Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Titans in Trouble: Injuries, Creeping Competition Spell Impending Doom

Remember the glory days of 2008, when the Tennessee Titans were 10-0 and looked to be a surging AFC power? They had a killer defense and two strong young running backs, and it seemed like they were only going to get better as the playoffs loomed.

Well, those days are gone.

In their past four games, the Titans are 2-2. Their victories were over the Lions and Browns, two teams that might have trouble beating this year’s 5-7 Tennessee Vols. Their losses, however, were to improving teams, the Jets and the Texans.

Therein lies a problem: The Titans’ success might be a by-product of a weak schedule. They have essentially three quality wins in ’08, over Minnesota, Baltimore and Indianapolis. Possibly the Nov. 9 victory at Chicago can be counted as a Q win.

Yes, 12-2 looks mighty nice, but if you’re only knocking off a bunch of pansies, then you’re not getting battle-hardened. Contrast that with the regimen of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have built an 11-3 record playing a schedule that included games versus Philadelphia, Baltimore, the Giants, Indianapolis, New England and Dallas.

Weeks ago, no one would have dreamed that the Titans wouldn’t have had home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Now, the Steelers come into LP Field this Sunday, with a chance to shake up all that presumed security. If the Steelers leave town with an identical 12-3 record, the Titans then face the prospect of playing the red-hot Colts—10-4, and on a seven-game winning streak—in their final road game of the season, and absolute home-field advantage stands a very realistic chance of being in jeopardy. (The Steelers conclude their season at home against the woeful Browns.)

The Titans are hurting. Their staunch defensive line is no more, with injuries to Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch keeping them out of games until the playoffs arrive. Even then, neither will be at 100 percent.

As for the running game, there’s reason to believe it will return, but the Titans haven’t much balanced the Smash and Dash of Chris Johnson and LenDale White with their passing game. Kerry Collins has his moments, as do his receivers, but there’s no way the Tennessee passing attack will ever be confused with an elite operation. It’s been a concern from the very beginning, even through all those easy-looking early victories: How do the Titans come back in games in which they might just fall behind? Or in situations where they need to score quickly? Or desperately?

The automatic formula for success has been scuttled by injuries and mediocrity, and the fact is that the Colts and Steelers are playing better football at the right time. As are possibly the 9-5 Ravens, Jets and Patriots.

The Titans’ worries would be less, of course, if they’d managed to grab a win in Houston this past Sunday. Down 13-12, late in the fourth quarter, with the ball on the Houston 32, the Titans engaged in some weird decision-making.

It was 4th down, 3 to go. Now, the conservative call is to let ace kicker Rob Bironas attempt a 49-yard field goal to grab the lead, and then allow the sputtering Texans’ offense to try to march the other way with time running out. Instead, Titans coach Jeff Fisher decided to run a play, presumably to get the first down. Strange. The play called had Collins throwing an errant, incomplete pass toward the end zone. Game over. Titans lose.

Were they going for broke? Why, when three yards got them a first down and closer to within Bironas’ range? How about a quick one over the middle to the tight end? Something short and secure.

Fisher claimed at his Monday news conference that the field goal was not, in his opinion, within Bironas’ range. Hmmm...this is a kicker who made a 60-yarder once to defeat the Colts. I’m sure that wasn’t within his range either that day, but the fact is that Bironas has a strong leg, and 49-yarders are, if not a gimme for him, then certainly a good bet with the game on the line.

Even playing uncertain football, the Titans could be 13-1 and sitting in the catbird seat. Instead, the Steelers are breathing down their collective neck, and the smell of inevitable postseason failure is in the air.

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