First-place faceoff in Music City
AP Pro Football Writer
To Kenny Chesney, Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum, add the Tennessee Titans as practitioners of sweet music in Nashville.
An AFC South devoid of Peyton Manning already has developed into a two-team race between the Titans (3-2) and reeling Houston Texans (3-3). The Titans begin a three-game homestand with a superb chance to lay claim to the division in what was supposed to be a transitional season under new coach Mike Munchak.
“Good teams in this league win at home. Great teams in this league are undefeated at home. We can put our foot down on some guys, take control of the division and get into the playoffs and try to make a run,” said fullback Ahmard Hall, who is from Houston – the former home of the Titans, of course.
Hall believes that adds some spice to the series, which Tennessee leads 13-5. A year ago, with a much different roster that was headed for a 6-10 record that cost Jeff Fisher his job as coach, the Titans won 31-17 in Music City in Game 14. That loss helped keep the Texans from their first playoff berth.
“I almost think they could lose every game of the year and if they beat us they’d be happy,” Hall said. “They definitely hate us. It’s a big rivalry game for them, and they definitely want to come in here and beat us.”
With the Colts in free-fall minus Manning and the Jaguars a mess, many assumed Houston would run off with the AFC South. Instead, the Texans have been ravaged by injuries – their best player on each side of the ball, receiver Andre Johnson and linebacker Mario Williams, have been sidelined, Williams for the rest of the year – and they’ve lost three of the last four. They fell apart late in the last two defeats, quarterback Matt Schaub also is banged-up, and their confidence is fragile.
“It’s always a big game when we play (Tennessee), a very physical game, a divisional game, which makes it even more important,” coach Gary Kubiak said. “It’s something we are looking forward to coming off of two tough losses, trying to regroup over here.”
Also Sunday, it’s Green Bay at Minnesota, Atlanta at Detroit, Chicago vs. Tampa Bay at London, Denver at Miami, Kansas City at Oakland, San Diego at the New York Jets, Pittsburgh at Arizona, Indianapolis at New Orleans, St. Louis at Dallas, Washington at Carolina, and Seattle at Cleveland.
Baltimore visits Jacksonville on Monday night.
Off this week are Buffalo (4-2), Cincinnati (4-2), the New York Giants (4-2), New England (5-1), Philadelphia (2-4), and San Francisco (5-1).
— Green Bay (6-0) at Minnesota (1-5)
Remember when this was such a fun matchup, when that Brett guy was wearing either green and gold, or purple and white? Now, it’s noteworthy only to see if the defending Super Bowl champs can remain the league’s lone undefeated team, and how the Packers treat Minnesota’s latest quarterback, Christian Ponder.
Donovan McNabb was benched this week as the Vikings turn to the future. Ponder, their first-round draft pick in April, can expect to see lots of Clay Matthews and Desmond Bishop in his grille.
“I think obviously it’s going to be a big challenge, which I’m excited for,” Ponder said. “Obviously there’s going to be some growing pains, some steps I’ve got to go through. But I’m looking to have some success and I’m not really thinking about what I’m too concerned about.”
Atlanta (3-3) at Detroit (5-1)
Hopefully the attention will be on the game action, not the postgame handshake between Jim Schwartz and Mike Smith.
And there should be plenty of action on the field, whether it’s Atlanta’s blockers trying to slow down Ndamukong Suh, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril, or the Falcons’ inconsistent defense dealing with Calvin Johnson, who played college ball at Georgia Tech and will be a monstrous challenge for CBs Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson.
Chicago (3-3) vs. Tampa Bay (4-2), at London
Chicago’s first appearance in London since the initial American Bowl, a preseason game in 1986 – when the Bears were defending champions. They made a nice turnaround last week by routing Minnesota, but not nearly as impressive as Tampa Bay’s 180. The Bucs went from a 48-3 annihilation in San Francisco to a 26-20 victory over New Orleans.
A sidebar to this matchup is whether the fervent fans of Manchester United will show up to boo the Buccaneers because both teams are owned by the Glazer family and Man U has so much debt, infuriating its followers.
Denver (1-4) at Miami (0-5)
Those chants, familiar in central Florida when Tebow was winning national championships for the Florida Gators, could rock Sun Life Stadium. There isn’t likely to be much else worth getting excited about with these two tailenders.
The 2008 Gators he led to the title will be honored before the game.
“That’s something that’s definitely a great memory for me. It’s something that’s very special,” Tebow said. “But honestly, Sunday I won’t be thinking too much about my time at Florida. I’ll be thinking about being a Denver Bronco and trying to help lead us to a victory. It’s not where we’re playing or who we’re playing. It’s how we play.”
Kansas City (2-3) at Oakland (4-2)
There can’t be any question the Raiders are going for broke now and in the near future; the trade for Carson Palmer emphasizes that approach.
Palmer got his way – which was a way out of Cincinnati – and the Bengals got more compensation than they ever could have imagined for the quarterback who takes over in Oakland for injured Jason Campbell.
Kansas City is the defending AFC West champion and has won two in a row, albeit over Minnesota and Indianapolis. The sight of Silver and Black always energizes the Chiefs.
San Diego (4-1) at New York Jets (3-3)
New York ended a three-game slide, all on the road, by beating Miami. This is a truer measure whether the Jets are a contender. They must get their offense on track more consistently, and perhaps LaDainian Tomlinson getting to run and catch the ball against his former team will provide a boost.
“I’m not a guy who holds grudges or tries to prove anybody wrong,” said Tomlinson, who has scored a touchdown against every NFL team but the Chargers. “I don’t have time for that. It’s nonsense.”
The Chargers have gotten off to a quick start, for once, and come off a bye. Their offense is plenty balanced and leads the league in time of possession (35:17).
Pittsburgh (4-2) at Arizona (1-4)
Don’t be fooled by Pittsburgh’s record; the Steelers have been inconsistent and mistake prone. Still, they rank first in overall defense, mainly because of how they stop the pass, a bit surprising considering their reputation against the run.
Arizona’s record is not misleading. The Cardinals were off last week and barely showed up in losing to previously winless Minnesota the previous week.
The last time the Steelers and Cardinals met, they were playing in a Super Bowl in 2009. This matchup doesn’t resemble that one.
Indianapolis (0-6) at New Orleans (4-2)
That juicy matchup near the French Quarter won’t be happening. Sure, Peyton Manning will accompany the Colts to his hometown. He won’t be anywhere near the huddle, though, to the immeasurable disappointment of NBC, which gets a second straight Sunday night dud.
Saints coach Sean Payton hopes to work the game from on high in the Superdome as he mends from surgery on his left leg after being run over by New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham last week. The Saints will be even more focused after they lost that game at Tampa Bay, so the Colts’ chances for getting victory No. 1 are slim.
St. Louis (0-5) at Dallas (2-3)
As if the Rams weren’t hurting enough, physically and mentally, from the pounding they’ve taken this year, QB Sam Bradford is limping with a high left ankle sprain. Getting their first win at Cowboys Stadium would appear a long shot even if he can go.
Dallas got conservative on offense and defense late in its visit to New England – the old play-not-to-lose philosophy that invariably leads to a loss. The Cowboys shouldn’t have such concerns in the fourth quarter this time, but they do have a visit to Philadelphia next weekend and need to avoid getting distracted by it.
Washington (3-2) at Carolina (1-5)
Another quarterback change after Bad Rex showed up for the Redskins last Sunday. John Beck gets his first start since 2007 in place of Rex Grossman, who was picked off four times by Philly as the Skins fell out of the NFC East lead for the first time this season.
Few teams with a record such as Carolina’s can feel positive about things, but the Panthers stay close every week – they have been outscored by 30 points overall. They do struggle against the run, though, and Beck figures to do a lot of handing off.
Seattle (2-3) at Cleveland (2-3)
Mike Holmgren left the Seahawks after the 2009 season and probably can’t recognize much about his former team that comes to visit Sunday. Pete Carroll, his replacement as coach, and John Schneider, his replacement as general manager, never seem to stop bartering.
The Browns acquitted themselves pretty well in a loss at Oakland last week, but need to find a running game. A healthy Peyton Hillis would help; he is bothered by a strained left hamstring.
Baltimore (4-1) at Jacksonville (1-5), Monday night
The Ravens have won seven of the last eight against Jacksonville and have that fierce defensive look about them again. That doesn’t bode well for rookie QB Blaine Gabbert and a spiraling Jaguars team that has only one real weapon on offense, RB Maurice Jones-Drew.
Defense hasn’t been so problematic for the Jags despite their five-game slide. They don’t match up with Ray Lewis and Co., though.