— Say this for the Titans: They’re defiant.
“I think we’re still the best,” all-planet defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth said Sunday after their first loss — a 34-13 embarrassment to the Jets.
Earth to Planet: A little humility might be in order.
This wasn’t simply a loss, Albert; it was a Lions-versus-anybody butt kicking. The Jets stole the Titans’ lunch, ate it in front of them and burped in their faces.
Now the questions are pouring in: Are the Titans a paper tiger? Did the Jets expose fatal flaws? Are the Titans headed for a late-season flameout?
It’s amazing how quickly things can change in the NFL. Once minute, you’re 10-0, giving the old ’72 Dolphins a little (italics) agita (italics). Next thing, you’re road kill. They don’t make pedestals like they used to.
Time for a little perspective here.
The Titans aren’t going anywhere, and they will — repeat, will — be the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. They don’t play another team with a winning record until Week 16, so they’re not going to blow a two-game lead over the Jets and Steelers in the conference standings. But that doesn’t mean they’re a shoo-in for Tampa. No way.
For a team like the Titans, one that lives and dies with a specific formula (run the ball, play stout defense), the January dream hinges on the matchup it draws in the playoffs. If they face an opponent that can take them out of their comfort zone, as the Jets did, it might be a short postseason for the Titans.
The Jets’ game plan wasn’t unusually clever, but it was executed to near-perfection. To neutralize the Titans’ formidable front four, Brett Favre orchestrated a short-passing attack that never allowed Albert & Co. to sharpen their fangs. Any team can throw short passes, but the Jets exploited an injury-depleted Tennessee secondary with a two-tight end package that created mismatches.
A two-tight end package is hardly revolutionary against the Titans — many teams want the extra body up front to deal with their front seven — but when you have a tight end that can run like a wide receiver, it’s a matchup nightmare. While Chris Baker did the heavy lifting — i.e. blocking — the Jets unleashed fleet-footed rookie Dustin Keller, who finished with six catches for 42 yards, including three third-down conversions. Quite simply, the Titans couldn’t cover Keller with their base 2 defense.
Teams like the Colts and Patriots, both of whom have outstanding pass-catching tight ends, could pose problems for the Titans in the playoffs. With Nick Harper banged up, and with Eric King and Reynaldo Hill out for the season, the Titans are vulnerable at cornerback. An accurate quarterback like Favre, who was hotter than one of his rifles after a hunting trip, has the ability to pick apart the Titans.
The Titans play with little margin for error — that’s the way they’re built — and they can be rattled if they’re forced to play catch-up. Slow down their vaunted running game, as teams have done in recent weeks, and it puts an enormous amount of pressure on Kerry Collins. He’s one of the great stories in the NFL, a true survivor, but he simply doesn’t have enough talent at receiver to threaten defenses on a consistent basis.
Their wideouts, Justin Gage, Justin McCareins and Brandon Jones, don’t have elite separation ability. Against the Jets, who often dropped seven into coverage, they couldn’t get open, forcing Collins to hold the ball or throw it away. Obviously, Collins isn’t a threat to run, a la Vince Young. (Remember him?)
And there’s the offensive line — a good, solid group, but know this: It doesn’t match up well against 3-4 defenses. Facing a 3-4 front for the first time, the Titans rushed for only 45 yards against the Jets, about 90 below their average. Undersized center Kevin Mawae was tossed around by 360-pound nose tackle Kris Jenkins, the type of interior force the Titans would see if they face the Steelers (Casey Hampton) or the Patriots (Vince Wilfork) in the postseason. Yes, they, too, play the 3-4.
The Titans already can hear the naysayers. As safety Chris Hope said after Sunday’s game, “I’m sure people are going to say we’re over-rated and we’re not that good, after all. I know that’s coming.”
Make no mistake, the Titans are a very good team, and you can bet they will show more intensity than they did against the Jets, but let’s be honest: With apologies to Haynesworth, they’re not the best.