All things being equal, the Tennessee Titans would prefer to have done better through the first 10 games of this season.
Following their 37-3 victory at Miami a little more than a week ago, though, things could have been worse. At 4-6 they still were in playoff contention, albeit far from prime position to land one of the six postseason spots available in the AFC.
It is all but certain that their only chance is to make it as a wild card, and to do so they more than likely would finish with a record equal to that of another hopeful and then win a tiebreaker.
In five of the past six seasons, the final AFC playoff spot was settled by the NFL’s extensive tiebreaking procedures. Last year, for example, Tennessee lost out to Cincinnati after each finished 9-7. The last year the franchise made it as a wild card, 2007, it got in with a 10-6 record, while Cleveland did not.
“We have six games to go,” coach Mike Munchak said. “We know we have to win most of them if we’re going to have a chance at playing any more games than the 16 [in the regular season]. That’s how we’re going to have to focus it. Can we build off that game last week? … ”
Through the first 10 weeks of the current campaign, six AFC teams had six wins or more, including division leaders Houston, Baltimore, New England and Denver. None of the other 10 had more than four victories, which meant that there was a clear divide, although not one that was impossible to close, between the leading contenders and any others that still had designs on a postseason berth.
The Titans were one of four teams with four victories. So — strange as it sounds, given some of their struggles — they carried playoff aspirations with them into their bye and had plenty of reason to look forward to the final six games, beginning this Sunday at Jacksonville.
“I think we will be fine,” Munchak said. “I think the fact that you’re 4-6 and not far from being in the pile … we know we have to win three, four games in a row to kind of get it where we need to get it. That’s not going to be easy to do.”
Likewise, it’s not always easy to break the ties that happen in a league focused on parity. The scenarios are seemingly endless, and the criteria extend to a dozen, in most cases, in order to settle the issue.
To attempt to assess just what the chances for the Titans really are, start with the assumption that the best they can do is to tie one other team for the second wild card. If that happens, here is the order that would be used to break the tie and how the local franchise stacked up following its most recent contest:
1. Head-to-head (if applicable): Tennessee played four of the top six, including both teams that occupied the wild card spots. They were 1-3 in those games with losses to Houston, New England and Indianapolis and a victory over Pittsburgh. The Titans also faced two of the other three four-win teams — they lost to San Diego but beat Miami. If it comes down to a simple head-to-head tiebreaker, therefore, the odds are 2:1 against them.
2. Won-loss percentage in conference games: The Titans were .429 (3-4), which was not a terrible number but not a particularly helpful one either. Among the four-win teams, San Diego (4-2) had a big advantage in that regard and each of the top six were .500 or better. The worst of that bunch was Pittsburgh at 3-3. With five of Tennessee’s remaining six contests against conference opponents, there is an opportunity — not to mention a real need — to improve that figure.
3. Won-loss percentage in common games (minimum of four): This one most likely comes into play with the Colts, provided the Titans can win at Indianapolis on Dec. 9 and split the season series. Prior to Indianapolis’ game at New England on Sunday, the Colts were 2-1 while the Titans were 1-2 against common opponents (Chicago, Minnesota and Miami). However, Indianapolis’ next two games are against teams Tennessee beat (Buffalo and Detroit).
4. Strength of victory: This is the combined record of opponents in games won by the teams in question. This is where it starts to get good for Tennessee. Prior to the Week 11 games, the Titans’ strength of victory was .472, which was better than all of the other four-win teams and all except Houston among the top six.
5. Strength of schedule: This is the combined record of all opponents and, again, good news for the Titans. Their foes had a combined 54 wins, which was the most in the conference (Tennessee was the only AFC team that played each of the first 10 weeks) and the combined .593 winning percentage of those teams was best among the 10 teams with four wins or better.
6. Best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed in all games: If it gets to this point, this is where the early struggles on defense will be problematic. Following the victory over Miami, Tennessee was sixth in points scored but still had allowed the most points in the AFC. By comparison, the eight teams that allowed the fewest points included all six that were in playoff position and two of the other four-win teams (San Diego and Miami). Among the five teams that had more points, despite having played one fewer game, was four-win Cincinnati.
7. Best combined ranking among all teams in points scored and points allowed in all games: Similar to the previous category, the number of points allowed figures to work against Tennessee, which ranked 32nd in that regard and 14th in points scored, despite having played one more game than all but three teams, all in the NFC.
8. Best net points in conference games: The 34-point victory over Miami helped in this regard but was not enough to offset losses of 21 points or more to New England, San Diego and Houston. At minus-41, the Titans were worst among the AFC’s top 10 in this regard.
9. Best net points in all games: This category brings into play the 23-point loss to Minnesota and the 31-point debacle against Chicago, which only makes matters worse. Tennessee was minus-92 through the first 10 weeks. None of the others with four wins or more were worse than minus-15.
10 Best net touchdowns in all games: The Titans were minus-11 and once again worst among the 10 AFC teams considered to be in the playoff contention.
11. Coin toss: There have been points in this season when this option offered significantly better odds than the Titans’ performance. No way, though, it comes down to this.