For most NFL teams, third down is when games are won or lost. The good ones convert often and keep drives alive, which leads to all sorts of other good things.
The Tennessee Titans actually have been a good third-down team this season, but it has not had the desired effect. They entered Sunday’s game at Jacksonville fifth in third-down success rate on both offense and defense yet they were guaranteed a losing record and a fifth straight year without a playoff appearance.
Sunday’s 20-16 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars was different.
The Titans’ offense was terrible on third down. Then again, so was the Jaguars’. Tennessee was 3-for-13 (23.1 percent), its second lowest success rate of the season, on third down. Jacksonville was 3-for-11 (27.2 percent).
The difference was what happened on fourth down.
“We rose up and converted on a couple of fourth down conversions,” coach Mike Munchak said. “Guys made plays. … It goes to the character we had the whole time. We are not happy with the season, but the best we can do is to win two division games. We got one [Sunday].”
The Titans actually have been a good fourth-down offense all season as well.
Following Sunday’s performance they have gone for it in that situation 17 times (only six teams have attempted more) and converted 11 times (65 percent), the best success rate among the top 10 in fourth-down tries. They are one of only six teams with at least 10 successful fourth-down attempts this season.
MOST FOURTH DOWN CONVERSIONS, 2013
14 – Cleveland (28 attempts)
12 – Cincinnati (21 attempts)
11 – Tennessee (17 attempts)
10 – Carolina (13 attempts)
10 – Jacksonville (25 attempts)
10 – Minnesota (19 attempts)
This is, in fact, just the fourth time during the Titans era that the team has managed at least 10 successful fourth-down conversions in a season.
MOST FOURTH-DOWN CONVERSIONS
Titans era (1999-2013)
12 – 2009 (22 attempts, 54.5 percent)
12 – 2004 (27 attempts, 44.4 percent)
11 – 2013 (17 attempts, 65 percent)
10 – 2011 (14 attempts, 71.4 percent)
Of course, they failed to make the playoffs in any of the previous three years and this one is no exception. Teams that routinely go for it on fourth down typically do so out of need – i.e. they’re losing and they have no other choice.
Nearly half of the Titans’ conversions this season have come in wins. Their first two successful fourth-down tries came in victories over Pittsburgh (Week 1) and San Diego (Week 3). Since then, they have been acts of desperation that came up short.
Against the Jaguars, Tennessee converted three times in four tries. Two of the successful attempts resulted in 10 points, including the go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
Jacksonville converted just once in three tries, which was notable given that through the first 14 games opponents were successful on six of eight fourth-down tries against the Titans. The Jaguars’ final, unsuccessful attempt came with 5:25 to play in the game. Maurice Jones-Drew was stuffed on fourth-and-1 and any realistic chance of a Jaguars’ rally vanished.
“We ended up trying to go for it on fourth down as well as they did many times,” Jacksonville coach Gus Bradley said. “We felt like we were bold in our opportunities and some we captured and some we did not.”
The truth is that neither team had anything to lose by going for it often in that situation. The Titans just happened to win because they were better at it.