If you believe in wins as the proper arbiter of the quality of an NFL team, the Tennessee Titans are currently in a tailspin after dropping 5 of their last 6 following a 3-1 start. What, you may wonder, happened to the good Titans team of September, and why are they so much worse now?
I believe wins are a highly imperfect guide to the quality of a particular NFL team, and we can supplement our look at wins with other things. Looking at these things tells us that, rather than being particularly different, the Tennessee Titans team that has lost 5 of their past 6 games is perhaps somewhat different from, but on the whole is basically pretty similar to, that team that started 3-1. The streaks, real though they may have been in the standings, are just another result of building narrativity around a weighted random number generator, about as meaningful as those "Chris Johnson and the offensive line getting together fixed the running game," a story that kind of went away a week later after he had 12 carries for 30 yards after the Jaguars.*
The difference between that early season Titans team and the one that's currently on a two-game losing streak could be summed up by a single statistic. In the first four weeks of the season, there were nine fumbles. The Titans ended up with possession of the ball after eight of them. In the past two games, there have been nine fumbles. The Titans ended up possession of the ball after two of them. From 89% to 22% on fumble recoveries, from 3-1 to 0-2. Combine the two, and you get a .500 team that's ended up with possession after a normal and only perhaps slightly lucky 56% of fumbles.
And that's the Titans team we've seen most of the time. They're good enough they can go about .500 against teams roughly in the same ballpark of how good they are. If they're lucky, as they were against the Steelers, the Chargers, the Jets, and the Rams by recovering 10 of 11 fumbles, they can win the game. If they're not, they'll lose as we saw against the Colts. Against better versions of who they want to be, some luck can keep them in the game, as we saw against the Chiefs and Seahawks, but on the whole Kansas City, San Francisco, and Seattle outplayed them and came away with deserved wins. They're good enough to beat bad teams, as they outplayed Jacksonville, but not so good they can do so if they make crucial mistakes and get unlucky (Jaguars ended up with the ball after 6 of 8 fumbles).
As of right now, the pessimistic view of the Titans seems to be of a team that is on a losing streak that is likely to snowball and could finish the season winning only one or perhaps no more games. The optimistic view is they're still only one game out of a playoff spot, and once they're in the playoffs who knows what could happen. My view, which is one I've tried to keep fairly consistent throughout the season, currently exists between those two extremes (a much happier place for me to be than the extreme pessimist I felt like at the end of September).
The optimists seem to me a bit, well, over-optimistic. The Titans are one of an octet of teams vying for the #6 seed in the AFC playoffs, behind two of them and tied with another five. They'll have to outwin those two and not get outwon by any of the team they're tied with. If you assume those eight teams are all equally as good, the Titans would have a less than 12.5% (1 in 8) chance of making the postseason, since they're currently behind. Their favorable-seeming tiebreakers (head-to-head wins against the Jets, Steelers, and Chargers) would mitigate that somewhat, but that depends on the right tie-break or potential round-robin occurring (as we nearly saw in 2006, when the Steelers and Jets had head-to-head tiebreakers on the Titans but would have lost a multi-way tie). Subjectively, even with the tiebreakers, I don't think they're at even odds with the other 8 teams and have no more than perhaps a 10% chance at the postseason.
I've tried note in this post, though, that the Titans to date have not yet been that bad. If they continue playing roughly as well as they've been playing the rest of the season (some bad teams do seem to get worse as the season goes on; I think the 2008 Lions were a great example of this), they have on their schedule four very winnable games-a slight underdog at Oakland this coming Sunday, probably a tossup hosting the Cardinals, and likely favorites both at home against Houston and at Jacksonville. The other two games are clearly more formidable-to beat the Broncos in Denver, the Titans will likely need at least as much luck as the Jaguars got in their win in Nashville, while winning in Indy seems like a less extreme version of the same sort of scenario. I expect the Titans to go 2-2 or 3-1 in those four winnable games, and I really think they're probably somewhat likelier to finish 3-3 over the rest of the season than 2-4, while other records are less likely.
Going 3-3 would leave them with the same 7-9 record I predicted at the beginning of the season. I thought 8-8 or possibly even 9-7 was on the table after beating the Jets to move to 3-1 and 8-8 did indeed seem likeliest after beating the Rams. The loss to the Jaguars in a nigh-certain win reduced my personal win projection by nearly a full game, and I now have the Titans teetering on the 7-9 edge over 6-10. That sort of record would leave the team in that uncomfortable middle-good enough to win their share of games against teams that are not better, but with not much done against superior foes, too many divisional losses, and a dreadful habit of losing to dreadful teams. What would that mean for the future of the team? We'd have to see, particularly as how the final six games play can be a major factor in that perception going forward to next season. Alas, not for the quarterback, though, a whole different ball of wax I'll cover later this week.
*-No disrespect intended to the people who wrote or followed that or any other line of narrative ephemera. I have had the luxury of defining what I do here in a way that intentionally lets me avoid having to do that unless I want to.