Lots of people have been asking why the Titans clinched the AFC South so early. The answer: Stupid rules regarding tie breakers.
It is looking very possible that the Colts and Titans could have the same exact record going into the playoffs, only the Titans are guaranteed a home game and a first round bye while Indy must play all its playoff games on the road. Yeah, it sucks, but two of the last three Super Bowl winner came from the 5th and 6th seeds in the Wild Card rounds. NY and Pittsburgh played (and won) all their playoff games on the road. Still, it is a bit annoying that Tennessee has the division even though they could end the season 12-4 with Indy. How is this possible? The NFL's priority with tie breakers.
Currently, the Colts are 2-2 in the AFC South. The Titans are 4-1. If Indy wins out they would be 4-2 in the division along with Tennessee, and they'd be tied record-wise at 12-4. They'd also be tied head-to-head 1-1. So, that means regular season record, division record, and head-to-head record are tied. Logically, you'd think AFC record would be the next tie breaker. Both teams play in the AFC. How well they play in the conference should decide, right?
Nope. Basically, the team that played the best against the NFC North won the AFC South division. Yes, I agree. That's pretty stupid stuff right there.
"Common opponent" is the next tie-breaker, not conference record. The common opponents between the Colts and Titans were the NFC North. The Colts went 2-2 against the "Norse" division. The Titans went 4-0. If the next tie-breaker were AFC record, Indy would win the AFC South if they won out. Indy would end with a 10-2 AFC record while the Titans would end with a 9-3 record.
This situation is different than the one in 2003, when both teams finished 12-4. Indy swept Tennessee head-to-head that year. So, there was no real controversy. This year, there is to an extent. The NFL switched to having common opponent over division record as the third tie-breaker this past year. Bill Polian explains:
They did it based on common opponents, which was a tiebreaker that was instituted this past year, I believe. My memory of having voted for that is absolutely blank, so I must have either not been in the room when it was discussed or I have amnesia about it. That’s how they did it. I can understand why they did it and here’s why. The schedule is in and of itself unbalanced. The only balanced parts of it are your division games and your opponents in the other conference. That gives you a total of 10 games: roughly, two-thirds of the schedule. So, those games are constant. The other games are weighted against the better teams. One plays one, two plays two, three plays three, four plays four. So, the easier-scheduled team would have an intrinsic advantage within the conference. Now that I think of it, I may have been in the room when it was discussed, because I’m repeating all of the talking points. Somewhere in the recesses of my memory, the facts are coming out. Even though it’s a change and it’s not something we’re used to, you can make the argument that it’s a little more fair, because it relates to common opponents within the division as opposed to those so-called seeding games coming into play. I could see why people would like that better, but it is a change.
I agree with Polian that it could be argued that it is a little more fair, but when you say that the AFC South was won by the team that beat the NFC North the most, it just sounds stupid. It also demeans and diminishes one's record in the conference (you know, the one both teams play in), which is a BIG tie breaker when determining Wild Cards. Why different tie breakers for the same playoffs? For me, dumb rule change.
Now, before trolls start filing their teeth, the Titans won the South fair and square. No disrespect to what they've accomplished. They won the division under the rules, and they don't make those rules. But, if we were playing under the same rules that have governed this division since its creation in 2002, the Titans would not be the AFC South champs now. And the fact that people are asking "Why were they crowned so early?" says a lot about how tie breakers should be evaluated going forward. It also says something about the Titans, who haven't beaten a playoff caliber team since October 5th. And no, the Colts were not a good team on October 27th.They played that game without Bob Sanders, Joseph Addai, and Kelvin Hayden. They have since won 7 in a row, but back then they were not playing well. They were inconsistent, and I said as much.