Wiedmer: Titans must quit shooting themselves in foot to have shot at Super Bowl

AP photo by Matt Durisko / Tennessee Titans inside linebacker Rashaan Evans (54) reacts to a play during Sunday's road loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

There are games you can't lose, or at least shouldn't, if you expect to reach the Super Bowl. The Tennessee Titans lost just such a game Sunday, when they blew a 13-3 lead in a 19-13 loss at Pittsburgh.

This isn't to say Tennessee can't still reach the Super Bowl. The Titans might even win it if they can get even half their injured back on the field, especially a certain running back named Derrick Henry.

But had they beaten the Steelers on Sunday, they would have grabbed the No. 1 seed, at least for now, for the American Football Conference playoffs, which meant the AFC's Super Bowl berth would have gone through the Music City.

Now, though, Tennessee must hope that it can win out against a difficult final three opponents in the regular season, that new top seed Kansas City - which the Titans beat 27-3 back in October - stubs its toe in at least one of its final three games, and that the New England Patriots lose again as well.

That's a lot to go right for a Titans team that has seen so much go wrong this season on the injury front. But let me count those for you. Since the season began, Tennessee has had a total of 86 players on its active roster at one time or another. That's the most in the NFL this season. Pretty hard to develop any chemistry or continuity when guys probably need name tags in the huddle to identify each other.

Yet somehow, some way, coach Mike Vrabel and his staff have bandaged together a group of Titans who have won nine of 14 starts to date and played some pretty amazing football when they can hold on to the football, which they didn't do against the Steelers while coughing up three fumbles and throwing one interception.

And this wasn't an anomaly. In back-to-back losses to the Houston Texans and the Patriots, Tennessee turned it over a total of nine times. For the season, the many-hues-of-blue crew are minus-seven in turnovers, which actually makes their record to date all the more remarkable.

But for it to end the way Titans Nation wants it to, with a third straight playoff appearance under Vrabel, the turnovers need to end, too.

"We have to hold the ball in much more regard," Vrabel said after this one. "We obviously can't do that and think you're going to win."

photo AP photo by Don Wright / Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel's team has gone from a six-game winning streak to a 1-3 stretch hastened by trouble hanging on to the football.

Yet even with all those turnovers - three led directly to field goals by the offensive-challenged Steelers - it looked as if Tennessee was going to pull it out before a terrific stop by Joe Haden denied the Titans a first down by literally two inches at the Pittsburgh 10-yard line.

So now a team that could have held the No. 1 seed in the AFC must face the surging San Francisco 49ers at Nissan Stadium on Thursday night, then win remaining games against the red-hot Miami Dolphins - who have won six straight - and at Houston, which shocked the Titans last month, to have any shot at the top seed.

Even then it will take some luck, because New England, which is also 9-5 at the moment, owns the tiebreaker against Tennessee for home-field advantage. And just in case Titans Nation thinks the injury bug may be behind it, wide receiver Julio Jones left Sunday's game with a leg injury.

What should concern the Titans more is holding off division rival Indianapolis. The Colts have won five of their past six games, and after visiting the Arizona Cardinals this Saturday for a Christmas matchup, they finish out the season against the Las Vegas Raiders and at woeful Jacksonville.

Tennessee has beaten Indy twice, so the Titans own the tiebreaker for the AFC South crown. But if Indy wins out, the Titans must go 2-1 down the stretch to avoid a wild-card weekend road game.

But at least they're not the Atlanta Falcons, whose playoff hopes likely ended Sunday at San Francisco, that 31-13 loss dropping them to 6-8. That may not yet mathematically eliminate them in a muddled, mediocre NFC, but it surely has them on life support.

In Titansville, there remains much hope that Henry can return for the playoffs, especially if the franchise can somehow earn a bye. Yet Henry doesn't seem to be as much of a necessity for playoff success - running back D'Onta Foreman rushed for 108 yards against the Steelers - as cleaning up the turnovers.

Or as kick returner Chester Rogers noted after Sunday's loss: "I think every game, every week, you have to have a sense of urgency. The Colts are playing their (behinds) off, and we have to finish out and win all three games and put ourselves in position."

Otherwise, the Titans may find themselves in the unenviable position of having to win as many as three road games in the playoffs to reach their first Super Bowl since the 1999 season.

photo Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.