If there’s one analyst trope I dislike, it’s when a writer uses his own ignorance of a fact or development as a way to minimize the relevance of that fact or development.
So upfront, what I’m about to say is certainly a bigger indictment of me than anything else. But holy shit, the Tennessee Titans made the playoffs? How the hell did that happen?
How many Titans can you name, right now? Marcus Mariota, sure. Derrick Henry. Delanie Walker. Who else? Who coaches the Titans? Is it still Mike Mularkey? (Checks.) It is! (Fun fact: I originally meant that as a joke, because of course Mike Mularkey wouldn’t be in the playoffs, but he is!) Mularkey is in his third season as a head coach, winning just two games in his first season after replacing Ken Whisenhunt. His record is 20-21 and he just finished 9-7 for the second straight year.
The Titans got those nine wins in hilariously weak fashion. Tennessee beat the 10-6 Jaguars twice, and of their remaining seven wins, none were over playoff teams. They lost to the Rams and the Steelers. That’s it. The Titans played 12 games against non-playoff competition, went 9-7, and made the postseason; they play the Chiefs today! Get excited!
It’s not just the Titans, of course. The Jaguars are in, despite having those two losses to Tennessee. They play the Bills! The Eagles and Vikings have byes in the NFC, and neither team has their preferred quarterback (though Case Keenum has certainly played well.) The Rams are in too! Why not?
This isn’t to say that teams that were once bad cannot become good. That’s a good thing, and it certainly happens all the time, except for the Browns. But these specific teams, in this specific season? They’re not good! Maybe one of these teams is a burgeoning dynasty. That’s the narrative hook. But looking back all of one season, the Dolphins, Raiders, Lions, and Giants (!) all made the playoffs, and fell off the map this year for a variety of reasons. The NFL does that, to everyone aside from those franchises lucky enough to stumble into an all-time talent at quarterback.
Even the Cowboys, through a series of often-self-inflicted events, failed to capitalize on their potential this year. It’s all a crapshoot.
Which leaves just one out for the league: some awesome games. We remember last year’s playoffs almost exclusively for the Patriots 28-3 Super Bowl comeback, a game good enough to paper over a very bad postseason. There was also the Aaron Rodgers-led win over the Cowboys, which was certainly an exciting game. After that…yikes.
The divisional round was a series of not-close games, with an average margin of victory of 19. If a similar thing happens this weekend, we shouldn’t be surprised; bad football teams tend to produce bad football. That’s because they don’t consistently play well. Think of it like a quadrant, with the top-left being “both teams play well”. That’s what leads to entertaining games. The other three boxes lead to blowouts or a close-but-bad game, and the teams this year look much more likely to vacate that top-left corner.
Even if they are good games, though, this is a real problem for the league, which already faces a tougher time attracting talent to the sport and keeping those players healthy than they ever have before. It’s a real thing, and a much greater threat to viewership than any player protests could ever manage.
So, uh, enjoy the games, everyone!