<
>

Facing tougher path to playoffs, Titans must choose how to respond

"It's a must-win. We're already in playoff mode," linebacker Erik Walden said of the Titans' game against the Rams on Sunday. Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans should be angry at themselves. Their path to the playoffs was once clear, but they stumbled in losses to the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers.

If the Titans hope to end their decade-long playoff drought, they'll have to do it the hard way. Two of the NFL's best teams -- the Rams and Jaguars -- are on the docket to close the year for the Titans.

"It’s a must-win. We’re already in playoff mode," linebacker Erik Walden said. "Each individual man gotta look in the mirror and see if he really want this s--- bad enough.

"It was supposed to be a nice trip, a great experience, and we take two Ls in games [against Arizona and San Francisco] we were supposed to win easily to me. We didn’t. Now we’re in the predicament that we’re in. We gotta win against a hot-ass L.A. Rams and a hot Jacksonville team."

That's the mindset of several players on both sides of the ball, an honest appraisal of their frustrating reality. But there's a level of curiosity, too -- a hopeful but uncertain feeling that they can still secure a fading playoff berth that once seemed like a lock. The Titans' locker room was full of somber and frustrated faces on Sunday. But it has been 24 hours. They're at a crossroads, and they'll choose to turn to apathy or anger.

"It just looks like we’re going to find out how much pride people have," receiver Rishard Matthews said, taking a quick glance around the locker room. "We’re going to find out in the next two games and in practice. At the end of the day, you can’t reverse anything. Your record is what it is."

The Titans are 8-6 with a 63.1 percent chance to make the playoffs, per ESPN Stats & Information. Yet it feels like 8-8 is more likely than 10-6 or even 9-7. The Titans have the talent to change that feeling, but only if they choose anger.

"We don’t lack effort and toughness," defensive end Jurrell Casey said. "It’s about being disciplined and making the plays you’re supposed to make.

Safety Johnathan Cyprien added: "It doesn’t feel like anything is about to tumble. We’re a close-knit group. We understand what we have in here. We had a hiccup these last two games. We’re going back home, where it’s hard to play us."

Tennessee's defensive veterans are saying the right things. But none of that will matter if they can't win. The Titans will likely need to win at least one, if not both, of the games against the Rams and Jaguars for a solid chance to make the playoffs. That will come only with better play than they had during their disastrous trip to the West Coast.

"These next two weeks are going to decide what these men are made of and what type of team we are," Walden said.

It might also decide some jobs -- for both players and coaches -- especially if the next two weeks look similar to the previous two.