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Can the Titans save the dreadful AFC South?

Marcus Mariota of the Tennessee Titans. (AP Photo/James Kenney, File)
Expert
13th December, 2016
12

As a society, we need to keep Brock Osweiler out of the playoffs.

We’ve seen the bad quarterback in the ‘playoffs slasher film’ far too many times before, often with Houston as the token first teenager to go down.

The Texans, to their credit, are not awful at everything. The defence is sound, even without galaxy eater JJ Watt, led by the ability of Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus to bulldoze a quarterback’s real estate, as they did in leaving Andrew Luck homeless on the weekend.

But the defence isn’t elite, which is a problem, because the rest of the team can’t even claim to flirt with mediocrity.

The problems on offence start with Osweiler. He’s a quarterback who has the rare trait of being so bad to the point of actually becoming inspiring. He makes you believe that you, too, could one day play quarterback in the NFL.

At 7-6, with a 4-0 record in the division, and home games to come against the insipid Jaguars and Bengals, the Texans are in the driving seat to emerge from the AFC South, a feat that would be akin to Arnold Schwarzenegger turning around and coming back up to the surface from his vat of molten steel at the end of Terminator 2.

Judgement day, though, would come in the first round of the playoffs, where the Texans are waiting to get annihilated by the Raiders or Chiefs. Their offence entered Week 14 ranked 31st in the league, one spot above their overall DVOA ranking. No team with an offence so bad has made the playoffs this century.

If they get there, through the back door of their atrocious division, it will help no one. It won’t help Osweiler, whose embarrassment will ascend to a national platform, and it won’t help Houston, a team still scarred by a shining display of blazing quarterback incompetence in last season’s playoffs.

Most of all, it won’t help us. The NFL postseason is a marvellous time, weekends of enjoyment that can be pencilled in a year in advance. Having to endure Osweiler and the Texans in Round 1 is like watching a Breaking Bad episode where Bryan Cranston has been replaced by Taylor Lautner.

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The hope has to be that Indianapolis or Tennessee, mediocre as they are, can rise up and usurp Houston at the top of the standings (or, perhaps more fittingly for this division, the ‘inverse bottom’ of the standings).

The Colts though, seem to have run their race, with Sunday’s home loss to the Texans significantly narrowing their potential avenue to a January appearance.

Having lost both games to Houston during the regular season, the Colts are effectively two games back with three to play, and have to play away at Minnesota and Oakland the next two weeks. They’re done.

The Titans, however, are not. All season, Tennessee has loomed as the team that could restore the AFC South to respectability, or at least the rung just below respectability.

Albeit by default, they’re far and away the most exciting team in the South, with a surprisingly explosive offence that ranked seventh in the league heading into Week 14. After a 1-3 start, Tennessee have gone on a 6-3 run, notching impressive wins over fellow playoff aspirants Miami, Green Bay and Denver. They’re yet to lose a game this year by double digits, a sign of maturity for a young side.

Marcus Mariota has developed into the franchise quarterback we expected him to be, with 25 touchdowns to eight interceptions, and the seventh-best quarterback rating in the game, despite not having a single receiver rank in the top 40 for receiving yards.

Before a rough day against Denver’s monster defence, Mariota had quietly strung together a run of eight consecutive quality starts, an improbable level of consistency for a second-year quarterback. Even against the Broncos, where nothing was working, Mariota made just enough plays for the Titans to eke out the win, lofting cross-field touch passes and sideline timing patterns, as well as scrambling with conviction.

The rejuvenated DeMarco Murray is second in the league in rushing, gashing teams on the ground and getting into the end zone. The defence and special teams aren’t good, but they’re not atrocious, and against Denver the defence, in particular, showed that it can rise to the occasion in a big game.

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Tennessee aren’t a juggernaut, a steam train, or even an expensive bicycle. But in a division where the other three teams rank 25th, 27th and 30th in DVOA, the Titans and their 18th placing are the only team with any ability to move forward this year.

Their season will likely hinge on their ability to either pull an upset in Kansas City this week or have the Bengals top Houston the week after. Tennessee’s three losses in the division and earlier loss to Houston mean that they can’t beat the Texans in any tiebreaker. So for their Week 17 clash at home to Houston to matter, they have to enter with at least the same record.

The world should hope that they do. The Titans aren’t going to win in the playoffs, but they can make a Round 1 game interesting. More importantly, they can make it fun.

‘Making a game fun’ is a low bar for an NFL team, but in the AFC South, it’s all we’ve got.