The Titans may not be as strong as their record indicates. (Austin Anthony/Daily News via AP)

The Tennessee Titans have won six of their past seven games, pushing their record to 8-4, the third-best mark in the AFC, heading into Sunday’s game against the Arizona Cardinals. If the season ended today, Coach Mike Mularkey’s squad would be the No. 3 seed in the conference, earning its first playoff berth since 2008. But there would also be serious questions about the team’s postseason potency.

Tennessee would be the only playoff team with a negative point differential (minus-16 through the first 12 games). In fact, since 2002, the year the league expanded to 32 teams, only one 8-4 team through the first 12 games of the season, the 2012 Indianapolis Colts, has had a lower point differential (minus-41) than the Titans do in 2017.

“This is not a Corvette. This is a dump truck,” NBC analyst and Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy said of the Titans. “This is all they have got. Ugly, but they are winning.”

The ugliness comes in the losses — no team has a worse point differential in losses than the Titans do this season, losing by 20.5 points per defeat. They are winning games by 8.3 points, on average. If you adjust their margin of victory for strength of schedule, the Titans are the ninth-best team in the AFC, scoring 3.5 points per game less than an average team, worse than the 4-8 Houston Texans (minus-0.9) and the 5-7 New York Jets (minus-3.2).

As a result, the 2017 Titans’ point differential indicates they are more commensurate with teams holding a 6-6 record, two fewer wins than Tennessee currently has. Football Outsiders estimates the team should have just five wins as the 11th-worst team in the NFL per their Defense-adjusted Value Over Average metric, which measures a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play with a league average based on situation and opponent.

Good teams don’t win ugly — they win definitively. Since 2002, 180 teams have qualified for the postseason, but just 13 have done it with a negative point differential. Of those 13, six lost in the wild-card round, six more lost in the divisional round and just one, the 2011 New York Giants, appeared in, and won, a Super Bowl.

Team Point differential Playoff result
2004 Seahawks (9-7-0) -2 Lost Wild Card 20-27 vs. St. Louis Rams
2004 Rams (8-8-0) -73 Lost Divisional Round 17-47 vs. Atlanta Falcons
2006 Seahawks (9-7-0) -6 Lost Divisional Round 24-27 vs. Chicago Bears
2006 Giants (8-8-0) -7 Lost Wild Card 20-23 vs. Philadelphia Eagles
2010 Seahawks (7-9-0) -97 Lost Divisional Round 24-35 vs. Chicago Bears
2011 Giants (9-7-0) -6 Won Super Bowl 21-17 vs. New England Patriots
2011 Broncos (8-8-0) -81 Lost Divisional Round 10-45 vs. New England Patriots
2012 Colts (11-5-0) -30 Lost Wild Card 9-24 vs. Baltimore Ravens
2013 Packers (8-7-1) -11 Lost Wild Card 20-23 vs. Philadelphia Eagles
2014 Panthers (7-8-1) -35 Lost Divisional Round 17-31 vs. Seattle Seahawks
2016 Lions (9-7-0) -12 Lost Wild Card 6-26 vs. Seattle Seahawks
2016 Dolphins (10-6-0) -17 Lost Wild Card 12-30 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
2016 Texans (9-7-0) -49 Lost Divisional Round 16-34 vs. New England Patriots

One of the most reliable indicators for separating the title contenders and pretenders is by looking at passer rating differential — the difference between a team’s passer rating and the collective rating of the team’s opposing quarterbacks. Its correlation to success led football stathead Kerry Byrne to dub it the “Mother of All Stats” during the 2012 Pro Football Researchers Association biennial meeting hosted by NFL Films. Since 2002, 22 of the past 30 Super Bowl participants had a passer rating differential among the top five in the league, including 10 of the past 15 winners. The Titans’ net passer rating differential is minus-10.4, 21st in 2017, on par with teams that make the playoffs just 5.4 percent of the time over the past 15 seasons, or one out of every 19 occurrences.

If Tennessee is to get into the black in terms of point differential or net passer rating, a couple of things need to improve quickly, starting with their ability to sustain drives. The Titans are forced to go three-and-out 40.7 percent of the time. Only the Colts, Giants and Chicago Bears, teams with a combined 8-28 record in 2017, are worse. The Titans also turn the ball over too much (13.1 percent, 26th in the NFL) leading to the second-lowest plays per drive this season (5.0).

Defensively, opponents are getting too many first downs via the passing game, with almost one out of every three passing attempts creating a first down this season (38.4 percent). Only the Green Bay Packers are worse in 2017.

If they can’t shore up those areas, the Titans may still make the postseason, but their run will likely end soon after it begins.

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