Tennessee’s Saturday afternoon win over the Redskins will bring the AFC Wild-Card race down to the wire.
Blaine Gabbert can now say he’s outdueled Josh Johnson in a Saturday afternoon NFL game. The Titans vs. Redskins final score of 25-16 after a last-second Malcolm Butler pick-six on a Johnson heave feels fitting for a backup quarterback battle.
Marcus Mariota reportedly suffered a pinched nerve in his throwing shoulder, forcing Tennessee to count on Gabbert in a must-win game. Mariota’s injury does not bode well for the Titans’ decisive divisional battle next week against Indianapolis, which along with other results will decide whether Tennessee make the playoffs.
The Titans’ two scenarios are as a wild-card team and as a division-winning team: To qualify, they have to beat the Colts and have the Texans lose their last two games (handing the AFC South to the Titans) or have one of Baltimore or Pittsburgh lose one of their final two contests.
Houston, currently leading the division with a 10-4 record, face the Nick Foles-led Eagles and the imploding Jaguars in the final two games. Counting on two Texans losses is not a great bet, though perhaps Houston’s near-miss against the Jets last week provides a glimmer of hope.
The Ravens play the difficult Chargers tonight. Given Lamar Jackson’s recent struggles and LA’s emergence as arguably the league’s best team, the Titans will be watching eagerly. Next week, Baltimore play the emerging Browns, opening further the possibility of Tennessee slipping in as a wild-card team.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, could very reasonably lose in New Orleans tomorrow. They’ll most likely win against Cincinnati in Week 17, but the Saints could come through for the Titans regardless of whether the Chargers beat the Ravens tonight.
Evaluating Tennessee’s chances against Indianapolis requires sifting through their mercurial 2018 season. For the most part, takeaways are inconclusive.
The Titans seem to bounce between competent (a nice four-game winning streak after the win over the Redskins) and lethargic — they lost handily to the Colts and Texans in the two weeks after their Week 10 win against New England.
In team DVOA, they rank 19th, below measly teams like the Jaguars and Giants. They’re generally average across the other Football Outsiders categories, though they sit back at 26th in passing offense, partially a product of a less-than-100% Mariota.
They strike viewers as a defensive team. Derrick Henry’s power running style broke out on a national Thursday night stage against the Jaguars, and early season low-scoring games (9-6 against Jacksonville, 13-12 against Buffalo) tainted some opinions. But overall, they’ve been balanced enough to stick around a pretty good AFC playoff race.
They lack receiving depth beyond Corey Davis, whose 798 receiving yards leads the team easily. Dion Lewis, the Alvin Kamara to Henry’s Mark Ingram, has 357 receiving yards out of the backfield; in an offense that often resorts to check-downs, Lewis gains just 6.7 yards per reception.
Young receivers Tajae Sharpe and Taywan Taylor have yet to break out. At tight end, Jonnu Smith has shown flashes, but hasn’t developed into the possession target they’d like him to be. Mike Vrabel’s system, with young offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur tasked with mentoring Mariota, has looked promising at times, adding some optimism for next season.
In the immediate term: That game against Indianapolis will come down to Mariota’s availability, and whether the defense can defend Andrew Luck and T.Y. Hilton — Tennessee rank 25th in DVOA allowed to opposing top wideouts. Pro Bowl defensive lineman Jurrell Casey went down with a leg injury against Washington as well, potentially inhibiting the pass rush.
The Titans can root for the Chargers tonight and hope they have one of their good days at home against Indianapolis next week. That’s no guarantee, especially given the chances that Gabbert will have to outduel another quarterback.