In a sense, it’s a bit ironic that the Tennessee Titans are playing their two most significant games in many years the same week that their former coach, Jeff Fisher, has paid for the sins of the Rams’ franchise with his job.
Fisher, of course, was the original coach of the Tennessee Titans (nee Oilers) after the franchise abandoned Houston following the 1996 season (twenty years ago, now). He led them to the franchise’s only Super Bowl appearance following the 1999 season (losing, ironically, to the Rams – then located in St Louis). Jeff was 142-120 over all or parts of 17 different regular seasons with the Oilers/Titans franchise, and 5-6 with them in the playoffs.
Neither the Titans nor Fisher had really done all that well since they split up. Fisher was in the midst of what would have been his fifth consecutive losing season for the Rams (another team that moved while he coached them) – finishing with a 31-45 record for them. Meanwhile, the Titans have had four consecutive losing seasons under three different head coaches (including going 5-27 over the last two years) before this season – their first full season under Mike Mularkey.
With losses in three of their first four games, there was little reason to think this season would be much different in Tennessee. Even as they won four of the next six – evening their record to 5-5 – it was hard to generate too much excitement about them. The victories came over the Miami Dolphins (another team that started off slowly), two tepid teams in Cleveland and Jacksonville, and a Green Bay team that seemed at the time (Week 10) to be falling apart. When they lost the next week in Indianapolis, it dropped their record to 5-6, with two of the losses to the Colts. They squared their record at 6-6 the next week with a win over another bad team in Chicago.
That victory, however, created a three-way tie at the top of the AFC South Division – Houston, Indianapolis and Tennessee all 6-6. The bad news in all of this was that the Titans trailed in tie breakers to both of the other teams. Making the playoffs for Tennessee will almost certainly mean finishing with a better record than both of the other teams. With that as the mandate, they entered December with four make-or-break games, needing probably, to will all four. And the schedule before them not at all easy.
It began last week with a home game against the defending world champions. It continues this week in Kansas City, followed by a road game in Jacksonville and a home game against Houston the last game of the season.
Tennessee survived the first of those contests, holding off the Broncos 13-10. In a sense, the game almost took the form of a “coming out” party for franchise quarterback Marcus Mariota. He kept the ball on designed runs five times in the first half, accounting for 41 yards. He lined up at wide receiver and sprinted up the field on a pass route (making a very good play to break up an underthrown pass). He showed a great range of skills, not quite including passing – as he completed only 6 of 20 passes for just 88 yards.
Still, to understand Tennessee, you have to understand that Mariota and the passing game are not the focus. Twelve games into the season, in a league where it is almost impossible to run more than you throw, the Titans have thrown 401 passes and run the ball 398 times. Against all NFL teams, they currently rank twenty-fifth in passing yards, but third in rushing yards. They are also third defending the run. Against Denver, the Titans rolled up 180 running yards and held the Broncos to 18. Mariota will develop as he develops, but Mularkey has left little doubt that the foundation of their future success will be a pounding running game and a run defense that will force opposing offenses into being one dimensional.
With their playoff hopes essentially riding on this Sunday’s game in Kansas City, this formula could actually play very well. The Chiefs don’t run the ball very well (they are twenty-fifth in the league) and they don’t stop the run very well (they are twenty-seventh in the league). If Tennessee can reduce this game to a line of scrimmage game, they will have a real chance. Up against them will be a Kansas City team that has a lot of big-game experience, playing in one of the toughest atmospheres for road teams to play in, in one of the coldest spots on the planet come Sunday, and against a quarterback in Alex Smith who is consistently underrated. If they push their way past KC and into the playoffs, they will certainly have earned it.
Oh the Weather Outside is Frightful
With December comes the first set of games that are profoundly affected by winter. Of these the most compelling was Pittsburgh’s 27-20 win over Buffalo played in a steady snow storm.
The Bills came into the game built for these kinds of conditions. They were averaging 161.9 rushing yards a game and had scored 23 rushing touchdowns. In the first half of that game, quarterback Tyrod Taylor threw only 8 passes while the Bills ran for 63 yards on 13 attempts. The Steelers – who have become a predominant passing team over the last several seasons – also ran 13 times (for 77 yards) in the first half, while having Ben Roethlisberger throw the ball 26 times with minimal success (14 completions, 162 yards, no touchdowns and 2 interceptions).
In the second half, as the snow progressively encroached over the playing field, the two teams switched strategies. The Bills completely abandoned their running game, running five times the entire second half, while putting the ball in Taylor’s hands for 17 passes. Meanwhile, Roethlisberger threw only 5 times in the second half – tossing one more interception along the way.
He didn’t need to throw more than that, as the Steelers turned Le’Veon Bell loose in the winter wonderland that Heinz Field had become. Bell carried the ball 25 times for 159 yards and a touchdown. And that was just the second half. For the game, Le’Veon finished with 38 carries, 236 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns to go with four pass receptions for another 62 yards through the air.
Throughout the game, Buffalo – which plays its home games in one of the snowiest cities in America – seemed decidedly uncomfortable playing in the stuff. And why they decided to stop running the ball remains a mystery to me. Running the ball is not only the thing that Buffalo does best, it was also what the elements seemed to call for. At the very least, it would have given the Bills’ defense (which was on the field for 38:41 of the games sixty minutes) a little bit of a breather.
Other Teams Uncomfortable in the Cold
Taking nothing away from tremendous defensive efforts by the New York Giants and the Green Bay Packers, but the two teams they beat last Sunday (the Dallas Cowboys and the Seattle Seahawks) were both getting their first real taste of cold weather this season and both teams looked unprepared for it. This seemed especially true for the Seahawk receivers who let a bevy of passes slip through their fingers – several of which ended up as interceptions.
The elements are a great equalizer. Teams that play in warm weather or in domes frequently find it difficult to execute in the cold and snow. Something to keep an eye on going forward.
Did Anyone Else Notice the Tape on Derek Carr’s Finger?
The Oakland Raiders were another warm weather team playing in the cold (in Kansas City) last week. They also played below their norm. In the post-game interview, they asked Raider quarterback Derek Carr several times about the impact of the cold on the passing game. Carr dismissed the effect, all they while gesturing with his right hand (his passing hand) that featured his pinkie finger taped to the next finger for support. During the game, they weren’t taped together, but that pinkie was heavily wrapped. No one asked if that affected his play.
I will not pretend to be an expert on quarterback play or the mechanics of throwing a football. But my rudimentary understanding of the process suggests that that pinkie finger is pretty important in helping the passer control the flight of the football. And in Carr’s case, it was his accuracy that was the problem as he was consistently high and wide all night on his way to completing just 17 of his 41 passes (including just 7 of 23 in the second half).
I think it’s entirely possible that the Raiders had struggles with the weather. It’s also possible that it’s really hard to play quarterback against one of the best pass defenses in the NFL with the pinkie finger on your throwing hand taped up.