For the third time this season, the Titans will host an undefeated AFC opponent with a chance to earn not only a win but a potential playoff seeding tiebreaker, should it be necessary.
In Week 2, it was the 1-0 Jacksonville Jaguars who came to Nissan Stadium fresh off a division win over the Colts. The Titans narrowly escaped with a game-winning drive, and the Jaguars have proven to be Week 1 frauds after losing that day and every game since.
In Week 5, after a tumultuous couple of COVID-affected weeks, the Titans welcomed the 4-0 Buffalo Bills to Nashville only to embarrass them on prime time television. That 42-16 win planted the seeds of doubt about the Bills’ legitimacy. Another loss in Week 6 has since added to those concerns, and Buffalo now has a negative point differential on the season.
The Titans’ other opponents haven’t been great either. Combined, the five teams sport a record of 9-20. Outside of the Tuesday night beatdown of Buffalo, all of Tennessee’s wins have required a game-winning drive.
The 5-0 Pittsburgh Steelers head to town this weekend and bring with them the Titans’ toughest challenge yet. The Steelers have accumulated a +62 point differential in their wins, an average margin of victory of 12.4 points. Pittsburgh is fourth-best in points scored on offense and third-best in points allowed on defense. They’re also allowing the second-fewest yards per game to opposing offenses.
Without a doubt, the Steelers are the best team the Titans have faced. But that fact works both ways.
The Steelers opponents are a combined 9-19-1, just a half game better than the Titans’ opponents (thanks to Philadelphia’s tie with Cincinnati). Only one of those teams (Denver) is allowing fewer points per game than Tennessee. None of them average more points scored than the #2 overall Titans.
The Steelers are 3rd overall and the Titans are 8th in terms of Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. Neither team has played a single opponent ranked higher than 15th in DVOA (the Texans). Every opponent either team has played currently holds a negative point differential. The Bills and Browns are the only teams with winning records.
So this game will be a measuring stick of sorts for both squads to see just how good they really are. In particular, the matchup of the Titans explosive offense — No. 3 in offense DVOA — against the Steelers stout defense — No. 2 in defense DVOA — should be fascinating to watch.
Can the Titans continue their two-game 40+ point streak, or their four-game 30+ point streak, against a team allowing just 18.8 points per game this season? The Steelers have yet to allow 30 points to any team.
Pittsburgh’s opponents are scoring 22.3 points per game, meaning Pittsburgh is holding teams to 3.5 points below their average output (a sign that they are indeed good). The Steelers lead the NFL in sacks with 24, and the Titans will be missing Pro Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan.
Tennessee is fifth in the NFL in rushing yards per game with 157.8, and Pittsburgh is second in rushing yards allowed at 66.2. One of those numbers — or both — is going to have to give. The Steelers held the top-ranked Cleveland Browns rushing offense (169.5 yards per game) to just 75 yards on 22 carries last week, an average of 3.4 yards per carry.
While most pundits would rank the Kansas City Chiefs as the best team in the AFC, the winner of Titans-Steelers on Sunday will actually hold the top seed through seven weeks as the conference’s only undefeated team.
Of course, it will be the most-watched game on Sunday, by far the most enticing matchup of this week’s slate. As such, CBS is showing it to most of the country in the 12 p. m. CT window.
One interesting nugget: the Steelers opened the game as 1.5-point road favorites. The line was as high as Steelers -2, however, according to Allan Bell of CBS Sportsline, there’s been a shift the lines recently due to “sharp” money pouring in on the Titans, who are now one-point home favorites themselves.
The Titans have finally emerged on the national radar with their impressive efforts thus far this season. Mike Vrabel has received Coach of the Year buzz after his intentional clock-stopping penalty last week. Arthur Smith is gearing up for a head coaching candidacy with some very lucky franchise next offseason.
But to establish themselves as a top team in the league this season, the Titans will have to at least be competitive against Pittsburgh. A win would establish Tennessee as a legitimate Super Bowl contender…
Are the Titans truly one of the NFL’s elite teams, or have they simply benefitted from an easy schedule? We’ll find out on Sunday.