In crowded AFC playoff race, Titans entering critical three-game stretch

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- As the AFC playoff picture starts to come into focus, the Tennessee Titans find themselves going through an annual exercise -- working through different scenarios that would allow them to make the playoffs.

A playoff berth seemed like a foregone conclusion after a 5-0 start, but it has dissolved into question marks after the Titans dropped three of their last four games, with all of the losses coming to AFC opponents.

"The message is this is what it looks like every year," Titans coach Mike Vrabel said Monday. "A lot of teams are bunched up, just like they were last year. We're trying to focus on continuing to improve at this point in the season knowing that teams are going in different directions."

The AFC has nine teams with at least six wins this season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this is the first instance when one conference had at least nine teams with six wins through Week 10 since the creation of the AFC & NFC in 1970.

Teams such as the Miami Dolphins (five-game winning streak) and Indianapolis Colts (four-game winning streak) are trending up after recent surges catapulted them into the playoff picture.

Entering Week 11, the Titans are a team that is going in the wrong direction after a frustrating 34-17 loss to the Colts at home last Thursday. Tennessee would be sitting at home for the playoffs if the season ended today.

The next three games will show whether they are true contenders or pretenders when they face three playoff hopefuls, all of whom currently have 6-3 records: the Ravens, Colts and Browns.

The stakes are high for all three games, but even higher for the rematch against the Colts because they currently hold the head-to-head tiebreaker in the AFC South after beating the Titans last week.

After last season's playoff run that included three consecutive road games, Vrabel made it clear that hosting playoff games in Nashville at Nissan Stadium was a priority this season. The most certain way to ensure they host a playoff game is to win the division title.

Sunday's game against the Ravens will be the third consecutive game in which the Titans will face one of the league's top defenses. Baltimore leads the NFL in scoring defense, allowing 18.3 points per game, but the Ravens will be without a key contributor in defensive tackle Calais Campbell, who is on injured reserve with a calf injury.

The New England Patriots took advantage of Baltimore's front that was missing Campbell and rolled up 173 rushing yards in their 23-17 win over the Ravens on Sunday night.

This is a prime opportunity for the Titans to get back to what they do best: Running the football with Derrick Henry as the focal point of their offense. Henry gashed the Ravens for 195 rushing yards the last time Tennessee faced the Ravens, which was in the divisional round of the playoffs last January.

"That's been a strength of ours and will have to continue to be a strength," Vrabel said. "I know we are going on the road this week to Baltimore. They're an excellent, physical football team, so we will have to be at our best in all areas."

The last two seasons featured playoff pushes down the stretch, each of which was fueled by Henry having a December to remember. Henry rushed for 625 yards in December 2018, but the Titans lost to the Colts in a win-and-in contest in the season finale. Last season, Henry's 549 yards in December pushed the Titans into a wild-card berth.

Henry is already ahead of his pace from last season, when his 1,540 yards led the NFL. He has 946 rushing yards through nine games, which puts him on pace for 1,682 yards.

This season, the Titans might need to saddle up and ride Henry to the playoffs sooner than in previous seasons, given the critical stretch of games that are up next on the schedule.