AFC Playoff Picture: Titans enter Week 15 on the verge of clinching a playoff berth

The Titans 2020 season has had it’s fair share of ups and downs, but with just three weeks left to play, Mike Vrabel’s squad is 9-4 and in control of their own destiny in the AFC South. It’s the best record through 13 games that this franchise has seen since — you guessed it — the 2008 season.

Tennessee currently holds a 96% chance of making the playoffs and a 61% chance of winning the division according to FiveThirtyEight. A Browns win over the Ravens tonight would nudge those playoff odds just a little higher to 98%.

It would take a monumental collapse by the Titans for them to miss the postseason at this point, but let’s take a look at the division race and the overall AFC playoff picture to get a clearer understanding of where they stand heading into Week 15.

AFC South Race

The Titans and Colts remain tied atop the division after blowout wins over the Jaguars and Raiders in Week 14 and both teams have relatively neutral schedules over the final three weeks.

  • Colts: vs HOU, at PIT, vs JAX
  • Titans: vs DET, at GB, at HOU

With the Titans getting to 4-1 in the AFC South over the weekend, Tennessee clinched the tiebreaker in the division. Any road that leads to both Indy and Tennessee having the same overall record results in a tiebreaker that breaks in favor of the Titans.

That means that the Titans simply need to match or better the Colts record over the final three. Obviously, that Week 16 trip to Pittsburgh is looking far less daunting for the Colts at the moment, but that’s still far from a layup for a Colts team that has been pretty uneven at times this season.

I also would be wary of chalking up any divisional game at this time of year. It was just a couple years ago that the red hot Colts, riding a five-game winning streak with Andrew Luck behind center, got smacked 6-0 by a 3-8 Jaguars team that was circling the drain with Cody Kessler at quarterback. Weird things happen in December.

AFC Wildcard Race

The Monday Night Football matchup between the Browns and Ravens will have a huge bearing on the AFC playoff picture. From a Titans standpoint, a Ravens loss would mean that any Tennessee win over the next three games would clinch a playoff berth. A Browns loss would only potentially benefit the Titans if the Titans failed to win the division and fell into the wildcard race, though they’d still need to make up another game on Cleveland over the next three to jump them for the 5-seed.

At the top of the conference, the Chiefs officially leapfrogged the Steelers after back-to-back losses for Pittsburgh. Kansas City has a tough trip to New Orleans on tap next week, but the Chiefs would need to lose two of their final three for the Steelers to get back into the top spot. That would be a massive upset.

Now the question becomes whether Pittsburgh can hold off the Bills for the 2-seed or even the Browns in the AFC North race. While it’s still theoretically possible for the Titans to reach the 2-seed, it would take winning out and three straight losses from the Steelers along with at least one more loss from the Bills and two more losses from the Browns to make it happen. That’s highly unlikely.

Instead, the Titans focus should remain on securing the 3-seed. Obviously, if you want that spot, you first have to win the division, but Tennessee also needs to make up a game on Buffalo to jump them. The remaining schedule for the Bills — at Denver, at New England, vs Miami — does provide some opportunities for losses, but the Titans would probably need to win out to give themselves a real shot at that spot.

Winning the 3-seed is looking to be extremely valuable right now. I’m not sure there is a huge difference between the Browns and Colts — the likely wildcard round opponents for those seeds — but in the divisional round, getting the winner of Steelers-Dolphins (or whoever the 7-seed is) will be a pretty huge advantage over likely heading to KC to take on a rested Chiefs team.

Here is the current conference playoff seeding along with the remaining schedules for each team:

  1. Chiefs (12-1) at NO, vs ATL, vs LAC
  2. Steelers (11-2) at CIN, vs IND, at CLE
  3. Bills (10-3) at DEN, at NE, vs MIA
  4. Titans (9-4) vs DET, at GB, at HOU
  5. Browns (9-3) vs BAL, at NYG, at NYJ, vs PIT
  6. Colts (9-4) vs HOU, at PIT, vs JAX
  7. Dolphins (8-5) vs NE, at LVR, at BUF
  8. Ravens (7-5) at CLE, vs JAX, vs NYG, at CIN
  9. Raiders (7-6) vs LAC, vs MIA, at DEN

The Week 15 slate is a little lackluster when it comes to AFC contenders. Chiefs-Saints is the only matchup featuring one of these teams against another team with a winning record. However, Week 16 promises to get very interesting with Colts-Steelers, Titans-Packers, and Dolphins-Raiders all looming large in addition to an intriguing Bills-Patriots matchup in Foxborough.

Titans Potential Playoff Matchups

According to Football Outsiders, the Titans have a 73.4% chance of ending up as either the 3-seed (17.4%), 4-seed (37.5%), or 6-seed (18.5%). Below are the matchups for the wildcard round:

  • 1-seed (bye)
  • 7-seed at 2-seed
  • 6-seed at 3-seed
  • 5-seed at 4-seed

If the season ended today, the Titans would host the Browns in Nissan Stadium. Things can obviously change quite a bit, but right now it seems as if the Browns, Colts, and Bills stand out as the Titans most likely first-round opponents. They’ve played all three of those teams already, blowing out the Bills, getting blown out by the Browns, and exchanging blowouts with the Colts.

Despite the results from previous matchups, I’d probably rank them Browns-Colts-Bills from most favorable to least favorable opening opponent for the Titans, but it’s relatively close across the board there.

Where seeding really matters most is going to be in the second round, where a 3-seed would mean not only avoiding the rested 1-seed, but potentially even a second home playoff game if the 2-seed gets upset by the 7-seed (which is entirely possible).

Playing at home matters less this year than it normally does, but I do think that more home games in the playoffs will have a cumulative effect. Going on the road for three straight weeks wears teams down (that’s why the NFL almost never schedules teams to play three straight on the road during the regular season). We saw that with the Titans to some degree last year, when I thought it was apparent that they ran out of gas in the second half in KC last year.

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