NASHVILLE -- They are 8-0, halfway to a perfect season and the surprise of the first half, but the question that lingers when talking about the Tennessee Titans is a legitimate one.
Do we really know how good they are?
|The Titans are a cinch for the playoffs, but their margin for error is small. (AP)|
The feel of the Titans' 8-0, though, is a whole lot different than what we had when the New England Patriots hit the halfway point unbeaten last season. The Patriots were blowing people away, putting up tons of points, and making an undefeated season seem like a real possibility.
Tom Brady and that high-flying offense made them the darlings of the league. They were a must see.
The Titans? They still have doubters.
Maybe that's because they have defeated one team with a winning record and the combined record for their eight opponents is 24-40.
"If we go out and win games, that's all that matters," Titans safety Chris Hope said. "It's not about the people who respect us or not. It's about the guys on this team. We've caught some teams when they weren't at their best. But we beat some good teams the past week. That has to mean something."
In a span of six days, the Titans beat division-rival Indianapolis on Monday night and then came back to beat the Packers even though they didn't play especially well.
The Packers had 390 yards to 347 for the Titans, but 118 of those Tennessee yards came on the final two drives of the game, including 55 on the final drive to set up the game-winning field goal by Bironas. The final drive of regulation set up a 47-yard field goal attempt by Bironas with four seconds left, but it hit the right upright and bounced out.
"It's not always going to be pretty," Titans quarterback Kerry Collins said.
This one certainly wasn't. The offense, which has pounded the football all year long, struggled to get the running game going for much of the day, except for one 54-yard run by LenDale White and some fancy footwork by Chris Johnson in overtime. The Titans ended up with an impressive rushing total of 178 yards, but Johnson was held to a 3.7 average on his 24 carries.
That put more on Collins' plate and he didn't play that well. He finished 18 of 37 for 180 yards, but missed a lot of open receivers and didn't get it going until the last two drives when he was 5-for-7 for 64 yards. That helped get Johnson on track as he rushed for 51 of his 89 yards on the final two drives.
Pulling this one out says a lot about the Titans. They were coming off the emotional victory over the Colts, had a short week and the Packers were coming off the bye.
As someone said, this was a vintage Titans victory. They toughed it out, which is the top trait of coach Jeff Fisher. His players feed off that. This team is built the way he wants it, which is to run the ball, play great defense and don't turn it over.
They do three of those things well. So why are there doubts?
Style has a lot to do with it. The Titans win with defense and a running game, which isn't sexy. They lead the league in scoring defense, giving up 12.8 points per game, and are truly star-studded, but that doesn't make the network suits giddy.
Fans love offense. Networks love offense, especially pass offense.
The Titans style also means there is a slim margin for error. The Titans are running away with the AFC South, which means the rest of the way will be about playoff positioning. It wouldn't be a shock to see them get the top seed in the AFC, finishing 14-2 or even 15-1.
It also wouldn't be a shock to see them accomplish that and lose in the divisional playoffs. That's what their style dictates.
Everything has to go just right. A kick return here for a score or a pick for a score and it could be one and done.
"The style of it is the hype of the fans," Hope said.
And some in the media.
In 2000, the Titans went 13-3 and the playoffs went through Nashville. That team was a run-first team that played great defense.
So what happens? In the divisional round of the playoffs, their first, they lose 24-10 to the Baltimore Ravens, even though they held the Ravens to 134 yards of offense. Baltimore had a 90-yard return of a blocked field goal for a touchdown and a Ray Lewis' interception return for a score.
Margin for error reared its head there.
It could again down the road.
If the past three seasons have taught us anything it's that the first two months are nice, but it's about getting hot at the right time. We saw that with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Indianapolis Colts and New York Giants as they made their Super runs. That's why the Titans weren't exactly celebrating being 8-0.
Barely anyone wanted to talk about the undefeated season. Some players got a nasty look on their face when it was brought up.
"It's only eight games," Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse said. "We could still go 8-8."
"We don't really talk about going undefeated," tight end Bo Scaife said.
We do. And when a team makes it halfway through without a blemish that starts the frenzy.
We start studying them closer. We start wondering if it's possible. We look for flaws. We look for strengths.
We add it all up and then ask the question: Are they dominant?
Usually there is an answer. With the 2008 Titans, there is not.
They're good, but how good? The New England Patriots of 2007 might tell the Titans not to worry about the hype. It doesn't matter anyway. New England won their first 18 and then lost the last one.
"We don't care about winning all the games, we care about winning one," Hope said. "That one in Tampa (Super Bowl) at the end of the season."