NFL Handicapping: Can the Titans Make the Playoffs
by Trevor Whenham - 12/2/2009
A colleague of mine is pretty interested in the Tennessee Titans these days. On a whim he put a few bucks down on the Titans to win the Super Bowl when they were just starting to get things in order and the odds were at 400/1, and now, five wins later, he's dreaming of a five-figure payday. Those odds have dropped all the way down to 60/1 recently, so he's not the only one who thinks that Tennessee is worth a look. But does he possibly stand a chance? Can a team that started 0-6 even make the playoffs, never mind win once they get there? Here's a look:
Schedule looking back - The Titans have won five in a row. You have to be impressed any time a team does that, but you also need to consider who they have played over that stretch - especially because the same team lost six in a row before the current streak. Starting from the beginning, they beat Jacksonville - a team with only an outside shot of being a wild card team. Next was San Francisco, another team barely holding on to playoff hopes. Buffalo is definitely out of playoff contention, and Houston almost certainly is as well. The only team that Tennessee beat that is very likely a playoff squad is Arizona, and Tennessee only eked out a last-second win against a lousy backup quarterback. Not very inspiring overall. Even worse, they also previously lost to both Houston and Jacksonville. They have played two top level teams - Indianapolis and New England - and were humiliated by both. They also lost to Pittsburgh - a situation that could be costly if tiebreakers are required for the final playoff spot. Tennessee's current hot streak is impressive, but not as impressive as it could be given the opposition.
Schedule looking forward - The Titans may be able to afford one loss and still make the playoffs at 9-7, but 10-6 would certainly be more comfortable. That won't be easy. They start with their biggest hurdle -- Indianapolis -- this weekend. The Colts have home field advantage in their sites, and they aren't likely to make a misstep at home. The Colts were incredibly dominant winners last time, and could be again here. The rest of the schedule holds more promise. I have no problem seeing them win over the Rams, and they should be able to beat the Dolphins at home as well. I also ave no problem thinking they can beat the Seahawks in what will be a meaningless game for Seattle to close the season. That gets them up to eight wins. They need one more, and unfortunately that one more comes against the Chargers - one of the hottest teams in the league right now. It's made slightly easier because it's a home game, but it is still far from easy. So, it boils down to this - to have a chances at the playoffs the Titans need to take care of business against lesser opponents and then upset the Colts and/or the Chargers. Not impossible, but certainly daunting.
Vince Young - Young is getting most of the credit for this dramatic turnaround, and he deserves it. He's played significantly better than Kerry Collins, and has brought a new confidence and swagger to a team that badly needed it. The Titans were a talented team that was in a deep funk, and he has broken the team out of it. Here's the problem as I see it, though - while Young has been solid, he has been far from a game-changing quarterback. He hasn't had more than one touchdown in a game yet, his scrambling hasn't been consistently effective, and he doesn't have the receiving corps to make his opponents live in fear. He'll be up against two big-time gunslingers in must-win games, and I'm not convinced that Young is ready to step up and match them blow for blow.
Chris Johnson - Johnson is the wildcard. Young might not be elite yet, but Johnson certainly is. He's as good as a player can be right now - he's had 125 or more yards rushing in each of the last six games, and he had a 100-yard receiving game as well. Johnson has made life much easier for Young, and he has led this team to their success. He's obviously had great support from his offensive line, and there is no reason that won't continue. He also faces some vulnerable run defenses - the Dolphins are the best rated of the five remaining run defenses, and they only rank 12th. The opportunity exists for more big days down the stretch. The only reason for concern is that Johnson had both his lowest total yards (34) and yards per carry (3.8) the last time he faced the Colts. For the Titans to pull off the miracle Johnson needs to be other-worldly - like he has been.
Defense - If defense wins championships then this is a reason to panic. Tenneesee has been acceptable against the run, but they are second worst in the league against the pass. Last year they were a Top 10 pass-stopper. The loss of Albert Haynesworth makes a big difference (Washington has jumped to first overall against the pass since getting him), but the problems are deeper than that. Last year the Titans gave up 6.0 yards per passing attempt. This year it is 7.5 - 25 percent higher. This has been a problem even when they have been winning - Matt Schaub had a big day against them, and Trent Edwards and Alex Smith had more success than they should have. If something is going to let them down - especially considering their remaining opponents - this is likely to be it.
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