By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
Remember back in mid-October, the 18th day of the 10th month to be specific? The Tennessee Titans were 0-6, reeling from a crushing, 59-0 loss to the Patriots in which they had obviously quit at some point early on in the second quarter. Well then, they had a bye, decided to re-insert former first-rounder Vince Young at quarterback and ran off six straight wins and seven of eight, putting themselves squarely in the thick of the AFC playoff hunt at 7-7.
The keys have been plentiful. Young is playing as well as he has since his glory days at the University of Texas (1,619 yards, 60.5 percent completions, 10 TDs vs. just four picks and an excellent passer rating of 92.5), where he led the Longhorns to a national title. Second-year back Chris Johnson leads the NFL in rushing (1,730 yards, 5.7 YPA) and seems to set a record every week. And the defense has improved greatly too, ranking ninth in the league against the run and holding opponents under 20 pints in all but two games since the massacre in Foxboro.
This week, they play the smoking hot San Diego Chargers on Christmas night and they have zero margin for error. One more loss and they’re almost definitely cooked. It will be extremely hard for the Titans to win that game given not just the way the Chargers are playing but that Tennessee has lost its defensive captain, linebacker Keith Bulluck, for the year with a knee injury. But even if they lose and subsequently miss the playoffs, what the Titans have accomplished this year since that snowy October day at Gillette Stadium, when they could have packed it in and settled for a 3-13 campaign, is nothing short of miraculous. It’s a performance that should go down in history as a textbook lesson in perseverance and heart.
This Week’s Five Best Teams
1. Indianapolis: The Colts break through into the top spot thanks to their seventh win of the season after trailing in the fourth quarter, a 35-31 victory over Jacksonville in which Peyton Manning put a stranglehold on the MVP race thanks to his 23-of-30, 308-yard, 4 TD performance.
2. San Diego: The Chargers ninth straight win, a thrilling, 27-24 win over visiting Cincinnati in which they extended their December winning streak to 17 games, also marked Phillip Rivers improving his record in the year’s 12th month as a pro to 17-0. Coincidence? Hardly.
3. New Orleans: At last, the Saints, who have been drifting a bit since their late November beatdown of the Patriots on Monday Night Football, couldn’t pull one out against a Cowboys team that played its best game possibly in years. Some people have noted that the loss will make things easier for New Orleans going forward but regardless, it still would have been awfully cool to see them and the Colts lock horns in the Super Bowl, each at 18-0.
4. Philadelphia: 10,000-some odd pounds of snow in Lincoln Financial Field wasn’t enough to keep the Eagles from their sixth straight win, a 27-13 decision over the 49ers, that gave them further breathing room in the NFC East as well as a clearer path to breaking the hearts of their fans for the umpteenth time with another untimely, sloppy playoff loss.
5. Minnesota: Ah so now things aren’t so rosy on the Good Ship Purple Lollipop after a brutal, 26-7 loss at Carolina on national TV, the Vikings second nationwide crapfest in three weeks. I wonder why? See below if you do too.
This Week’s Five Worst Teams
1. St. Louis: Another week, another miserable loss for my favorite bad team, this one a three-point heartbreaker to the Texans. Given how hard the Rams play for rookie head coach Steve Spagnuolo pretty much every week, it will be interesting to see what this off-season’s acquisitions, particularly a quarterback, will do for the franchise in 2010.
2. Detroit: The Lions fought hard in a near comeback win against the playoff-bound Cards but again fell short because there is not nearly enough talent on their roster. Hopefully, Detroit management, coach Jim Schwartz and the 78 remaining fans will have enough patience to get through another couple of lean years.
3. Kansas City: A home game against the two-win Browns? Not enough for the seemingly-regressing Chiefs, who allowed a running back with zero acumen to gash them for nearly 300 yards and a return man who everyone knows is as dangerous as it gets to run back two kicks for 100+yard scores in a dismal, 41-34 loss.
4. Tampa Bay: How about the Bucs? Just when it seemed they were at least tied with the Rams for the honor of the league’s worst team, they fly 3,000 miles to Seattle and wax the pathetic Seahawks, 24-7.
5. Washington: Their first game since hiring a new GM after several weeks of improvement? And a nationally televised one against an arch rival no less? The Skins seize the day and get blown out, 45-12 to the Giants in a game that features a trick play so poorly conceived that most high school teams wouldn’t run it. Adios finally, Jim Zorn.
– Josh Cribbs and Jerome Harrison, Browns Cribbs runs back one kick for a 100-yard TD, then another for a 103-yard TD against Kansas City, giving a record eight kick return scores for his career. And in the same game, the no-name Harrison rushes for 286 yards, not only breaking the team record held by Jim Brown by more than 50 yards, but putting up the third highest single-game tally in league history.
– Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers: After five straight losses, a hypothetical ticket to their local golf course instead of the playoffs and a preposterously bad decision by coach Mike Tomlin to go for an onside kick with the lead and four minutes left goes sour, Ben bails his guys out with a prototypical, last-minute winning comeback, completing a 503-yard passing day, the most in Steeler history, the biggest in the NFL since 2006 and the highest total in the league this year. I wonder if anyone in that locker room is still interested in questioning him now?
– JaMarcus Russell, Raiders??? Our Knucklehead of the Year comes in after three other QBs, the ball boy and an opposing fan get hurt/can’t get the job done, and leads the Raiders to an improbable road win against Denver with a brilliantly executed drive and TD pass with 35 seconds left. There’s hope, it would seem, for this guy yet.
– The Seahawks: Losing 24-7 at home to Tampa? Matt Hasselbeck, four years ago a starting Super Bowl quarterback, throwing four picks and losing one of the worst fumbles in the history of terrible fumbles? Seattle is officially just as bad, if not worse, than last year’s sorry, 4-12 outfit.
– The Jets Special Teams: Three missed field goals – one from 38 yards, another on a bad snap from 20 yards and a third blocked from 37 yards – doom the as usual woebegone Jets in a 10-7 home loss to Atlanta that put their faint playoff hopes on life support. At least those putrid displays overshadowed yet another horrible day by the Sanchize.
– The Broncos: A home loss to the Raiders, their sixth in eight games, make both the Broncos look like their in deep trouble and me look stupid for writing three weeks ago that they would potentially run the table and cruise into the postseason.
Once 10-1, now 11-3 and in possession of enough talent and skill to give anyone else in the NFC a great run for a Super Bowl berth, the Vikings seemed primed for this time of the year. But that still isn’t enough for the illustrious Brett Favre. Apparently his coach/chief enabler Brad Childress doesn’t like all of the audibles he calls, even when his team is way ahead (like several weeks ago when he checked out of a run into a deep pass while blowing out the Packers) and tried on a couple of occasions to take him out of the game, even as recently as last week against Carolina. So with that, according the god Favre, people needed to be humiliated in public, team and winning be damned. Look, there’s no need to rehash all of the details. And Childress is not absolved because he should have known what he was getting into when he sold out the organization on his way to pick Favre up at the airport last summer. All that needs to be said is what’s been said in this space before: Brett Favre is a blight on any team he plays for as well as the NFL as a whole, regardless of his performance and numbers. He claims to want to win but all he really wants is to do anything he wants on his own terms and to hell with anyone who tries to get in his way, even if that someone is the coach of the team he supposedly is there to help win. I wasn’t sure the Vikings had what it took to win it all even before this nonsense went public (their defense hasn’t been so great the last month, their offensive line is tired and Adrian Peterson is not the same back he was last year). But now I’m positive. As long as Favre is there, undermining anyone and everyone who dares cross him and his self-importance and swollen ego, the Vikings will never, ever win. The league will be a better place when Favre finally puts us out of our misery and retires for real. So will the Vikings. As for Childress; hey, at least he got a fat contract extension before Favre decided he wasn’t worthy of breathing the same air.