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VOL. 39 | NO. 41 | Friday, October 9, 2015

Weaker-than-usual AFC South is there for the taking

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Injured Tennessee Titans cornerback Jason McCourty should be on the field for the first time this season when the Titans play host to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.

-- Ap Photo/Mark Humphrey

Some team has to win the AFC South. League rules require it, even if no team truly deserves to go to the playoffs.

It was proven last year when the Carolina Panthers won the NFC South with a not-so-tidy 7-8-1 record, a mark that required four consecutive wins to reach.

While the NFL season is only four weeks old, it is clear after the first quarter that the AFC South is perhaps the NFL’s weakest link in 2015. It is bad enough that the Tennessee Titans sat idly by during their bye week on Sunday and moved up in the standings into sole possession of second place.

At 1-2, and owners of a two-game losing streak, the Titans are right in the thick of things, trailing only the Indianapolis Colts. You remember them, the team the Titans – to borrow a phrase from Dennis Green – “let off the hook” two Sundays ago at Nissan Stadium.

Had the Titans taken care of business instead of imploding in the fourth quarter, they would find themselves in first place today and looking at a three-game home stretch beginning with Sunday’s game with the Buffalo Bills.

As it is, the Titans are still – amazingly – not in bad shape. Ahead of them are the suddenly vulnerable Colts who probably will continue to have problems as long as they can’t solve their offensive line issues.

Behind them are the Jaguars, who couldn’t win at Indy Sunday despite the Colts missing Andrew Luck, and the Texans, who should already be making plans to turn in a draft card next spring with some quarterback’s name on it.

While it might be hard to sell a Titans fan base that hasn’t seen the postseason since 2008 on the potential of this year’s team, it isn’t as farfetched a concept as it seems that the Titans could end up being the best of the worst, if they can correct a few fatal flaws.

“I think just big picture, what you try to tell the team is that we’ve got 13 weeks. We’ve got 13 weeks to improve upon what we’ve done,” Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt says.

“We’ve shown some good things in the first three weeks. We’ve also had some tough losses that we felt like could have gone the other way. So it’s really more about finishing those 13 strong and getting better as we go.”

Even though they didn’t finish off a much-needed win, Whisenhunt points to the two-point loss against the Colts as a potential building block for a team that slogged its way through a 2-14 mud pit of a season last year.

“After playing Indy and feeling like it was a game that we should have won, we certainly feel like we can compete,” Whisenhunt says. “If we take care of our business, that will work itself out.

“We feel like we’re a team where if we can eliminate a few of our mistakes and a few of our things that we really haven’t done well, that we’re really close to being a good football team.”

The key reason for a lot of that hope is the fact that rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota hasn’t played like a rookie for much of the first three weeks. Other than his fumble problems against Cleveland and a pair of interceptions against the Colts (one of which was knocked out of Delanie Walker’s hands), Mariota has brought some much-needed steadiness to the Titans offense. Now, he says he has to do more.

“All in all, I thought the entire offense has played fairly well,” Mariota says. “For me, I can definitely improve on taking care of the football, especially in the last game.

“That really cost us the game. It’s good for us to kind of have a bye week to look back on those things and learn from them.”

One thing Mariota has done is to help give the franchise some sort of identity – not in a marketing sense, but on the field, where the Titans have needed a rallying point for several years now.

It has added to the belief that what could be for the Titans might actually arrive a bit early, thanks to the division’s overall mediocrity.

“When we started training camp, when we started the first part of the season, you could certainly say we thought we were going to be a good team, but we really didn’t know,” Whisenhunt says. “We didn’t know what kind of team, even going back to the start of OTA’s, what kind of team we were going to be, even who was going to play certain positions.

“But after three weeks, the one thing that we feel more certain of is that we can be a good team.”

Five things to watch

1. Jason McCourty is back: The Titans steadiest cornerback of the last several years, Jason McCourty has been out since early August with a groin injury that required surgery.

He is due to return this week, and should reclaim his starting position opposite free agent pickup Perrish Cox. His return should also help Tennessee’s secondary by adding to the depth and making their sub-packages stronger with Coty Sensabaugh and Blidi Wreh-Wilson moving down a notch each.

2. Protecting Marcus Mariota. Mariota was sacked seven times and fumbled three times (losing two) against the blitz-happy Cleveland Brown in Week 2. Browns coach Mike Pettine is a Rex Ryan disciple, and now that the Titans are facing Rex’s team, expect plenty more blitzes.

Let’s see what Mariota and the Titans offensive line has learned.

3. Which running back will carry the load? We’ve asked it before, and the answer seems to be different every week. In fact, a different running back has led the Titans in rushing every game.

Will it be Bishop Sankey, Antonio Andrews or Dexter McCluster to carry the load?

4. Make a defensive statement. The Titans defense has been pretty good in spots this season, but they’ve also given up their fair share of big plays. With the Bills relying on LeSean McCoy and having Sammy Watkins on the outside to catch the football, the Titans defense has to slow those weapons.

They also can’t allow free-wheeling quarterback Tyrod Taylor outside the pocket for big gains.

5. Can the Titans finish the deal? They say they want to be a good football team, one that can contend in the pitiful AFC South.

That is certainly doable in such a weak division, but it starts with this homestand this week.

The Titans gave away what looked like a sure win against the Colts. They can’t afford any more of those type losses.

Three matchups to watch

Tyrod Taylor vs. Dick LeBeau

For a guy in his fifth season, Taylor is relatively inexperienced, having spent most of his career as a backup in Baltimore. But given the chance to start for the Bills, he has made the most of it in four games.

That said, the old mastermind, Dick LeBeau, will surely have some pressure and some tricks up his sleeve ready to try and confuse Taylor on Sunday.

Titans offensive line vs. blitz-happy Bills

Marcus Mariota has already been sacked 12 times in three games. Seven of those came against the Browns, who applied relentless pressure to the Titans rookie in Week 2.

The protection was a little better two weeks ago against the Colts, but the Bills present a different sort of challenge altogether with pass rushers like Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes leading the charge.

The Titans offensive line must be on its A game to hold up against this front.

Da’Norris Searcy against his old team

Searcy, the Titans starting strong safety, grew up in the Bills organization, spending four years there before coming to the Titans this year as a free agent. While the Bills have a new coaching staff, there will be plenty of familiar faces on the opposite sideline for Searcy on Sunday. He will want to have an impact, but he can’t be too hyped or it may not turn out quite the way he hopes.

Terry McCormick covers the Titans for TitanInsider.com

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