Reality check: Titans aren’t a playoff team

Friday, December 23, 2011, Vol. 35, No. 51

It was right there for the taking.

All the Tennessee Titans had to do was win against the worst team in the league and they would have put themselves in position for a spot in the AFC playoffs.

But alas, they could not stand the thought of prosperity and wound up giving the hapless Indianapolis Colts their first win of the season in 14 tries.

So what to make of this Titans team?

They still have some semblance of playoff life left, even after Sunday’s implosion in Indy. But it will depend on multiple teams losing in the final two weeks.

Are the Titans really playoff material? Probably not.

They stand at 7-7, already better than last year’s 6-10 finish under Jeff Fisher. But Tennessee has beaten only two teams all season that currently have a winning records, stunning the Baltimore Ravens in the home opener in week two and knocking off the Broncos when they were was still in pre-Tim Tebow mode and well before they established themselves as contenders.

If you’re looking for pure numbers, the combined record of the teams the Titans’ have defeated is 37-61. The seven losses have come against teams with a combined 53-45 record, a number skewed by Sunday’s embarrassment against the Colts.

Even the players know that this year’s team, while not completely out of contention, has rarely played like a contender.

“It’s exactly what it is. We’re 7-7, and we’re playing like an average football team,” safety Chris Hope admitted Sunday. “We can’t sugar-coat it or hide behind anything else. We’ve had opportunities to set ourselves up nicely, and we haven’t taken advantage of it.”

In all honesty, it is hard to imagine these Titans being ready to go toe-to-toe with the Steelers or Patriots in January.

But the point of this is not to say that first-year coach Mike Munchak and his staff have not done a solid job. Quite the opposite.

Sure, you can question some play calls here and there. That’s the case with any staff. And certainly the decision Sunday to go with a gimpy Matt Hasselbeck instead of Jake Locker has caused debate. But overall, this year’s Titans have overachieved given the mess Munchak inherited.

Remember, this was a coaching staff that was hired leading up to the lockout. No one knew with certainty whether quarterbacks Vince Young or Kerry Collins were coming back. Because of the lockout, there were plenty of instances players on the roster had never met their position coaches.

Once the lockout finally ended, the Titans scrambled, signing Hasselbeck and a handful of other free agents to fill holes. Munchak and the coaches created a somewhat cohesive unit, doing so without having access to the player the offense was supposed to be built around – holdout Chris Johnson.

And even when Johnson came back some $30 million richer, he hasn’t been the same player. The bursts and cuts that had defined his game have rarely been seen this season.

The player who emerged as Tennessee’s best weapon – receiver Kenny Britt – was lost for the season three months ago.

The defense is relying on rookies at a third of its positions.

So it’s not hard to see that this team is headed in the right direction, despite Sunday’s debacle that cast a pall over the playoffs (Cue Jim Mora, Sr.: “Playoffs? Playoffs?”)

There are many holes still left to fill. The offensive line has to be patched, and the defense has to find some difference-makers.

But once the disappointment fades and the 2011 season is viewed in hindsight, Titans fans may look on this season as the one in which a foundation for legitimate playoff runs was laid.

Terry McCormick covers the Titans for and is the AFC blogger for National Football Post.