Axios Nashville

Picture of the Nashville skyline.
December 12, 2021

Good morning, Nashville. We've got a Sunday surprise!

We put together a special edition of our newsletter dedicated to the Titans, who have brought us more ups and downs than a Dollywood roller coaster.

  • Our colleagues Kendall Baker and Jeff Tracy from Axios Sports dropped by with their take on the home team's quest for Super Bowl glory.
  • Sign up to receive the free Axios Sports newsletter and hit reply to let us know if you'd like more sports coverage like this.

🏈 At noon: The Titans (8-4) face the Jacksonville Jaguars (2-10) at Nissan Stadium.

Today's newsletter is 926 words, a 3.5-minute read.

1 big thing: The Titans' path to Super Bowl LVI

Photo illustration of Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel with blue and white stripes trailing behind him.
Photo illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios. Photo: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The Titans (8-4) still hold the division lead, but their perch atop the AFC South is precarious after consecutive losses.

  • The good news? Tennessee's remaining schedule is the easiest in the league.

How they got here: After a 2-2 start, the Titans rattled off six straight wins. The problem? Since losing Derrick Henry to a foot injury Oct. 31, cracks have begun to show.

  • By the numbers: They've averaged just 19 points in the past four games (33 in the previous four), including a 13-point showing in a loss to the Texans, ending Houston's eight-game skid.
  • Henry isn't the only star missing. A.J. Brown is on the injured reserve and Julio Jones has played just six games. Credit coach Mike Vrabel for patching together a first-place team in spite of such adversity.

State of play: Today's a huge opportunity for a get-right game, with the lowly Jaguars coming to town and Jones returning from injury.

  • With a win, the Titans open up a two-game lead on the Colts, who are on a bye this week. With a loss, they're looking at an uncomfortably tight final month in the NFL's inaugural 18-week season.
  • If it comes down to the final week, they've got to like their chances in a rematch with two-win Houston, particularly since they swept the Colts and thus own the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The big picture: The Titans are still in good shape to complete their sixth straight winning season and earn their third consecutive playoff berth, and if Henry returns by then — as it appears he's in line to — they could go right back to looking like a juggernaut.

2. The players to watch

Derrick Henry, Harold Landry and Kevin Byard. Photos: Andy Lyons/Getty Images; Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images; Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The question of whether this is another fine, commendable season for the Titans instead of a special and historic one season for the Titans could hinge on whether Henry returns from a foot injury.

  • After just eight games, Henry had already gained 937 yards to lead the NFL — 300 yards ahead of his nearest competitor.
  • The latest: There's reason for optimism. NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported this week the expectation is Henry is "coming back later in the season."

In addition to Henry's return, the Titans will need continued great performances from the defense.

Two leaders on that side of the ball are ...

The rising star: Edge rusher Harold Landry has been a revelation this season.

  • He has already set career highs in sacks, tackles for a loss and quarterback hits, complementing the ferocious interior rush of Jeffrey Simmons and Denico Autry.

The hometown hero: Former Middle Tennessee standout Kevin Byard has returned to his All Pro ways this season to stabilize a makeshift secondary.

  • He has five interceptions, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. Creating turnovers to help a stumbling offense will be even more important for the Titans down the stretch run.

3. Graphic du jour: Injury woes

Data: Sports Illustrated; Chart: Jacque Schrag/Axios

This injury-ravaged season could mark Vrabel's most impressive performance to date.

  • The Titans have set an NFL record for most players used in a regular season with five games still to go — and they're still at the top of the AFC South.

4. The Titans' part in transforming the East Bank

Photo: Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Nashville leaders have spent months planning a sweeping transformation of the East Bank, including significant changes in and around Nissan Stadium.

  • A year ago, the Titans announced plans to work with the city to renovate the stadium and reimagine its campus as a neighborhood hub flanked by restaurants, shops and housing.

The latest: Mayor John Cooper's spokesperson Andrea Fanta tells Axios that details are still being negotiated, adding that conversations "are productive and going well."

Meanwhile: Broader plans to bring more residential and retail options are underway.

  • City officials announced plans for a new north-south boulevard along the riverfront. Fanta said the road would be the backbone of future redevelopment efforts.
  • Earlier this month, city planners unveiled their vision for the underdeveloped area, which included new parks, housing and a greenway.

The big picture: The Nashville Sounds stadium in Germantown is surrounded by a robust network of housing, restaurants and retail.

  • The Titans' negotiations, along with the impending arrival of Oracle, put the largely industrial East Bank on the verge of a major turning point.

Worth noting: A coalition of activists is urging the city to slow down its plans, saying the process has not been transparent or open to community input.

5. Your favorite game day spots

The neighbors bar in sylvan park with Titans flags and decorations on the fence outside.
Neighbors in Sylvan Park. Photo: Adam Tamburin/Axios

Earlier this week, we asked readers for their favorite sports bars and other game day food traditions.

Your take: The two bars singled out the most were Beyond the Edge in East Nashville and Neighbors, which has locations in Sylvan Park and Germantown.

  • "Beyond the Edge is the best sports bar in town — sorry, not sorry," Erik argues.
  • "Neighbors of Sylvan Park is pretty tough to beat for an authentic Titans game day experience. The fact the bar is owned by a former Titan and his wife [Zack and Victoria Piller] has to earn them some added points," AJ says.

An alternative: Elizabeth also gave Neighbors props, but prefers a takeout option for a tailgate.

  • "Best Titans tailgate meal is the smoked wings from The Nations Bar & Grill," she says.

Our wings-related thought bubble: Nate already extolled the virtues of Alley Pub for a game day bar, but their wings are legit.

6. 1 pic to go

A Tennessee Titans fan watches as players warm up before the Nov. 21 game between the Titans and the Houston Texans. Photo: Wade Payne/AP

Despite the injuries that bedeviled the Titans in the last few weeks, we're gritting our teeth and holding out hope this can be a special season for the team in the wide-open AFC.

Thanks for reading our all-Titans edition. We'll be back to our regularly scheduled programming tomorrow.

  • Nate is double-super-mega-ultra serious that you need to visit the Alley Pub in Bellevue.
  • Adam is remembering his Aunt Sam, who somehow figured out how to dye her deviled eggs Titans blue on game days.

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