The NFL’s worst No. 1 seeds since 1983: The Titans make the list, but there are reasons for optimism

The Tennessee Titans had some impressive wins this season. They beat their division rivals in Indianapolis twice. They beat the Los Angeles Rams handily. They beat the Buffalo Bills when the Bills were considered the favorite to win the AFC. And they clobbered the Kansas City Chiefs by a final score of 27-3.

The Titans also had some very unimpressive losses this season. They lost to the New York Jets and Houston Texans, two teams that each finished 4-13. They lost to New England Patriots by 23 points and to the Arizona Cardinals by 25.

As a result of those losses and a number of very close wins, advanced metrics are down on the Titans going into this year’s playoffs. And no advanced metric is more down on the Titans than Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings.

The Titans will go into the playoffs with the worst regular-season DVOA rating ever for a No. 1 seed. They are the first team to get a No. 1 seed with a below-average total DVOA, based on play-by-play breakdown currently going back to 1983.

In fact, the Titans do not just have the lowest regular-season DVOA for any No. 1 seed. They even have a lower DVOA than any No. 2 seed. Three teams have earned No. 2 seeds with negative DVOA for the season: the 2005 Chicago Bears (minus-1.8%), the 2004 Atlanta Falcons (minus-1.7%), and the 2000 Minnesota Vikings (minus-1.3%). Each of those teams was slightly ahead of the 2021 Titans.

No team has ever won the Super Bowl after putting up a negative DVOA during the regular season. Only two teams have even made it to the Super Bowl after a negative regular season: the 2003 Panthers (minus-0.2%) and the 2008 Cardinals (minus-4.0%). For the Titans to win the Super Bowl would be an unprecedented achievement.

DVOA is not the only advanced metric that has the Titans very low for a No. 1 seed. ESPN’s Football Power Index entered the playoffs with Tennessee ranked 13th, 1.6 points better than the average NFL team. This is by far the lowest rating for a No. 1 seed in FPI, which goes back to 2008. Previously, the worst No. 1 seed had been the 2010 Falcons, who rated as 4.1 points above an average team.

In Pythagorean winning percentage, based solely on points scored and allowed, only one other No. 1 seed since 1983 comes out lower than the 2021 Titans. The Titans project with 10.3 Pythagorean wins, a .603 winning percentage. The 1985 Los Angeles Raiders are the only No. 1 seed to finish lower; they project with 9.3 wins, a .584 winning percentage. The 1986 Browns and 2015 Broncos also have fewer Pythagorean wins than the Titans, but a higher projected winning percentage because they played 16-game seasons.

Reasons for optimism

There are a couple of reasons for Titans fans to have optimism despite the poor regular-season metrics.

First is the value of the bye week. It truly matters that the Titans will get a week of rest while every other team in the AFC had to play this weekend. You may notice that only one of the 10 teams listed on the table above lost in the divisional round. We estimate that the bye week improves the No. 1 seed’s chances to win in the divisional round by 9%, separate from the value of home-field advantage.

Second, the Titans got a very favorable draw in the AFC playoffs. Cincinnati, their first opponent, is by far the lowest of the other three remaining AFC teams according to advanced metrics. The Bengals finished the year 17th in DVOA compared to second for Buffalo and seventh for Kansas City. The difference is even more stark in ESPN’s FPI ratings, with Buffalo and Kansas City finishing the season first and third while Cincinnati was 15th, two spots below the Titans. The Bills and Chiefs will now face off in a battle of heavyweights while the rested Titans get the weaker (but still dangerous) Bengals.

The other reason for Titans fans to have optimism is the importance of the words “regular season” when we say that the Titans had the worst regular-season rating ever for a No. 1 seed. The Titans won the AFC South and the No. 1 seed this year despite a lot of injuries. They lost Derrick Henry for half the season. They’ve played a number of games without either of their top two receivers, veterans A.J. Brown and Julio Jones. They’ve had a number of offensive line and defensive injuries as well. The Titans will be a lot healthier in the playoffs than they were in most of their losses this season.

Now, the Titans’ injury issues this year may be a bit overstated. You’ve probably seen by now the stat that the Titans used 91 different active players this season, more than any other team in the NFL. That’s true, but it’s not all because of injuries. General manager Jon Robinson is very aggressive swapping bottom-of-the-roster players for specific matchup reasons. And not all injuries are created equal. There are injuries to important players, and injuries to replaceable players.

According to weighted Approximate Value lost to injuries in the 2021 season tracked by the site Man-Games Lost, the Titans ranked only 18th in the impact of their injuries this year. A number of other playoff teams saw a higher impact from injuries, including fellow division champions Green Bay, Tampa Bay and Dallas.

Can we try to approximate how good the Titans would have been this season without their most important injuries?

Like many teams during an NFL season — especially the last two NFL seasons because of COVID-19 — the Titans have been shuffling players in and out of the lineup all year. Fans of most of the other playoff teams could make a similar argument that we should be looking only at a certain subset of their games when their rosters were healthier. Obviously, a couple of playoff teams have been particularly healthy, such as Buffalo and Cincinnati. But it’s very difficult to determine the specific impact of injuries to players other than at the quarterback position, and the one reserve the Titans never had to use this year was their backup quarterback.

It’s particularly hard to isolate certain games on defense as the games that “shouldn’t count” when looking at just how good the Titans are. The Titans’ defensive injuries don’t particularly stand out when compared to other teams’. Arguably the three best players on the defense — interior lineman Jeffery Simmons, pass-rusher Harold Landry III and All-Pro safety Kevin Byard — played the entire 17-game schedule. The Titans’ starting lineup plus nickelback (i.e. their top 12 defenders) played a combined 167 games. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers‘ top 12 defenders, to give one example, also played a combined 167 games.

As one important player went out for the Titans, another player came back in. Six starting defenders missed at least a three-game span but very few of those spans overlapped. Perhaps the game with the most injuries to Titans defenders was Week 8 against Indianapolis. Both linebackers Rashaan Evans and Jayon Brown were out along with cornerback Kristian Fulton and nose tackle Teair Tart. That week, despite the 34-31 final score, the Titans had one of their better defensive games of the year with -17.8% DVOA. (A more negative defensive DVOA is better because it means less offense.) The Colts turned over the ball three times in that game. Take it out of the Titans’ defensive DVOA for the year and Tennessee looks worse, not better.

Isolating which games “matter” on offense is another story. We could look at the Titans’ offense solely before Henry broke his foot in Week 8. But as Bill Barnwell pointed out last week, the Titans have gotten roughly the same performance out of D’Onta Foreman in the second half of the season that they got out of Henry in the first half. The same can’t be said for the backup receivers who had to replace veterans Brown and Jones. The embarrassing early-season loss to the Jets came with Brown and Jones out. The huge Week 12 loss to the Patriots came with Brown and Jones out. Brown played in the Week 11 loss to Houston but left early with the chest injury that cost him the next three games.

The problem with trusting the numbers when Brown and Jones were available is that you’re looking at a sample size of just half a season, most of which came over two months ago. Nonetheless, replace Tennessee’s actual offensive DVOA number with the rating when both Brown and Jones were available and now the Titans are no longer the worst No. 1 seed ever. They’re still among the worst No. 1 seeds, but they would be near the bottom of that table above, not near the top.

Titans fans would also have a good argument for removing the Week 1 loss to Arizona, which was over four months ago at this point. Remove that game, and now the offensive DVOA with Brown and Jones available is 18.6%, which would have been third in the NFL this year behind Tampa Bay and Green Bay. Now you aren’t even close to the worst No. 1 seed ever, but your offensive rating is based on a sample of just seven games.

How we change which games “matter” for rating the Titans has a significant effect on what we think Tennessee’s chances for victory are. If we use the Brown/Jones rating (10.7% offensive DVOA) for the Titans, our estimate of their chances of winning in the divisional round goes up 10%. Use the Brown/Jones rating without Week 1, and our estimate goes up 14%.

So while the Titans are the worst regular-season team to earn a No. 1 seed, they aren’t really the worst No. 1 seed as currently constituted. And while they shouldn’t be considered the AFC favorites, their mediocre regular season does not mean they don’t have a chance to hoist the Lombardi trophy at the end of the postseason. Earning the No. 1 seed despite all those injuries was certainly an accomplishment, and it’s an accomplishment that significantly helps bring the Titans closer to their ultimate goal: a championship.

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