NASHVILLE – If playoff seeding is an accurate indicator, the Tennessee Titans were the AFC’s best team this season.
And if playoff seeding is an accurate indicator, the Titans have a tougher road to the Super Bowl than any of their recent predecessors in that spot. They know they will have to beat two other division winners.
For the first time since 2016, the top four in the AFC reached this point of the postseason. Going back 15 years, this is just the fourth time that has been the case.
It used to be easier, yet it was not common. Before last season, the top two seeds got a bye into the divisional round, which meant just two other division winners had to advance to set up this kind of scenario.
The current state of affairs comes from the fact that No. 2 Kansas City, No. 3 Buffalo and No. 4 Cincinnati all won on wild card weekend. The Titans will face the Bengals on Saturday, and the Chiefs and Bills will square off to see which one of the two makes it back to the AFC Championship.
“It is just every yard, and every play is critical,” coach Mike Vrabel said of playoff football. “Every decision that you make. We will use these games that have been happening around the league as examples, like we always do. Just how critical each and every play is. Each and every play conversion is critical. Every kick. Every punt that we cover. The field position. Taking care of the football.”
A look at what happened when the top four AFC seeds all reached the divisional round of the playoffs (2007-2020):
• 2011: Form held through the divisional round as well when New England (No. 1) and Baltimore (No. 2) knocked off Denver and Houston, respectively. The Patriots made it a clean sweep for the higher seeds with a 23-20 triumph over the Ravens in the AFC Championship but fell to the NFC’s No. 4 seed, the New York Giants, in Super Bowl XLVI.
• 2012: The teams that captured the top four seeds were the same as in 2011, albeit in a different order. This time, No. 1 Denver fell in the divisional round to No. 4 Baltimore. The Ravens then knocked off No. 2 New England in the conference championship and won the Super Bowl over San Francisco, No. 2 in the NFC.
• 2016: No. 1 New England and No. 3 Pittsburgh got to the AFC Championship when the Steelers went into Kansas City and won in the divisional round. The Patriots cruised to a 19-point victory to earn a spot in the Super Bowl, where they staged an epic comeback and knocked off Atlanta, the No. 2 team in the NFC.
In three of the past four years, the Titans were involved the disruption of the seeding. In 2017, Tennessee was the No. 5 seed but went to Kansas City and won in the wild card round when Marcus Mariota directed a second-half comeback. Two years later, the Titans were the No. 6 seed when they dispatched – in order – No. 3 New England and No. 1 Baltimore.
Last season, as the No. 4 seed, they could not get past the No. 5 Ravens.
Now, they not only are a higher seed, but they are the highest seed. And they face an opponent in Cincinnati that is in the postseason for the first time since 2015 and in the divisional round for the first time since 1990.
“I think they are really talented,” Vrabel said. “I think their skill players are really talented. I think they have some guys that can affect the quarterback. They are rushing the quarterback with really good ends. … There are a lot of things that they are doing really well.”