While the Buffalo Bills appear on the verge of having yet another season end in heartbreak, the Tennessee Titans head into the stretch run with still viable playoff aspirations after an important win in their last test.
The Titans will attempt to follow up that positive result when they take to the road for Sunday's clash with the sputtering Bills, who return to Ralph Wilson Stadium on a four-game losing streak and off a rough sequence of unsuccessful visiting ventures.
Though Tennessee still trails red-hot Houston by two games for first place in the AFC South, it's prospects for a division title may have gotten a boost thanks to a hard-earned 23-17 home win over reeling Tampa Bay last Sunday and some potential problems for the Texans at quarterback. Both starting signal- caller Matt Schaub and backup Matt Leinart have sustained season-ending injuries within the past three weeks for Houston, leaving the all-important position in the hands of unproven rookie T.J. Yates and just-signed veteran Jake Delhomme.
The Titans, who also sit just one game behind Cincinnati in the race for the AFC's second Wild Card berth, will head to Houston for the regular-season finale on Jan. 1 after a pair of seemingly-manageable matchups with winless Indianapolis and 3-8 Jacksonville in Weeks 15 and 16.
Tennessee first-year head coach Mike Munchak would like to see his team get on a roll prior to that season-defining portion of the schedule. The Titans have not posted victories in consecutive weeks since winning three straight from Sept. 18-Oct. 2 to cap a 3-1 start.
"We know that if we want to reach our goals of winning our division and being in the playoffs, we know what we have to do," Munchak said. "We can't afford to lose games like [in the past] anymore and we have to get a streak going. We won one last week, so that gave us a chance to get something started, and we have to win this one.
"These are the playoffs before the playoffs for teams that are on the fringe of the battle for the playoffs."
Buffalo had been conjuring up visions of postseason participation after winning four of its first five bouts of the season, but the team's current free-fall has greatly damaged its chances for a first playoff appearance since 1999. The Bills have been outscored by a 134-50 margin over the course of their skid, which includes blowout defeats to Dallas and Miami that began a brutal three- game November road trek.
The Bills did acquit themselves better in last week's trip to MetLife Stadium, giving the well-regarded New York Jets all they could handle in an eventual 28-24 loss. Buffalo had a three-point lead heading into the final stages, but surrendered an 82-yard drive capped by a touchdown pass from Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez to Santonio Holmes with just 1:01 to go.
On a positive note, Bills triggerman Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for 264 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions after struggling mightily in the three previous setbacks.
"I think we did a better job last week of getting into a rhythm on offense and staying on the field and controlling the ball, but we didn't win the game," said Fitzpatrick. "We still have a lot of improvement we have to make and we're working hard in practice to do that."
Heading back to Ralph Wilson Stadium could help the Bills get back on track, as they're 4-1 at home this season and averaged 27.4 points in those games.
Tennessee owns a 25-14 advantage in its all-time regular season series against Buffalo and has defeated the Bills three consecutive times, with the most recent win a 41-17 rout in Nashville in 2009. The Titans also edged the Bills in a 30-29 squeaker at Ralph Wilson Stadium in 2006 and came through with a 28-26 home triumph in a 2003 meeting between the club. Including the playoffs, Buffalo has lost six of its last seven games against the Tennessee franchise and last bested the Titans on Sept. 3, 2000, a 16-13 decision in Orchard Park.
These teams have also engaged one another three times in the postseason, with two of those tilts ranking among the most memorable in NFL history. Buffalo was a 41-38 home overtime winner over the then-Houston Oilers in a 1992 AFC First- Round Playoff, with quarterback Frank Reich leading the Bills back from a 35-3 second-half deficit in the largest comeback in league annals. The Oilers exacted revenge seven years later with a thrilling 22-16 opening-round victory known as the "Music City Miracle", in which a 75-yard kickoff return that contained a disputed cross-field lateral from Frank Wychek to Kevin Dyson in the closing seconds provided Tennessee with the go-ahead points. The Bills also topped the Oilers by a 17-10 score in a 1988 AFC Divisional Playoff held in Buffalo.
Both Munchak and Buffalo's Chan Gailey will be opposing each other, as well as their counterpart's respective teams, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
Tennessee has hardly been an explosive group on this side of the ball, having scored 17 or fewer points in six of its 11 games to date, and a once-formidable ground game that's been conspicuously absent for the majority of this season helps explain that overall mediocrity. The Titans had the long-awaited breakout they've been seeking in that department during last week's big win, however, with underperforming running back Chris Johnson (699 rushing yards, 2 TD, 39 receptions) gashing the Buccaneers for 190 yards on 23 carries for the three- time Pro Bowler's second 100-yard output in three weeks. Tennessee still ranks only 30th in rushing offense (88.6 ypg) despite piling up 202 yards on the ground against Tampa Bay, while Johnson's 3.8 yards-per-carry average is easily the lowest of his four-year career. The Titans have been able to get by due to some solid work from veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (2517 passing yards, 15 TD, 10 INT), who's completing nearly 61 percent of his throws in his first season with the club, as well as a cohesive front line that's allowed only 16 sacks thus far. Seventh-year pro Nate Washington (49 receptions, 4 TD) has emerged as a dependable but unspectacular No. 1 wide receiver in the absence of injured playmaker Kenny Britt, with youngsters Damian Williams (27 receptions, 5 TD) and Lavelle Hawkins (29 receptions) having held their own after being called upon for increased roles. Williams has a touchdown catch in three of the last four games, while Hawkins contributed 51 yards on five grabs to last week's win.
Neither Johnson nor Hasselbeck may encounter a whole lot of resistance from a Buffalo defense that's allowed 130.5 rushing yards per game during the current losing streak and stands near the bottom of the NFL with 16 sacks in 2011. Season-ending injuries to such key members as defensive tackle Kyle Williams, outside linebacker Shawne Merriman and cornerback Terrence McGee have tested the unit's depth, while valued safety George Wilson (79 tackles, 4 INT) is in danger of missing a third straight week because of a neck stinger. A secondary that's now starting two rookies -- cornerback Aaron Williams (14 tackles) and stand-in safety Da'Norris Searcy (21 tackles, 1 INT) -- and has surrendered 10 touchdown passes over the past three games has missed his presence, and the Bills have only forced six turnovers in six tests after coming up with an impressive 16 takeaways during their 4-1 start. There have been a few bright spots, however, as rookie tackle Marcell Dareus (29 tackles, 4.5 sacks) has made the immediate impact the team expected from the third overall draft choice and veteran Nick Barnett (86 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) has brought experienced leadership to the linebacker corps.
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
Buffalo's offensive performance against the Jets last week was a bit of a mixed bag. Fitzpatrick (2549 passing yards, 19 TD, 14 INT) was able to bounce back strongly from a three-game slump in which the well-traveled quarterback threw seven interceptions and hit on just 54.4 percent of his attempts, but the Bills were held under 90 yards rushing for the second straight time and have had trouble finding a suitable replacement for top running back Fred Jackson, who suffered a season-ending broken leg in the Week 11 loss to Miami. 2010 first- round selection C.J. Spiller managed a pedestrian 55 yards on 18 totes as the lead ball-carrier against the Jets and could soon find himself in a timeshare with Cowboys and Redskins reject Tashard Choice (67 rushing yards, 11 receptions), a recent waiver claim. A receiver group headed by the flashy Stevie Johnson (54 receptions, 5 TD) and slot specialist David Nelson (45 receptions, 5 TD) has been serviceable, while journeyman tight end Scott Chandler (32 receptions, 6 TD) has developed into a capable red-zone option and has compiled 11 catches for 121 yards over the past two weeks. Johnson came through with eight receptions totaling 75 yards and a score against the Jets' stout secondary a week ago, but also had a costly drop of a potential touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.
A bend-but-don't-break philosophy has served the Titans fairly well on defense, as coordinator Jerry Gray's crew has limited the opposition to a scant 6.5 yards per pass attempt (5th overall) and an average of 19.6 points per game (7th overall) over the season's initial three months. The sound play of cornerbacks Cortland Finnegan (47 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT), Jason McCourty (85 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) and Alterraun Verner (27 tackles, 1 INT) has helped Tennessee deliver those solid overall numbers, as has the quick learning curve of three rookies -- linebackers Colin McCarthy (33 tackles, 1 INT) and Akeem Ayers (49 tackles, 2 sacks) and tackle Jurrell Casey (35 tackles, 1 sack) -- that are now holding down starting assignments. McCarthy, a fourth-round find in this past draft, has amassed 20 tackles, one interception and a forced fumble in two starts in place of veteran middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, who's presently sidelined with a groin injury. The Titans can still be vulnerable to strong running attacks, having surrendered 144.9 rushing yards over their last seven games, and there's not a standout pass rusher on the roster, though end Dave Ball (22 tackles, 3 sacks) notched two sacks last week in his first game back from a concussion that forced him out of the previous two contests.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Chris Johnson. Though the dynamic running back's production has been maddeningly sporadic since signing a huge contract prior to the start of the season, it's been evident that the Titans are a tough team to face when he's been a factor. Tennessee is 3-0 when the speedster has eclipsed 100 rushing yards during a feast-or-famine campaign, but he's averaged a meager 34 yards and 2.9 yards per carry in the club's five losses.
Turnovers. It's no coincidence that the Bills' fortunes reversed once their previously-opportunistic defense stopped making plays and Fitzpatrick became more careless with the football. Buffalo has a plus-nine takeaway-to-giveaway ratio in its five victories and is minus-five in that category in their six defeats. With all the injuries the team is enduring, it's absolutely critical that it wins the turnover battle on Sunday in order to stop its streak.
Red-zone performance. The Titans have been the league's best offense inside the enemy's 20-yard line, scoring touchdowns on an outstanding 70.8 percent of possessions this year. That trend could very well continue for another week, as Buffalo sits 31st overall in red-zone defense and hasn't prevented the opposition from crossing the goal line in eight drives in that area over its last two losses.
The outcome of this game may have been entirely different had these teams met in October, when the Bills were still healthy and forcing turnovers at a prolific pace and Chris Johnson was in the process of getting his legs under him following a prolonged holdout, instead of December. Buffalo's downward trend is more than simply a rough patch, however, as its deficiencies have been exposed by a glut of devastating injuries that a limited talent base hasn't been able to overcome. Though the Titans are hardly world-beaters and the Bills have generally played well at home, there's little question that they've been the more consistent of these teams as of late. With its all-star running back seemingly back in form and Hasselbeck's steady hand under center, Tennessee looks poised to keep its playoff hopes intact by registering another hard- fought win.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Titans 21, Bills 17