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‘Worst No. 1 seed ever’? Tennessee Titans might be a statistical unicorn in NFL playoffs

I’ve got something to share, Tennessee Titans fans. But before I do, I’d like to remind you: Computers lack human emotion.

They don’t hate your team. They’re just unimpressed by it.

Deeply unimpressed.

So much that if Titans make a run to win the Super Bowl in the coming weeks, it’ll be one of the more statistically improbable feats in NFL history. No exaggeration. That’s what the numbers are saying, and not just one. It’s pretty much all of them.

As FiveThirtyEight contributor Michael Salfino wrote in a Dec. 27 chat: “I think we’d all agree that Tennessee’s record is a miracle, and I don’t mean that in a good way.”

“We” likely doesn’t mean “you,” the Titans fan reading this column. But elsewhere, widely differing opinions on the Titans’ playoff hopes are likely based on how much stock a person puts into advanced metrics in gauging NFL teams.

Entering this weekend’s AFC divisional game against the Cincinnati Bengals, FiveThirtyEight has the Titans with a 10% chance to win the Super Bowl, behind the lower-seeded Kansas City Chiefs (25%) and Buffalo Bills (12%).

For the Titans, that’s fairly generous. Because ESPN’s power index rankings have the Titans (12-5) ranked 13th in the NFL, behind the Seattle Seahawks (7-10), Indianapolis Colts (9-8) and Los Angeles Chargers (9-8).

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And have you ever heard of DVOA?

Developed by Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders, DVOA — which stands for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average — measures play-by-play efficiency to determine a team’s strength. A 15% DVOA, for instance, means a team is 15% stronger than the average NFL team. A minus-15% DVOA means a team is 15% worse than average.

This regular season, the Dallas Cowboys (30.9%) had the NFL’s best DVOA.

The Titans (minus-3%) were 20th.

“By DVOA, they have the worst regular season of any No. 1 or No. 2 seed as far back as our numbers go, which is 1983,” Schatz said.

Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) fumbles the ball as he is hit by Houston Texans defensive end Jordan Jenkins (50) during the third quarter at NRG Stadium Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022 in Houston, Texas.

Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) fumbles the ball as he is hit by Houston Texans defensive end Jordan Jenkins (50) during the third quarter at NRG Stadium Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022 in Houston, Texas.

Only two teams, Schatz told me, have made the Super Bowl after a season with a negative DVOA, and both lost the final game: The 2003 Carolina Panthers and 2008 Arizona Cardinals.

Sounds bad when you say it that way.

But take heart: There are good reasons these Titans could prove a statistical unicorn.

The first is the No. 1 seed itself. Doesn’t matter how they got it, just that they did.

“If you luck your way into the No. 1 seed, you get the advantages of being the No. 1 seed,” Schatz said. “We don’t get to take that away from them. … You don’t get the No. 1 seed based on my ratings. So they get the advantages, and that’s a good thing.”

Another reason is equally obvious from this Titans season. As Schatz said, “The injuries explain a lot.”

The Titans arrive at the playoffs as rested and healthy as they’ve been all season. And DVOA is a reflection of what the Titans were, not necessarily a forecast of what they could be with Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown, Julio Jones and Bud Dupree all healthy and participating.

Their season-long offensive DVOA was 20th, but Schatz found that in games where just the receivers Brown and Jones were out there together – not counting a poor Week 1 loss to the Cardinals – the Titans’ offensive DVOA was third-best in the NFL.

“When I started talking about this, I used the words, ‘They are the worst No. 1 seed ever,'” Schatz said. “I don’t want to use that phrase anymore, because there’s no doubt the injuries played a role.”

Factoring in injured players, Schatz said, these Titans would probably fall close to their No. 10-ranked DVOA in 2019, when they made an AFC title game run.

“If you think of the offense as being the offense with Brown, Jones and Henry, then the Titans are nowhere near the worst No. 1 seed ever,” Schatz said.

“But they’re also nowhere near the Chiefs and the Bills.”

Ah, that’s really what we’ve been talking about, isn’t it? The Chiefs and Bills? The “real” AFC title game, as many are going to call this weekend’s other divisional matchup? Though the Titans beat both this season at Nissan Stadium, they’d surely be a home underdog in any AFC title game rematch.

Perhaps you’ve decided these metrics are all hooey and not worth your concern. If so, first off, thank you for reading this far. And secondly, I’ll tell you something else that might help:

The advanced metrics don’t like the Bengals, either.

Remember ESPN’s power index having the Titans 13th? The Bengals are 14th. Their DVOA was 17th, not much better than the Titans, either.

“I like the Titans in this game,” Schatz said, “especially when you consider the advantage of having the bye week. I think the line (of 3½ points) is a little too low, honestly.”

See, there you go.

The smartest of the smart money may be starting to come around a bit on the Titans. Their computers, on the other hand, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Reach Gentry Estes at and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Titans the ‘worst #1 seed ever’? Metrics don’t like NFL playoff team

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