It has been talked about for years, but now the NFL’s 17-game regular-season schedule is a reality.
League owners approved the expansion Tuesday and the additional opponent for each franchise was verified. In the case of the Tennessee Titans, they will get an additional home game, this one against the New Orleans Saints, which means more than half of their games will be against teams that had winning records last season.
The actual schedule will be set at a later date, but here is a look at the Titans’ 2021 opponents and the challenges each currently presents, with last season’s record in parentheses and projected win totals for each group of opponents.
HOME and AWAY
Houston Texans (4-12): Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins left last season. Defensive end J.J. Watt is now gone too. Quarterback Deshaun Watson wants out but faces serious and mounting allegations of sexual misconduct that could result in a suspension. Factor in a new coach and little opportunity to add talent in the draft (no picks in the first or second round) and this is a team that does not strike fear in the heart of any opponent, particularly a Titans team that has beaten the Texans in three straight.
Indianapolis Colts (11-5): Carson Wentz will be the Colts’ fourth different starting quarterback in four seasons. The question is whether he will be the guy who was an MVP candidate before being injured in 2017 or the guy who struggled mightily in 2020. Indianapolis is a well-rounded team with fast, physical defense and a quality offensive line that does not need an epic performance from its quarterback. Still, it could be tough to beat – and a stiff challenge to Tennessee’s bid to repeat as AFC South champion – if Wentz is more than just a guy under center.
Jacksonville Jaguars (1-15): No team had more money to spend in free agency, but the Jaguars failed to make a huge splash in that manner. That will happen in the draft, when they make the first overall selection, which – barring some unforeseen development – will be quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Urban Meyer will command attention as a first-time NFL coach. He also will have to prove that he can win at this level, and he likely will need more talent to do so with any regularity, and the Titans should be in position to inflict some growing pains.
Games: 6. Projected wins: 5.
Los Angeles Rams (10-6): The Rams made one of the offseason’s most high-profile moves with the trade for quarterback Matthew Stafford. They already have one of the game’s best defenses led by three-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and Nashville native Jalen Ramsey. Donald against Derrick Henry, and Ramsey against A.J. Brown will be thrilling matchups to watch, and likely will determine which teams ultimately wins.
New England Patriots (7-9): Under coach Mike Vrabel, the Titans have gotten the best of the team for which he is most associated as a player in the regular season and in the playoffs. And that was with Tom Brady at quarterback. It is likely – when all is said and done – no roster will be reshaped more this offseason, a process that includes the addition of tight end Jonnu Smith. Bill Belichick is still the head coach, though. Is this the time the master teaches the pupil something new?.
New York Jets (2-14): One of the franchises that made a coaching change since the end of last season, it also is a team in dire need of an attitude adjustment. There is uncertainty about who will be the quarterback, but whoever it is will have a better surrounding cast than was the case in 2020. That includes wide receiver Corey Davis. The defense too has been retooled, in this case with a lot of speed. Still, it is likely to be a slow climb back to respectability for a franchise that is now a decade removed from its last playoff appearance. This is one the Titans must win.
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4): The Steelers were the first team to defeat the Titans in 2020 and a study in consistency. Ben Roethlisberger will return at quarterback, and the defense is always fast, physical and intimidating. That defense won’t have outside linebacker Bud Dupree, who is now with the Titans, but still features T.J. Watt and likely will get Dupree’s replacement from the draft. Pittsburgh is always a tough place to win.
Seattle Seahawks (12-4): Quarterback Russell Wilson is in the prime of his career and will have a new offensive coordinator as well as some new weapons to use. That should inject life into the Seahawks’ attack and allow Wilson to do more within the scheme rather than having to improvise as much. Seattle long has enjoyed the NFL’s best homefield advantage, and with full stadiums expected this fall, that advantage will return.
Games: 5. Projected wins: 2.
Arizona Cardinals (8-8): Arizona has become a popular destination for high-end talent with the additions of J.J. Watt, wide receiver A.J. Green and former Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler among others. Quarterback Kyler Murray, the first overall pick in 2019, is difficult to defend, and built a big-play rapport with Hopkins in their first season together. This is a franchise looking to take the step up from mediocrity, which often is a difficult one, as the Titans – not far removed from four straight 9-7 seasons – can attest.
Buffalo Bills: (13-3): Buffalo will be talked about as a Super Bowl contender throughout the offseason after having played in the AFC Championship game last season and having brought back many key pieces for this one. The Bills also will have the memory of getting whipped in a prime-time game at Nissan Stadium in 2020 and will be motivated to avoid a similar fate this time.
Kansas City Chiefs (14-2): Led by quarterback Patrick Mahomes and coach Andy Reid, they have been in the last two Super Bowls, with one win. They’re also the team that kept Tennessee out of the Super Bowl two years ago. No opponent will create more issues for the Titans’ retooled secondary. It will take more than just a big performance from Henry to win this one. All three phases will need to make impact plays.
Miami Dolphins (10-6): The Dolphins ended up as the odd team out in last season’s dynamic AFC playoff race when they finished a game behind the Titans and three others. Efficient free-agent spending and four of the first 50 picks in the draft have the potential to make this a memorable offseason and to push Miami into the conference’s upper echelon. This is a contest that figures to have serious playoff implications.
New Orleans Saints (12-4): Drew Brees has retired, which automatically makes the Saints less intimidating than they have been for years. However, that also means they will be much less predictable on offense and coach Sean Payton is as creative as they come – and he will have to get creative with his roster management as well as his scheme in 2021. Few teams were harder hit by the salary cap than Tennessee this offseason, but New Orleans absolutely was one.
San Francisco 49ers (6-10): Only a season removed from their last Super Bowl appearance, the 49ers are in flux. They have acquired the No. 3 pick in the draft, which could create a quarterback controversy, depending on how they use it. But they have beefed up the offensive line, and the defense was top 10 against the run and top five against the pass in 2020. After being crushed by injuries in 2020, this will be a tough team to beat again in 2021.
Games: 6. Projected wins: 3
TOTALS – Games: 17. Projected wins: 10.