The Tennessee Titans opened the season with a blowout loss to New England, another bad defeat at San Diego and were promptly written off as one of the worst teams in the NFL. Chris Johnson wasn’t running the ball and it looked like a long season in Nashville. Winning games against teams like Detroit a few weeks ago and now Buffalo on Sunday don’t mean you’re a playoff contender. But there’s a lot of evidence that the Titans are coming off the mat to be competitive team and the non-Houston portion of the AFC South might not be as bad as originally thought.
Tennessee rallied to beat Buffalo 35-34 because Johnson has been gradually gathering steam these past few weeks and he came up with a peak performance on Sunday, rushing for 195 yards on 18 carries, giving the Titan offense a dimension Buffalo lacked.
Veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck looks more comfortable each passing week as he fills in for the injured Jake Locker. Hasselbeck was 22/33 for 205 yards and no mistakes on Sunday—exactly the kind of veteran, high-efficiency game that can win for this team when Johnson is running the ball. I know Locker is the team’s future, but as long as Hasselbeck plays well and the Titans remain in playoff contention, I’d stick with the veteran.
Indianapolis’ 17-13 win over Cleveland could be reasonably taken as what you expect when two bad teams get together. But the Colts were able to win the game by running the ball, with Vick Ballard leading a team ground attack that produced 148 yards and were able to win even if Andrew Luck wasn’t quite as proficient as Brandon Weeden.
I think Indy has to feel good that they got a win in which Luck didn’t have to be the focal point of the offense and the team didn’t even play their best game—the Browns got consistent pressure, led by Frostee Rucker, a defensive end who was in the Indy pocket much of the afternoon. And even if you want to pooh-pooh this win—and again, I think that’s reasonable—the Colts’ wins over Minnesota and Green Bay look quite impressive.
It’s not as though the Titans and Colts are ready to challenge 6-1 Houston for the division title. At 3-4 and 3-3 respectively, they are clearly not. But the AFC remains a league in which only three teams are over .500, and both wild-card berths are going to be wide-open. Tennessee appears to ready to assume its preseason expectation of at least being in the mix for one of those. And while I’m still not sold on Indianapolis, you can’t write them off either.
The top of the AFC South looked impressive, with Houston dismantling injury-riddled Baltimore 43-14 behind a well-balanced offense and the Texans’ defense reduced Joe Flacco to complete ineffectiveness. And even the bottom of the AFC South turned in a credible effort—Jacksonville lost in overtime to Oakland, but the Jags led by 10 in the fourth quarter in spite of losing Maurice Jones-Drew early in the game and quarterback Blaine Gabbert midway through.
Now let’s run through the rest of the divisions as we wrap up NFL Week 7…
AFC EAST: I think expectations regarding the Patriots are getting a little out of hand, given that everyone seems to be a panic over a win. Their 29-26 overtime win over the Jets again showed the Pats’ problems with closing—it seems this team imported a local bullpen, that of the Red Sox, to try and close games and the Jets became the latest team to reverse a 10-point deficit into a fourth-quarter lead. This time Tom Brady first rallied the team to a tying field goal and then to an OT win.
But the Pats continue to commit to running the ball, with Stevan Ridley going for 65 yards on 17 carries. I think this a better balanced New England time—not as flashy or stat-sheet stuffing, but better suited to match up with good teams. They just need a secondary that can pitch the ninth inning, so to speak.
AFC NORTH: I trashed this division last week, and it’s difficult to restrain myself this time around. So I’ll start with something nice and it’s that the Steelers found a running game. Jonathan Dwyer ran for 122 yards as they rallied from 14-3 down to beat Cincinnati on the road Sunday night.
Now that nice time is over, the Ravens’ offense looks like a huge disappointment, Andy Dalton is clearly showing he can’t get the job done if Cincy needs him to throw—and when you consider Pittsburgh got no pressure throughout the night, that makes this a double-dose of AFC North incompetence. And the Browns are still the Browns.
AFC WEST: San Diego, Denver and Kansas City were all off this week. Oakland got the aforementioned win over Jacksonville—an overtime home win over a last-place team that loses its star early in the game isn’t something to get overly excited about.
NFC EAST: As a Redskins fan, I realize I’m biased, but RG3 has to get some consideration for league MVP. He goes 20/28 for 258 yards passing, runs for 89 yards and has everything set for his team to beat the Giants on the road. Then the ‘Skins secondary, leading 23-20 with close to a minute left, inexplicably lets Victor Cruz beat them on a 77-yard touchdown catch. I’d understand if Eli Manning leads them into field goal range and sets up OT, but giving up the lead is inexcusable. Maybe RG3 needs to play defensive back too.
The Redskins ran the ball well with Alfred Morris, while New York’s running game seemed to disappear. They’ll need it back next week when they play Dallas, who got an ugly 19-14 win over Carolina, a battle between two teams trying to show who could manage key game situations worse.
NFC NORTH: I love the way the Vikings are winning—that a team can win games with the quarterback throwing for 58 yards, like Christian Ponder did against Arizona, warms the cockles of my football traditionalist heart. Of course just because I love it doesn’t mean I think it’s sustainable, but it is nice to see you can still win games in the NFL by running the ball, playing defense and attacking on the line of scrimmage—defensive end Brian Robison led a unit that had seven sacks in the 21-14 win.
Minnesota might not be as good as Green Bay or Chicago—the Packers had a nice workmanlike win in St. Louis—but the Vikings are a pleasant contrast to the underachieving Lions. Detroit turned in a hideously ugly performance last night in Chicago, losing 13-7 and not scoring until late in the game when it no longer mattered. They can’t run the ball, nor can they stop the run.
Jim Schwartz and his staff should give thanks the city can be preoccupied with the Tigers for another week and a half before they have to focus on how dysfunctional their football team has again become.
NFC SOUTH: Carolina did the honorable thing after starting 1-5 and blamed it on general manager Marty Hurney, who was shown the door. I’m not necessarily going to plead Hurney’s case—signing running back Mike Tolbert in free agency to join a backfield that was already stacked was hardly brilliant—but he’s given this team better than 1-5 talent.
Speaking of teams better than they’re record, New Orleans is still breathing at 2-4 after rallying to beat Tampa Bay on the road. The bottom of the NFC playoff bracket isn’t as generous as the AFC, but it’s still possible you get a 6-seed at 9-7, and that’s within grasp for the Saints if they got hot, now that second-string head coach Joe Vitti returns to interim duty the rest of the way.
NFC WEST: San Francisco temporarily restored some order. Their 13-6 win over Seattle was, as the score indicates, as physical and defensive-oriented a game as we expected prior. The difference was that Alex Smith was able to be a little more efficient than Russell Wilson. When the Cardinals were overmatched at the line of scrimmage in Minnesota it also dropped Arizona to 4-3, where they and Seattle are each now a game back of the Niners.