Can Titans make Super Bowl? Plus, John Mara’s Giant culture problem

Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) leaves the field after beating the Dolphins at Nissan Stadium Sunday, Jan. 2, 2022 in Nashville, Tenn.Titans Dolphins 200
Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) leaves the field after beating the Dolphins at Nissan Stadium Sunday, Jan. 2, 2022 in Nashville, Tenn.Titans Dolphins 200 /

All that stands between the Titans and homefield advantage in the AFC is a win over the Houston Texans, but can Tennessee make it to Super Bowl Sunday?

The Tennessee Titans are the most unremarkable, unheralded No. 1 seed in recent memory.

But, if the 11-5 Titans beat the lowly Houston Texans on Sunday, the road to the Super Bowl in the AFC goes through Nashville.

Tennessee doesn’t crack the top 10 teams in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, a metric that evaluates the success or failure of every single play, while also adjusting for strength of schedule.

Still, the Titans have a pair of wins over the Indianapolis Colts, plus victories over the Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills, Los Angeles rams, New Orleans Saints, and San Francisco 49ers on their resumé.

“They’re a really solid team,” a long-time personnel evaluator tells FanSided. “Especially if (Derrick) Henry can come back.”

Under the NFL’s new format, all the Titans would need to do to reach Super Bowl Sunday is win a pair of home games, if they hold serve against the Texans this week.

The problem is they’re likely to square off with two of the Bills, Chiefs, Cincinnati Bengals, Los Angeles Chargers or New England Patriots on that path.

“I’d still pick Kansas City to get out of the AFC, even if the Titans are the [number] one seed,” an NFC North personnel executive tells FanSided, on the condition of anonymity because he isn’t authorized to speak about other teams. “Patrick Mahomes has been there, done that. They’re fully healthy, and when Chris Jones is on the field, he makes him so much better on defense.”

Any team that makes it out of Tennessee with a win is going to need a standout defensive performance. Especially if Henry is able to return after rushing for 937 yards in eight games before suffering a foot injury back in November.

“Who knows in the AFC,” a veteran scout tells FanSided. “If Henry comes back, they’ll be able to shorten the game and make it hard on anyone that comes through there. The thing about the AFC is, it’s wide open in a way that I haven’t seen in a very, very long time.”

If Henry is able to return and return to form, the Titans’ brand of football is one that is capable of winning in the postseason.

After all, the Titans are two years removed from winning on the road in New England and Baltimore to advance to the AFC Championship Game and are making three straight postseason trips with Mike Vrabel at the helm.

But, as valuable as a dominant ground game is when the weather is sloppy and cold and miserable in January, it might not be the worst thing in the world for Mahomes and the Chiefs or Joe Burrow and the high-flying Cincinnati Bengals or Josh Allen’s Buffalo Bills to spend three hours in the Tennessee sunshine.

Tennessee boasts the NFL’s No. 12 ranked defense and might need them to punch above their weight in coming weeks.

“The defense is starting to rush the passer more consistently,” an AFC scouting director tells FanSided. “That bodes really well for them, especially this time of year.”

Beyond a defense that’s produced 12 sacks over the past four weeks, the Titans are going to need Ryan Tanehill to play his best football, if this team has any chance of surviving the looming gauntlet.

After tossing 17 touchdowns against 14 interceptions, Tannehill lacks the star power of Mahomes, Burrow, Allen, Herbert, Lamar Jackson and the AFC’s top quarterbacks.

Opinions of Tannehill inside the league are split.

“I really like him,” an NFL quarterbacks coach told FanSided. “He’s a system guy, but in the right system is a really good player. I like his athleticism. That gives Tennessee a chance.”

Others believe Tannehill could be the Titans’ weak link.

“I just don’t think Ryan Tannehill can get it done when the lights are shining brightest,” the evaluator adds. “He’s just not a difference-maker.”

Tannehill might have to be, given the firepower of the offenses Tennesse is likely to come up against.

Could Jim Harbaugh be NFL bound?

Black Monday is rapidly approaching, and the Las Vegas Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars have head starts on the search for their next head coach. Early reports suggest that there are at least 10 names on the list for the Jaguars while the Raiders are in the midst of a playoff hunt.

A new intriguing candidate might have hopped on the coaching carousel entering Week 18; Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh.

According to The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman, Harbaugh “might be tempted” by a return to the. NFL. Harbaugh spent four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, posting a 44-19 record and leading them to a Super Bowl XLVII appearance against his brother, John, and the Baltimore Ravens.

The timing is perplexing given that Harbaugh is fresh off leading his alma mater into the College Football Playoffs for the first time in program history. Then again, the Wolverines were manhandled by Georgia in the Orange Bowl.

Given the pressure that comes with competing against Ohio State and Penn State in the cutthroat Big Ten East, the right job might be just enough of a nudge out of Ann Arbor.

“I think he’d absolutely have success again in the NFL,” an NFC scouting director tells FanSided.

Should Harbaugh jump back to NFL life, there are no shortages of jobs that might have some allure; getting to coach Trevor Lawrence in Jacksonville, Justin Fields in Chicago. Perhaps he becomes the leading man in fixing the Raiders with a proven veteran in Derek Carr under center.

Before his arrival in San Francisco, the 49ers hadn’t made the postseason since 2002. They went three of four years under his direction, winning the NFC West twice.

There are folks around the league don’t think the idea is all that far-fetched, especially given Harbaugh’s track record both as a coach and player in the late 1980s/early 90s.

Others believe this could be a smokescreen to secure a lucrative contract at his current location.

“Is he really leaving, or is this just a leverage ploy to get more money out of Michigan?” a long-time scout tells FanSided. “He had success in San Francisco, but that was eight years ago. The game has changed since then.

“All style and little substance. Just watch his sideline antics. It’s childish. He’s always crying or whining for a call. That doesn’t fly in the NFL.”

Everything remains a mystery for now with Harbaugh and his status at Michigan. Should he throw his hat in the ring, he’ll be one of the more fascinating candidates this hiring cycle.

And he might not be the only Big 10 coach looking for a shot back a the pros, but more on that for a rainy day.



"“It’s like the playoffs are starting this week already. You win; you keep advancing. That’s how the playoffs work. We have a great opportunity coming this week in Week 18 against the Raiders.”"

– Los Angeles Chargers S Derwin James

Week 18 is here and with only two playoff spots up for grabs in the AFC and one in the NFC, and this weekend has the chance to produce some high drama.

James’ Chargers visit the Las Vegas Raiders, with both teams punching their ticket with a win.

Buckle up, because beginning Saturday night through the NFL’s finale, this is going to be among the wildest weekends of the season.

Final thought

Joe Judge spoke a lot about culture Sunday.

In the final moments of Judge’s post-game press conference after his New York Giants got run off the field by the Chicago Bears, 29-3, Judge offered an impassioned defense of his 4-12 team’s culture.

Judge’s answer to a question about what he would tell impatient fans begging for progress from an organization that is 61-99 since the 2012 season and 10-22 since Judge’s arrival in Jan. 2020, might as well have been his closing arguments to convince owner John Mara he should keep his job after this season mercifully ends Sunday.

Judge spoke for 11 minutes, which is one more minute than he has NFL wins as a head coach, and you can read his entire soliloquy here.

But, here’s the thing about Judge’s impassioned defense of the culture that he’s aiming to craft; in sports, culture is forged and defined by results. Wins. If you have to tell the world how strong and committed your culture is, you don’t have one at all.

While I have never played a down in the NFL, never stepped foot in a film room, or had to stay invested with my teammates long after being eliminated from postseason contention, I can personally offer the unique perspective of having been in both the Philadelphia Eagles’ locker room every single day for seven seasons and the Giants for two, as a beat reporter.

The difference in vibe and makeup of the teams was stark.

It was eye-opening, after spending seven years covering an Eagles locker room, largely full of veteran players and across three coaching staffs; Andy Reid, Chip Kelly, and Doug Pederson, where there was largely a workmanlike mentality, to see players openly playing poker in the Giants’ locker room.

At one point, midway though the 2019 campaign, Golden Tate’s golf bag became a mainstay in front of his locker stall.

Alec Ogletree, around the holidays, purchased a poker table to park in front of his area, where teammates would frequently gather to play cards.

Even former Giants coach Pat Shurmur embraced the country club atmosphere his team seemed to bask in. Shurmur gave his blessing prior to 2019 for Saquon Barkley to purchase a ping pong table for the team to compete on during the season, in the locker room. There were brackets and everything hung for all to see of a season-long tournament.

Almost daily there would be intense ping pong battles being waged between teammates.

None of that happened in Philadelphia. At least not in front of reporters.

The closest thing to the Giants’ players’ lounge at the NovaCare Complex was a full-sized arcade style pop-a-shot basketball game that arrived in the midst of the team’s run to Super Bowl LII.

Many of the Eagles teams I covered featured veterans who are activists off the field as much as they were playmakers on it; guys like Torrey Smith, Chris Long, Malcolm Jenkins, and veteran leaders like Lane Johnson and Zach Ertz who seemed like they knew how to keep things loose but also focused on winning. Something Philadelphia did a lot of, making the postseason in three of Pederson’s five seasons, including hoisting the Lombardi.

That wasn’t by accident.

“If there’s anything that’s important to Howie,” an individual with knowledge of how the Eagles’ front office operates tells FanSided. “It’s the love of football, love of the team, and love of process. They might not be perfect with that, but that’s the lens they view players through.”

Meanwhile, in New York, it doesn’t seem as though character is a filter players are put through during the evaluation process.

If the Eagles weren’t consistently winning, and owner Jeffrey Lurie wanted the pop-a-shot game out of the locker room, it would have been hauled off to the curb quicker than a Devonta Smith nine-route.

Philadelphia’s culture is such that the Eagles made the postseason in Nick Sirianni’s first season at the helm of what was anticipated to be the beginning of a rebuild. Meanwhile, whoever replaces Dave Gettleman will need to replace four offensive linemen four years after Gettleman vowed to fix the problem in 2018, and Judge is left trying to build a winning atmosphere after starting below ground-level.

Look, ping pong tournaments and poker games during downtime don’t make it any more or less likely a team settles for a field goal in the red zone or converts on fourth-and-short on Sunday. But, it does at least create the perception of a team that isn’t wholly focused on the task at hand.

Judge is not by any means the cause of the Giants’ culture problem. He seemingly is trying his best to fix what is an organizational flaw that stems from owner John Mara.

It seems in recent years, Mara’s focus seemingly lies on how the Giants are perceived as a first-class organization in all facets and perhaps has lost sight of what it takes to craft a winning culture in today’s NFL. If he ever understood it at all.

Players like tight end Kyle Rudolph and corner Logan Ryan say all the right things publicly, and it’s obvious Judge won his job interview and introductory press conference.

“The only culture we will have in this building,” Judge said on Jan. 9, 2020 inside a MetLife Stadium lounge. “Is a winning culture. Period.”

The problem is, Judge has won very little since.

Giants legends like Michael Strahan and Carl Banks knew what it took to be an alpha dog in an NFL locker room and how to be leaders of winning teams. To a lesser extent, the Olivier Vernons’ and Landon Collins’ and Odell Beckhams’ of the world seemed to understand that the Giants’ process was amiss and were summarily ostracized as malcontents.

Mara signed off on hiring Shurmur. And general manager Dave Gettleman. And ultimately on Judge.

As reports have emerged that Judge’s job is safe going into 2022, the onus is on Mara to fix the culture of an organization that in the span of a decade went from winning two of its four Super Bowls to one that ranks dead-last in the NFL in points per game, yards per game, yards per play, and red-zone offense during Judge’s first two seasons.

Those poking fun at Judge for making the case that he is trying to lift the organization from the doldrums are missing the point. And pointing their fingers in the wrong direction.

The Giants’ culture problem is a John Mara problem.

Mara hired Gettleman, and Shurmur, and Judge.

Now, it is Mara who has an opportunity here, presuming Gettleman is no longer the general manager, to craft a front office that puts weight into culture fits as well as scheme fits. And, almost equally as important, to modernize a scouting department that is woefully behind the times of the modern NFL, judging solely by the product that has been put on the field the better part of the last decade.

Teams that talk about fixing their culture, as Gettleman and Judge both have claimed to have fixed over the past two years likely haven’t. Teams that win, have their culture fall into place.

It’s time Mara and the Giants stop talking about culture, start focusing on wins, and let the culture follow suit.