NASHVILLE – The Tennessee Titans are one-of-a-kind. And not in a good way.
As the 2021 NFL season entered its fifth week, the Titans were one of 14 teams that led their respective divisions outright or were tied for first place. And they were the only one of the 14 that had not won at least three games.
Last Sunday’s 27-24 overtime loss to the New York Jets dropped Tennessee to 2-2. In two divisions, the NFC West and NFC North, that would only be good enough third place while in two others, the AFC North and AFC West, it would rank at the bottom.
The Titans, though, are in the AFC South. Their division rivals include Jacksonville, one of the league’s two remaining winless teams (Detroit is the other) and a franchise in turmoil after the irresponsible, off-field actions of its head coach were caught on cell phone video and created – in his own words – a distraction. Another team is Houston, which has one win (against Jacksonville) and a disgruntled Pro Bowl quarterback coaches won’t play because he wants to be traded. The Texans are fresh off a 40-0 loss in Week 4.
Tennessee is team to beat because of a head-to-head victory in a Week 3 matchup with Indianapolis, a team that finally got its first win last Sunday.
“We all have high expectations and standards,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. “We are .500, we are 2-2. We have played well at times, and we played not very well at times. We don’t really look around, I think we can afford ourselves that luxury to say, ‘Well, we have one more win than three other teams.’”
Last season the Titans started 5-0 and eventually won the division by one game over the Indianapolis Colts, who won three of their first five.
It is possible that Vrabel’s team once again could have a two-game lead after its first five, even if it only wins three of the first five. Tennessee is a 4 1/2-point favorite on the road Sunday against Jacksonville, according to SI Sportsbook. Meanwhile, Houston is an 8-point underdog at home against New England (1-3), and Indianapolis is a 7-point underdog on the road Monday night against Baltimore (3-1).
“Nobody wants to lose any games in the NFL,” safety Kevin Byard said this week. “We let one go last week. But today is a new day, and it’s a new week. We’ve got to go out there and play our best football to get a division win because we all know how important it is to win our division.”
A year ago, the NFL expanded the postseason to include seven teams from each conference. This year, the regular season has grown to 17 games.
What remains unchanged is that the best way to get into the playoffs is to win the division. While the rest of the AFC South is looking up at Tennessee, there are seven teams in the conference that have three wins.
The Titans are minus-16 in point differential with 95 scored and 111 allowed, which is worst among the first-place teams and makes them one of just two (Green Bay at minus-4 is the other) to have allowed more points than it has scored.
It is another unappealing statistic, but it does not change the fact that the rest of the division is looking up at them. That, by itself, makes them a legitimate playoff contender.
According to an NFL.com analytics analysis, the week began with a 60.9 percent chance for the Titans make the playoffs, second-best among the seven .500 teams. PlayoffStatus.com sees a 57 percent likelihood they are in the postseason and FootballOutsiders sees a 50.5 percent chance they play beyond the regular season.
Still, an analysis by the NFL’s Football Operations Department found that the Titans likely need to win more than the lose the rest of the way. Based on its study, a team that finishes 9-8 this season (the first with 17 games) has a 50 percent chance to make the playoffs while one that finishes 8-9 has just an 11 percent chance. Win 10 games and the likelihood increases dramatically, to 91 percent.
“I think it is just focusing on the things we need to focus on and continue to get better as the week goes on carrying into Jacksonville on Sunday,” running back Derrick Henry said. “It is a divisional game, which is always a big game for us. Just playing our style of football and go out there and try to win the game.”
Something they have done as often as they have lost thus far.