NASHVILLE — The Tennessee Titans know exactly what’s on the line Sunday. Stop the Miami Dolphins’ historic ride and clinch their second straight AFC South title, no matter what Indianapolis does.
This franchise hasn’t strung together division titles since the dawn of the AFL in 1960 when the then-Houston Oilers won the Eastern Division for the first three seasons.
The Titans also would clinch a third straight playoff berth, something this team has done only once before during the Oilers’ “Run & Shoot” days.
The Titans (10-5) are so close they can taste it with a road game in Houston remaining.
“You know we’re starving,” Tennessee defensive lineman Teair Tart said. “We’re trying to just claw at it any way we can. ... Everybody is hungry as possible to lock the division up.”
The Dolphins (8-7) are the first NFL team ever to lose seven consecutive games then reel off seven straight victories to revive their playoff hopes. Their latest came Monday night with a 20-3 win in New Orleans, and now they have another road trip on a short week. Veteran linebacker Elandon Roberts said the Dolphins are only focused on the Titans.
“It’s not just the younger guys, it’s the veterans like myself, too,” Roberts said. “Home in what we have in front of us, and what we have in front of us is the Tennessee Titans. We’re just all zoned in on that.”
This could be a playoff preview because the Titans currently hold the AFC’s No. 2 seed and Miami is in the third and final wild-card spot with a trio of teams at 8-7 ready to pounce. Tennessee still has a chance at the No. 1 seed and the first-round bye if Kansas City (10-5) slips.
The Titans are healing up after not having the left half of their offensive line in last week’s 20-17 comeback victory over the 49ers. They’ve also won two of three.
“It’s in our hands, and we can control it,” left guard Rodger Saffold said.
If Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill beats the team that drafted him with the eighth pick overall in 2012 on Sunday, he will become the franchise’s winningest quarterback in his first three seasons with the team. He is tied with George Blanda (1960-62) with 28 regular-season wins.
Tannehill, who was traded by Miami to Tennessee in March 2019, has started every game since Week 7 of 2019. He’s a big reason the Titans are 28-13 (68.3%) in those games. Only Kansas City and Green Bay, both 33-8 (80.5%), and Baltimore (29-12, 70.7%) have been better in that span.
This will be only the third game since October in which the Dolphins face a team with a better record than theirs. Baltimore was 6-2 when it faced 2-7 Miami on Nov. 11, and Carolina was 5-6 when it met the 4-7 Dolphins on Nov. 28.
Much has been made of how Miami’s offensive line hasn’t always been particularly great at protecting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who has been sacked 35 times in his first 21 games. By comparison, that has been elite protection to what Tannehill got in his Miami days. He was sacked a whopping 59 times in his first 21 appearances with the Dolphins.
The Titans rank 10th with 37 sacks and are one of only two NFL teams with three players having at least 7½ sacks each.
Miami leads the NFL with 45 sacks, and 33 have come during its winning streak. That’s four off the team record of 49 last tied in 2005. Keeping Tannehill upright has been a problem for Tennessee because of a revolving door of injuries on its offensive line. Only Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow (47) has been sacked more times than Tannehill (45) this season.
But Saffold should be back after missing the past two games, one with an injured shoulder and the last on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Left tackle Taylor Lewan also should be back after missing the 49ers’ win with a back issue and his own stint on the COVID-19 list, and starting right guard Nate Davis came off the COVID-19 list Thursday.
WHITHER THE WEATHER
The previous time these teams met was Titans coach Mike Vrabel’s debut, and it wound up the longest game in NFL history at 7 hours, 8 minutes because of two weather delays on a steamy day Sept. 9, 2018, in Miami Gardens. A cold front will be dropping the temps from the 70s on Saturday to freezing by kickoff Sunday.
“Put some thermals on, put a hoodie on and get out there,” Miami coach Brian Flores said.