The Tennessee Titans are 2-3 after defeating the Miami Dolphins last Sunday, and now sit just one game behind the struggling Houston Texans (3-2) with eleven regular season games left (which includes five divisional games).
We are six weeks into the season and the Titans still have a…(gulp)…realistic shot at a division title, and the automatic playoff bid that comes with it.
But that is not the reason why Sunday’s tilt against the winless Cleveland Browns is now a must-win game.
Yes, a playoff berth should be the ultimate goal for every team in every sport. But the Titans have only won five regular season games the last two years combined, so there are more pressing demons for them to exorcise.
Although the Titans are exceeding expectations, we have to remember that the overarching theme for this franchise was progress this season. Progress in the run game, in pass protection, and on the defensive side of the ball.
Tennessee is already showing vast improvement in those areas after five games. They are currently second in the league in rushing after amassing 235 yards on the ground last week in Miami.
Progress up front on the offensive line is a huge understatement. That unit has gone from one of the worst in the league the past two seasons to one of the best so far in 2016.
The Titans’ bookend tackles (Taylor Lewan and rookie Jack Conklin) haven’t allowed a sack all season, and the entire group is opening huge lanes for DeMarco Murray, who is currently second in the league in rushing yards.
The defense is clicking on all cylinders, and are on pace to improve upon their breakout 2015 season in which they finished 12th in total yards allowed…after finishing 27th in that category in 2014.
The next phase of progress? Handling prosperity.
The Titans haven’t won back to back games since week 16 and 17 of the 2013 regular season. In each of Tennessee’s three victories last season, which by the way, came in spectacular fashion, the Titans followed up their performance with a complete dud the following week.
The foundation of their new identity has been laid, now they must find a way to string together some wins for the progress train to stay on the tracks.
Restoring Home Field Advantage
Tennessee’s woes at home have been well chronicled. They are 0-2 at Nissan Stadium this season and 2-16 overall at home since 2014.
And it’s no secret that it had an effect on an increasingly apathetic fan base. The place that was once one of the loudest open-air stadiums in the league has now become a tourist destination for opposing fans.
It’s hard to blame the home crowd given Tennessee’s above mentioned struggles, coupled with the time and money invested in such outings.
Coming off their best performance in years, fans that were ready to throw in the towel on their season tickets may be more apt to give the Titans one more shot.
Especially against a Browns’ team that is 0-5 and down three quarterbacks.
If Tennessee finds a way to lose this game, then you may be able to throw softballs into a section and not hit a single Titans fan the rest of the season.
Progress is often made when you get sick and tired of being sick and tired, and the Titans should be sick and tired of losing to the Browns.
Cleveland has beaten Tennessee each of the last two years, with inferior talent and in embarrassing fashion.
Two years ago the Browns rallied from a 25 point deficit to stun the Titans 29-28 at Nissan Stadium, making Tennessee the first home team in league history to surrender a lead that large.
After demolishing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in last year’s season opener, the Titans lost to a Cleveland team with Johnny Manziel under center…his only win as a professional quarterback.
Think about that…they lost to Johnny Manziel. The only thing more embarrassing than blowing a 25 point lead at home.
But I digress.
With a win the Titans can restore the faith of the local patrons, go on a win streak, and climb into a possible three-way tie for the division lead.
Not to mention the fanfare that comes along with it. Tennessee would undoubtedly make the national media rounds as one of the early surprise stories in the league with a win and 3-3 start.
A loss would…well…get your softballs ready.