumps the Texans, who would then need help. Oakland is seventh and, like Houston, is 6-4. The Titans and Raiders will meet Dec. 8 in Oakland, which means a victory in that one will give Tennessee a tiebreaker, if it comes down to that.

Pittsburgh is currently eighth at 5-5 but has the edge on Tennessee based on a better conference record (4-3 versus 3-4). Since they don’t meet, the Titans will have to win one more game overall to edge the Steelers outright or gain at least one win (maybe two) against AFC opponents in order to win a tiebreaker.

• Protect this house: Say the Titans win only their remaining home games and fail to win on the road. That gets them to 8-8 overall, 2-4 in the division and 5-7 in the conference. Even if that manages to get them into a tiebreaker (not at all likely), it is doubtful they would get the nod.

In other words, this team is going to have to go on the road and win at least once. The remaining games away from Nissan Stadium are against Indianapolis, Oakland and Houston, all of which have been good at home. The Raiders, at 5-1, are tied for the most home wins in the NFL entering Week 12. The Colts are 4-2 and the Texans are 3-1. So getting those road wins won’t be easy.

The good news is that the teams immediately in front of Tennessee in the conference standings, Oakland and Pittsburgh, each have more remaining road games (four) than they do home games (two). So they’re going to have to work hard to boost their chances.

• Win them all: The Titans enter the stretch run off a victory over Kansas City and with wins in three of their last four. Given this team’s inconsistency through the first 10 games, seven straight wins to end the season seem unlikely. Say it happens, though. That would get them to 11-5 and – at the very least – tied with Indianapolis for first place in the division.

Since the NFL went to eight divisions in 2002, there has been just one team that finished 11-5 and did not make the playoffs (New England, 2008). There are only eight AFC teams at the moment that possibly could finish 11-5 or better, but no way that all of them can win out. So, if Tennessee can run the table to get to 11-5 it is impossible to imagine any scenario in which that does not mean a playoff berth.