With Wednesday’s release of the NFL schedule, the 2021 season has started to come into focus.
Of course, injuries, unexpected developments and a little bit of luck will change the view along the way. Teams that look like contenders now will come up woefully short and others that no one sees as legitimate contenders will rise up throughout 17 games over 18 weeks.
As it is, though, here are five observations about the Titans’ schedule, one day after it was made public.
It is a long road to the bye. There was much consternation in 2020 when a COVID outbreak led to a schedule change that meant that Titans had to play their final 14 games without a break. They won six of their final nine to claim their first division title since 2008 but were not exactly at their best by the finish. Green Bay routed them in Week 16 and an overmatched Houston team pushed them to the limit in the regular season finale. Then came the playoff loss to Baltimore.
This year’s bye comes in Week 13 (Dec. 5), which matches the latest in franchise history and means the Titans will play 12 straight weeks from the start of the season. The only other time Tennessee played that many before it got a break was 2016. That year, the Titans won three of four following the bye but were just 6-6 beforehand and ultimately missed out on the playoffs.
There is no obvious chance to take control of the division. Unlike in most recent years, the six contests against the three AFC South rivals are all separated by at least two weeks and there is a month or more between the home-and-away matchups with each individual opponent (Houston, Indianapolis and Jacksonville).
That means there is no concentration of the games that have the most profound impact on the division race. Last year, for example, the Titans and Colts played twice in 17 days, and Tennessee’s victory in the second was the difference between first and second place. In 2019, four of the final six were against division foes, and three wins led to a second-place finish and a wild card playoff spot. The 2018 season featured two sets of back-to-back games against AFC South teams.
This time the division race will take place in start-and-stop fashion throughout the schedule.
Rookie quarterbacks will have time to learn. It is possible that Tennessee will face four of the five quarterbacks selected in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. If that is the case, each will have had time to at least get their feet wet as professionals.
First up likely will be Zach Wilson, the No. 2 overall pick by the New York Jets. That will be in Week 4 and will be immediately followed by the first matchup with No. 1 overall choice Trevor Lawrence of Jacksonville. New England’s Mac Jones (No. 15) potentially awaits in Week 12, and finally San Francisco and Trey Lance (No. 3) is a possibility in Week 16.
Any experience at this point in their careers is significant. Last year’s top choice, Joe Burrow, had seven games under his belt before he and the Bengals beat the Titans, and in 2018 Josh Rosen (No. 7), had four games and three starts to his credit before he and Buffalo came into Nissan Stadium and won.
Odds are October will tell the tale. The most critical stretch of the schedule almost certainly will be Oct. 18-31, when the Titans play against – in order – Buffalo (home), Kansas City (home) and Indianapolis (away). According to oddsmakers, those are three of the best bets to win the AFC and play in Super Bowl LVI. Kansas City is the favorite, Buffalo is next, and Indianapolis is tied for fifth with Denver (behind Baltimore and Cleveland).
Down the stretch in 2019, Tennessee enjoyed a certain level of comfort in its pursuit of a wild card spot because of victories at Indianapolis and Oakland in consecutive weeks early in December. Those wins provided important tiebreaker advantages and came after a win over Kansas City, which finished with the AFC’s second-best record. Last year, victories over Baltimore, Buffalo and Indianapolis (playoff teams all) were of paramount importance.
There is no guarantee that this year’s October games will be the ones that matter most, but it sure seems like a good bet.
This could be Derrick Henry’s best December yet. No doubt, this sounds crazy given the way the two-time rushing champion has dominated late in recent seasons. After all, four of his five career 200-yard games have come after Dec. 1 and he has averaged 102 yards in 23 career December and January games, well above his average for September through November (63.9 yards per game).
But if there is one benefit to the late bye week, it is that Henry will get a break at the start of December. In the longest NFL regular season to date, he will be able to rest up for the stretch run, which will increase the likelihood that he will run over the final five opponents in much the same way – if not better – he traditionally has.