Titans might be most-doubted No. 1 seed in NFL playoff history. They shouldn’t be

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Disrespected. Doubted. Disregarded.

It would be fair to call the 2021 Tennessee Titans any one of those adjectives before their divisional-round meeting with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Of the eight remaining teams, Tennessee has the third-worst odds to win the Super Bowl at +850 with BetMGM, behind the San Francisco 49ers (+1000) and Bengals (+1200). The Titans have already been described as "the worst No. 1 seed since 1983" by ESPN and Football Outsiders based on multiple advanced metrics despite a 12-5 record second consecutive AFC South title.

It doesn't help that they're also led by Ryan Tannehill, a quarterback who finished 16th in passing yards and passing touchdowns and 24th in yards-per-completion. The only playoff quarterbacks who finished worst than Tannehill in any of those categories were Philadelphia's Jalen Hurts, San Francisco's Jimmy Garoppolo and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger. The Eagles and Steelers lost mainly because of bad quarterback play, and no one trusts Garoppolo after his rough second half against the Dallas Cowboys during wild-card weekend.

But while the Titans aren't as sexy as a Super Bowl pick as the Kansas Chiefs, the Buffalo Bills, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or the Green Bay Packers — the NFC's No. 1 seed — their claim to legitimacy in the pantheon of NFL playoff teams shouldn't be discounted.

Derrick Henry return, Titans' defense are reasons to believe

The return of running back Derrick Henry and the improved health of receivers A.J. Brown and Julio Jones are just three reasons the Titans are a bigger threat to make the Super Bowl than their expectation. The bye week certainly helps, too.

The Titans will get star Derrick Henry back for the divisional round, which will be a huge boost to the AFC's No. 1 seed. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
The Titans will get star Derrick Henry back for the divisional round, which will be a huge boost to the AFC's No. 1 seed. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Tennessee's impressive but overlooked defense is another one. The Titans finished the regular season with the sixth-best defense in the NFL based on points allowed. That's right around the average of the 94 No. 1 seeds since 1975. It's also the average ranking of the 51 top seeds who made the Super Bowl, and slightly worse than the average of the 25 who won it as a No. 1 seed.

“I don’t think any team wants to see us when we’re at our best,” Titans defensive tackle Jeffrey Simmons recently told Tyler Dunne of "Go Long." "Once we’re at our best, we’re unbeatable.”

The Titans' defense is sound, but the evaluation is trickier on the offensive side of the ball. Tennessee finished with the 15th-ranked scoring offense this season, which is well below the No. 1 seed overall average of 5.11, as well as the 4.33 average rank for the 51 top seeds who reached the Super Bowl.

A lot of the Titans' offensive woes were because of injuries to their three stars Henry, Brown and Jones. When Henry played, the Titans averaged 28.4 points per game, which would rank tied for third this season with the Bills if they maintained it for 17 games. When Brown played, they averaged 27.1 – which would be tied for seventh.

So it stands to reason that a fully operational Titans squad would be closer to an average No. 1 seed than arguably the worst. But that might not be true. Injuries affected both the Packers and Buccaneers more, according to Man-Games Lost, and each finished with better offensive numbers than the Titans, while the Buccaneers had a slightly better defense despite more injuries. This means that while the absence of Henry, Brown and Jones certainly contributed to the Titans' middling statistics, it didn't affect their ability to win games the way it did those two teams.

The numbers are confusing because the Titans are a confusing team. They both look very good on paper but also don't look like one of the best teams in the NFL.

Titans have been great against remaining playoff field

Let's break it down in the simplest of terms, then. The Titans played seven games against playoff teams this season and finished with a 4-3 record. On its surface, that's not great. Except for the fact that all four wins came against teams still playing — the Bills, Chiefs, Rams and 49ers, while the three losses were to teams who are already out of the playoffs — the Cardinals, Patriots and Steelers.

That might bode well for the next couple weeks. It doesn't mean the Titans are shoo-ins to beat the Bengals, though. Twenty-three No. 1 seeds since 1975 — almost the same amount as teams who won the Super Bowl — have lost in the divisional round. Some were far better than the 2021 Titans, too.

But to doubt the Titans is to discount their achievements this season. The Henry factor changes everything even if he's 90 percent of what he was through the first seven weeks of the season. The same goes for Brown and, to a lesser extent, Jones. Coupled with a defense anchored by Simmons, and the Titans have a legitimate chance to at least prove to the world they aren't as bad as their metrics indicate.

By the end of it all, the Titans could be referred to by another word entirely: dominant.

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