I wrote last week in this space that the second Titans-Colts had a good chance to end up serving as the de facto AFC South championship and I still feel that way. Tennessee’s 45-26 romp over Indianapolis raises their odds of winning the division to 87% according to FiveThirtyEight and 78.4% by Football Outsiders metrics. The division isn’t locked up yet, but the Titans are in control with five games to go and could clinch within the next 13 days (more on that in a minute).
From a pure playoff perspective, the two projection services have the Titans at 97% (FiveThirtyEight) and 93.9% (Football Outsiders) to make the playoffs which means Tennessee is now extremely likely to make the postseason for a second straight year for the first time since 2007-2008. So let’s jump into the AFC South race and what that looks like over the next month as well as the seeding that the Titans could chase down the stretch.
The AFC South Race
The current division standings are as follows:
- Titans (8-3, 3-1 in AFCS)
- Colts (7-4, 1-2)
- Texans (4-7, 2-1)
- Jaguars (1-10, 1-3)
Obviously, this remains a two-team race — Houston is mathematically still alive, but they’d need collapses by both Tennessee and Indy combined with winning out the rest of the way… which isn’t happening — but the teams at the top switching spots is a huge development with just five games remaining. Before we get into looking too far ahead, let’s break down the tiebreaking procedure for the division since that will be a major factor over the next month.
With the head to head series officially split, the next criteria in the NFL’s tiebreaking procedure is division record. The Titans own a big advantage over the Colts here, sporting a 3-1 record in the AFC South while Indy is just 1-2. Tennessee has road trips to Jacksonville in Week 14 and Houston in Week 17 remaining while Indianapolis still has both their Texans matchups left before finishing their season at home against the Jaguars.
If the Colts and Titans finish with the same overall record and the same division record, the tiebreaker drops down to record against common opponents. This is where things get a little weird. Because of the way NFL scheduling works, the Titans and Colts will play 12 games against common opponents, two games against each other, and two games against “non-common” opponents. The easiest way to look at this is to look at the non-common opponents.
If the two teams have the same overall record, but Team A is 2-0 against non-common opponents and Team B is 1-1, then Team B must have the better record against common opponents to make up for that one game deficit and end up even overall. Right now, the Titans have completed their games against non-common opponents and they won both games against the Bills and Broncos. The Colts beat the Jets, but have yet to play the Raiders. If Indy was to lose to the Raiders, but end up with the same record as Tennessee, the Colts would win the common opponent tiebreaker. If they beat the Raiders, but wind up tied with Tennessee, then both teams tie against common opponents and we drop to the next rung — conference record.
The Titans are currently 6-3 against the AFC while the Colts are just 3-4, but there are certainly paths that end up with the Colts equaling or bettering the Titans conference record by the end of the year. If they tie in that category, the next tiebreaker is strength of victory (basically how many wins the teams you beat have) and the Titans lead that category comfortably at the moment.
Obviously, the most direct path to owning the tiebreaker for Tennessee is simply to handle their business in the division. Their magic number for clinching the division tiebreaker is now two. Any combination of Titans division wins plus Colts division losses that equal two would give Tennessee the edge.
How the Titans could clinch by Week 14
Because of that, there is a scenario where the Titans could clinch the division in Week 14. If Tennessee beats the Browns and Jaguars in the next two games and see the Colts drop road contests in Houston and Cleveland, the Titans would be AFC South champions with three games to spare.
Here are the remaining schedules for each team:
- Colts: at HOU, at LVR, vs HOU, at PIT, vs JAX
- Titans: vs CLE, at JAX, vs DET, at GB, at HOU
The Texans are hot right now, winners of three of their last four games with the sole loss being a 10-7 slog in Cleveland played in 30-40 mile per hour winds. They’re coming off a dominant 41-25 win over the Lions on Thanksgiving and will have had 10 days off before hosting the Colts on Sunday.
They’ll be a tough out down the stretch for both of these teams, but this week’s matchup with the Colts seems particularly ripe for a potential upset, especially if Indy isn’t able to get DeForest Buckner, Bobby Okereke, Anthony Castonzo, and Ryan Kelly back before Sunday.
It’s pretty hard to see the Colts winning out against this schedule, which means a 3-2 finish to get to 11-5 would likely get the job done for the Titans, though they should certainly be aiming higher.
The Wildcard Race and Playoff Seeding
The AFC playoff picture is pretty jumbled right now with five games to go. The Steelers and Chiefs both have their divisions pretty well locked up, but the AFC East and AFC South remain compelling races.
The wildcard race will likely go down to the final week with six teams vying for three spots (and yes, I’m throwing the Patriots into this mix after their win over Arizona yesterday). Here are the standings as things sit right now along with remaining schedules for each team:
- Steelers (10-0) vs BAL, vs WAS, at BUF, at CIN, vs IND, at CLE
- Chiefs (10-1) vs DEN, at MIA, at NO, vs ATL, vs LAC
- Titans (8-3) vs CLE, at JAX, vs DET, at GB, at HOU
- Bills (8-3) at SF, vs PIT, at DEN, at NE, vs MIA
- Browns (8-3) at TEN, vs BAL, at NYG, at NYJ, vs PIT
- Dolphins (7-4) vs CIN, vs KC, vs NE, at LVR, at BUF
- Colts (7-4) at HOU, at LVR, vs HOU, at PIT, vs JAX
- Ravens (6-4) at PIT, vs DAL, at CLE, vs JAX, vs NYG, at CIN
- Raiders (6-5) at NYJ, vs IND, vs LAC, vs MIA, at DEN
- Patriots (5-6) at LAC, at LAR, at MIA, vs BUF, vs NYJ
So let’s talk a little bit about seeding from a Titans perspective. It is very very hard to see the Titans creeping up into the 1 or 2 seed spots. The Steelers hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over Tennessee thanks to their Week 7 win in Nashville and Kansas City would get the conference record tiebreaker unless they lose two of three against the Broncos, Dolphins, and Chargers (not happening).
However, they do have an edge on Buffalo in the race for the 3 seed right now and that’s important because of the way the NFL’s playoff format is set in 2020. With seven teams making the postseason, the wildcard round matchups will be as follows:
- 1-seed bye
- 2-seed vs 7-seed
- 3-seed vs 6-seed
- 4-seed vs 5-seed
I don’t expect there to be a huge difference between the 5-seed and the 6-seed. Right now, those two teams are the Browns and Dolphins. I’d probably rather see Miami of those two, but it’s very close.
However, the bigger difference will come in the division round if the Titans do advance. Instead of playing a rested 1-seed, they’d either travel to the 2-seed coming off a game against the 7-seed or potentially host the 4 or 5-seed if the 2-seed was to be upset in the wildcard round (the NFL re-seeds the tournament after round one so the lowest remaining seed will play the 1-seed).
Right now, the 1-seed is obviously Pittsburgh, and I think it’s fair to question whether you’d rather travel to a rested Steelers team or go to Kansas City to face the best player in the league in round two, but those seeds aren’t set in stone. You could certainly see those two switch spots between now and the playoffs, and if that happens you’d absolutely rather travel to a Steelers team coming off a playoff game than go to rested KC in the divisional round.
The Titans currently hold the tiebreaker over the Bills thanks to their thumping of Buffalo back in Week 5 and they are ahead of the Dolphins on AFC record right now as well (6-3 for TEN to 4-3 for MIA). Staying ahead of the eventual AFC East champion could be important for the Titans down the stretch.
Going on the road to win multiple games is hard in the NFL. It’s particularly tough in the playoffs. While I certainly think the Chiefs were the better team, I do believe that we saw the Titans run out of gas a little bit in that AFC Championship after being away from Nashville for four straight weeks dating back to their Week 17 trip to Houston in 2019. Any scenario that gives the Titans more home games and less matchups against rested teams is very helpful to their chances of advancing.