For the first time since 2008, the Tennessee Titans have a legitimate chance to make the NFL playoffs.
If the Titans win their remaining games at Kansas City, at Jacksonville and versus Houston, they will win the AFC South and guarantee postseason entry. At best, the Texans would have a 9-7 record in this situation.
With this news there is a growing fervor among the people of Nashville, who until this moment have suffered eight long years of losing seasons, fizzled out draft choices, and personnel changes.
This fervor is based in expectation.
Last week after the Titans beat the Broncos, Deion Sanders of the NFL Network asked left tackle Taylor Lewan if he thinks Tennessee can go on to win the division, to which Lewan responded, “I got you a seat right next to daddy. You sit right there with me. I’ll take you to the Promised Land.”
Lewan’s comment, while jestful, couldn’t even have been uttered the last two seasons, since through 2014 and 2015 the Titans garnered just five wins versus 27 losses.
So what has brought Tennessee back on the national spotlight? In many ways, a reversion to the past, since this year’s team is similar to the 2008 team that last made the postseason.
Eight years ago, the Titans played football from the inside out. They had a top-performing offensive and defensive line, the league’s eighth best rusher (Chris Johnson), and a veteran quarterback (Kerry Collins) who limited turnovers, threw when needed, and managed game situations well.
In a league that currently favors pass-centric offenses, head coach Mike Mularkey and general manager Jon Robinson have modeled the Titans on an older style of play, as their team plays inside-out football much like the team of 2008.
This year’s offensive line has quietly become one of the best units in the league thanks to the guidance of Hall-of-Fame coach Russ Grimm, the Pro-Bowl caliber play of Taylor Lewan, and the studded start of rookie Jack Conklin. Together the front five has allowed the fifth fewest sacks in the league (20).
“Everybody talks about the great offensive line in Dallas,” says Trey Wingo of NFL Live. “Everyone talks about the Raiders offensive line. Not enough people talk about this Tennessee Titans’ offensive line.”
DeMarco Murray, Derrick Henry, and quarterback Marcus Mariota are one of the most efficient rushing trios in the league as they collectively average 4.7 yards per carry. They have guided Tennessee to the 3rd best ground attack in the NFL (144.5 yards per game).
Finally, defensive coordinator Dick LaBeau has operated by the philosophy that quarterback pressure and sacks win games. A resurgent Brian Orakpo, a healthy Derrick Morgan, and a disruptive Jurrell Casey have tallied 22 of the Titans’ 33 team sacks, which is tied for fifth most in the league.
So with three games remaining in the regular season and with control of their own destiny, can the 2016 Titans do what the team of 2008 did?
The biggest obstacle remaining for Tennessee is their upcoming match with Kansas City. The Chiefs (10-3) led the studded AFC West and have won 20 of their last 23 regular season games under head coach Andy Reid.
According to Mularkey, the Chiefs present similar matchup concerns as the Broncos. Defensive end Justin Houston, for instance, is a “more powerful” albeit slower version of Von Miller. He will line up opposite rookie Jack Conklin.
Moreover, the Chiefs’ secondary could also be called a ‘No Fly Zone.’ They have 14 interceptions on the season, which in large part explains why Kansas City has the league’s third best turnover ratio (+11).
In light of this, we can expect the Titans to continue to operate under their philosophy of ‘Smashmouth’ football. Through the season, the team has averaged one rush for every pass, but through the last two games, that average has increased to 1.6 rushes for every pass.
Offensively, the Chiefs run a fairly simple scheme, but by no means does that mean that their offensive isn’t potent. They have a number of playmakers in Tyreek Hill, whose speed has burned defenders; receiver Jeremy Maclin, whose groin injury is progressing well; and tight end Travis Kelce, who leads all NFL tight ends in receptions (70) and receiving yards (916).
Despite the challenge ahead, Mularkey looks optimistically upon the Titans’ playoff hunt. On the ‘Mike Mularkey Radio Show,’ he shared that he plans to spread the following message to his team.
“I’m going to tell our guys we went out to [Airhead Stadium] opening day in 2014 … and beat them. I’m going to remind our team that we did do that. So we can go out there and accomplish what we plan on.”