NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Titans are so ready for some rest that they're not worried about their bye disrupting any chance of building momentum for a stretch run.
They have to put something together first.
The Titans (4-6) hope to do just that when they return Monday for the final six games having responded to their ugliest home loss in years by turning in one of their best performances under second-year coach Mike Munchak. They didn't need to hear owner Bud Adams put everyone on notice that jobs are at stake if they didn't respond following that 51-20 loss to Chicago on Nov. 3.
"We were all unhappy with how things went," Munchak said.
"We knew we had to make something happen differently, and in this league when you don't, there's consequences at some point. ... So I don't think you ever worry about that. I think that all takes care of itself. If we don't win or if people are unhappy at the end of the year, then whatever happens, happens."
Munchak got his Titans to rebound by routing the Miami Dolphins 37-3 last week, and he gave them six days off partly because enough players are on the injury report that practicing would have been challenging. His message remains the same too: play hard and worry about the future later.
With the AFC as bunched as it's been in years, the Titans return with a sliver of hope starting with two games left against struggling Jacksonville.
"The good thing is there are a lot of teams with four and five and six losses ...," Munchak said. "A lot has to happen our way, but all we can control is to keep winning, and we haven't won more than two in a row this year, so we've got a lot of work ahead of us. We get that, but it's never over. I think that's what gives you encouragement."
The Titans also have Jake Locker back at quarterback after he missed five games with dislocated left, non-throwing shoulder. He started working off the rust against Miami and showed off his scrambling ability, which helped Tennessee name him its starter over veteran Matt Hasselbeck in August.
Locker is completing 59.8 percent of his passes and has six touchdowns with only two interceptions and a 90.8 passer rating in his limited playing time this season.
"He's that kind of quarterback, that every week can be a different type of game the way he's plays it," Munchak said of Locker. "He's exciting to watch. I think it is contagious when you have a guy like that running around, making plays."
Tennessee also has a running game again with Chris Johnson second in the AFC and tied for fourth in the NFL with 862 yards after the Titans ranked dead last earlier this season. Johnson is averaging 5.0 yards per carry and hasn't run for less than 91 yards in the past four games.
"Earlier a lot of people thought I just wasn't playing hard or just got the big deal and gave up or lost a couple steps or things like that ...," Johnson said of critics who wanted him traded or cut. "(I) just don't pay attention to all of that."
The Titans have not been at .500 once this season a year after going 9-7 and just missing the playoffs. They have not called this rebuilding, but they started the season with their youngest opening day roster since 2006.
The youth movement is biggest on defense where six starters are in their third season or less. Combined with a schedule that ranked as the second-toughest in the NFL through the first nine weeks, they gave up 30 or more points in seven of the first nine games. Tennessee ranks 30th in the NFL allowing 31.1 points per game.
Offensive coordinator Chris Palmer said developing players takes time and can be difficult. They also have 11 players on injured reserve, including two starting offensive linemen.
"Mike Munchak didn't take over a playoff team," Palmer said of a franchise whose last playoff berth was 2008. "There's some things he has to change, and he's doing a good job at it. You can see from a coaching standpoint there's times when we look very, very good, and there's times we stub our toes."
The youth came through in Miami as the Titans forced four turnovers after having had nine combined through the first nine games. They also didn't allow a TD for the first time since Nov. 13, 2011, and moved from last in the NFL to 30th allowing 31.1 points per game.
The Titans finish with Houston (8-1) visiting Dec. 2 followed by trips to Indianapolis (6-3) and Green Bay (6-3) around hosting the Jets (3-6). They also they must be near perfect.
"That's what we're shooting for," tight end Jared Cook said. "That's what coach kind of got up and said ... We got to come back and just finish the season, the last six weeks with a bang. And that's what we're looking to do."
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