The Titans host the Detroit Lions at Nissan Stadium this weekend with a chance to hit double-digit wins on the season for the first time in over a decade. This Week 15 matchup will be the last Titans game played at Nissan Stadium in the year 2020. Due to a scheduling quirk, five of Tennessee’s final seven games — and three of the last four — are on the road.
A season ago, the Titans played Week 17 at Houston, needing a win to secure a playoff spot. Against A.J. McCarron and other backups, the Titans pulled off the victory without much stress. That led to a Wild Card trip to Foxborough, which led to a Divisional Round trip to Baltimore, which culminated in an AFC Championship trip to Kansas City. The Titans fell short in that final match.
Appearing on the Pardon My Take podcast back in March, Mike Vrabel suggested that the team’s failings in the AFC Championship were in part due to playing so many consecutive games on the road. It’s not just the away crowds (which aren’t really a factor during this COVID-affected season). It’s more the mental and physical grind of traveling week after week: getting on a plane, sleeping in foreign beds away from the comforts of home, and then playing in a football game… over, and over, and over again.
Mike Herndon touched on this earlier in the week in his piece on the current AFC South playoff picture, writing, “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.”
The Titans drew the short straw in terms of their regular season road schedule this year, closing the season with back-to-back away games. After facing Detroit at home, they’ll travel to Lambeau Field for what should be a cold, grueling match between two playoff teams (a possible Super Bowl preview?).
The team then caps off the season the same way as last year: with a trip south to play Houston. It’s likely the Titans will have their playoff spot wrapped up by then, but what about the division?
If the Titans fail to win the AFC South, they’ll open the playoffs on the road, again. If the team wants to make another deep playoff run, it would mean going on the road over and over and over. In fact, due to this year’s schedule with Week 16 and 17 on the road, the Titans would be forced to play one more consecutive away game than they faced last year (or two more if they advance all the way to the Super Bowl).
That’s why winning the division is so important. If the Titans can stay tied with or ahead of the Indianapolis Colts, they’ll receive a break from traveling for that first round playoff match. It would be the first postseason game at Nissan Stadium since it was called LP Field back in 2008, when the Titans not only won the AFC South but secured a first-round bye.
Is it impossible to win a Super Bowl playing six straight road games? No, of course not, especially given that Week 17 could end up being a meaningless contest. But let me throw out a scenario: imagine the Titans head into that final game with their playoff spot locked up but still tied with the Colts for the division lead. Indianapolis will finish the year at home against Jacksonville, kicking off at the same time as the Titans game.
If you’re Vrabel, do you play the starters Week 17, knowing that a win secures a home playoff game? Or do you take the opportuinty to rest up your key players, many of whom are battling nagging injures (Ben Jones, Rodger Saffold, A.J. Brown, and others), in preparation for a playoff run, even if it costs you the division (will the Colts lose to the Jaguars if a Jags loss nets them a potential franchise quarterback)?
Keep in mind the Titans didn’t get a true bye week this season. They were forced to take time off after their COVID outbreak, but it wasn’t a planned hiatus from football like the bye typically is.
What’s more important, not playing six consecutive games away from home, or getting that week to rest and heal up? Given Vrabel’s comments from March, he may feel the home game is more important. But that was before COVID had exploded across the United States. With such limited crowds allowed in stadiums this year, perhaps Vrabel has changed his mind.
Last season, the Titans gave Derrick Henry Week 16 off to allow his nagging hamstring strain a chance to heal. Was that break the catalyst that set Henry on his path of destruction, allowing him to run for 180+ yards in three straight games? Or would the rushing champ have performed that well regardless?
The best scenario might be to play the starters Week 17, but pull them after a half if things are looking good (after all, the Chicago Bears were leading Houston 30-7 at halftime last weekend, and the Titans offense is much better than Chicago’s). The Titans could potentially secure the win while still giving guys an extra bit of rest.
Ideally, Week 16 will see the Colts lose to Pittsburgh, the Titans beat Green Bay, and Tennessee locking up both a home playoff game and the division crown before Week 17 arrives, rendering this entire scenario irrelevant. But if the more likely trajectory plays out, what would you do?
If it were up to me, I’d be going for the division title and the home playoff game that comes with it.