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Titans have strength in numbers

Got a little three-part quiz for you on this Thursday of Week 4: Now that the Patriots have had their NFL record 21-game regular-season winning streak snapped, which team has the longest active regular-season winning streak, at six games?

Part II: Which team's defense is the best in the NFL, limiting its last seven opponents to 17 points or fewer and leading the league this season with just 9.7 points allowed per game?

And part III: Which team is 3-0 overall, 2-0 in its division, and holds a two-game advantage over its nearest division rivals despite playing its backup quarterback for the majority of its snaps this season?

If you answered the Tennessee Titans to all of those, give yourself three flaming thumbtacks, which is what the Titans' confusing logo has been comically dubbed. Due in large part to the headline-stealing Vince Young drama early this season, we haven't heard near enough about Tennessee's on-field accomplishments. But if the undefeated Titans can keep things rolling a couple more weeks, that should change in the near future.

This is a team, and particularly a defense, that's too good to go unnoticed for long. And in an AFC that has been anything but predictable this season, the Titans are emerging as one of the most consistent and reliable of clubs. You know what you're going to get from Tennessee these days, and if you're one of its opponents, that's mostly bad news.

And here's maybe the most impressive thing about the Titans' underrated defense, which is the strength of Jeff Fisher's first-place team: It's not a collection of stars in Tennessee, as much as it's a top-to-bottom, rock-solid lineup. If I had to choose the biggest name on the Titans' defense, it'd be All-Pro tackle Albert Haynesworth. But what about linebacker Keith Bulluck, defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch or emerging secondary stalwarts like cornerback Cortland Finnegan and safety Michael Griffin, who rank one-two in the NFL in interceptions with four and three, respectively?

"You know what we are? We are the quintessential whole that is greater than the sum of its parts,'' Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz told me Thursday morning, amid preparations for Sunday's home game against Minnesota and its Pro Bowl running back, Adrian Peterson. "We have some really good football players. But what we don't have are weaknesses. We don't have guys we're trying to cover up for.

"I think you've got to credit [Titans general manager] Mike Reinfeldt. Look at the way we're built. We're not built on just a Haynesworth or a Vanden Bosch or a Bulluck. We're built with a lot of good solid players. We've got experienced players in a lot of positions, we're good tacklers, and we've got a little bit of depth in some areas. It's hard to look at us and say what we're really good at, because we're good at a lot of things.''

With a win against the Vikings, the Titans can go to 4-0 for the first time in Houston/Tennessee franchise history, besting the 3-0 start in 1999, the season of their only Super Bowl appearance. But in reality, this year's success is merely continuation of where the Titans were headed as 2007 drew to a close. Tennessee won its final three games last season to finish 10-6 and earn its first playoff berth since 2003.

Even a 17-6 first-round playoff loss at San Diego could not obscure the strong finish that Tennessee's defense turned in last season, when it held its final four opponents to 17 points or fewer, winning all but the postseason game against the Chargers.

This season, the Titans have picked up where they left off, limiting the Jaguars, Bengals and Texans to just 29 points, giving them the league's only sub-10 points per game average. Tennessee has allowed just three touchdowns (one by each opponent), which ranks tied for second with Pittsburgh (behind Baltimore, which has given up just two, but played only two games).

"What you see most with us is the emphasis on scoring defense,'' Schwartz said. "That's the only stat that matters in this league on defense. If you look at us, we're able to keep the score down because we're consistent. We don't have a bunch of one-trick ponies. We've got multi-dimensional players, and we've got smart players. We've got two safeties [Griffin and Chris Hope] who can both cover and play in the box. We've got defensive linemen who can both play the run and rush the passer.

"We're good in the red zone, we're good on third down, we're good sacking the quarterback, and we've got a lot of interceptions. You see teams that are great against the run, but 29th against the pass. And you see good pass-rushing teams, but they can't stop the run. That's not us. If we play a running team, we can gang up and stop the run. If we play a good passing team, we can get it done in the secondary and get our hands on some passes.''

Schwartz, who will be one of the hottest head coaching prospects come the NFL's firing and hiring season (count on it), isn't just generalizing. The Titans have allowed just three touchdowns in 12 red zone trips, giving them a league-best .250 red-zone touchdown percentage.

Tennessee ranks first in the NFL in interceptions (seven), first in passes defensed (26), tied for second in forced fumbles (five), third in sacks (11), and third in overall yards allowed (240.3) and passing yards allowed (151.3). Their weakest link this season has been their 10th-ranked run defense (89.0), and that's after being gashed for 146 yards on the ground by Houston in a 31-12 win over the Texans last week. The Titans held Jacksonville to 33 yards rushing in Week 1, and Cincinnati to 88 in Week 2.

During the course of Tennessee's six-game regular-season winning streak, it has given up just 62 points, or 10.3 per game. The Titans' 43-point net advantage this season (72-29) is the NFL's highest, averaging out to a 14.3 point margin of victory. No wonder veteran quarterback Kerry Collins, who took over for Young as the starter in Week 2, has had to attempt only one fourth-quarter pass in each of the last two games.

The Texans scored just one touchdown in six red-zone trips against the Titans, and Schwartz is already consumed with the challenge of stopping the Vikings and their vaunted Peterson-led ground game. In many ways, Minnesota (1-2) is a mirror image of the Titans, with quality run-stuffing defenses, excellent young running backs (Peterson and Titans rookie Chris Johnson), and the need early this season to turn things over to veteran backup quarterbacks in Collins and Gus Frerotte.

"Peterson is a great back, but a good thing about our defense is we don't give up a lot of big plays,'' Schwartz said. "Generally, if we have a bad play, it doesn't turn into two. That spark doesn't become a big fire. And it's not as if we're running some sexy new scheme. There's nothing about our defense's success that's tricked up.

"We just kind of line up, play you straight forward, and sort of wear you out and beat you. All that being said, I think everybody would say we could get more out of a lot of guys. No one really is having a career year. We haven't played our best football yet. But this would certainly be a good week to start, with Adrian Peterson coming here.''

If the best is still ahead for these Titans defensively, their days of flying under the radar are almost over. In the NFL, winning always eventually gets you noticed. Whether it's still a surprise to the rest of us or not, no one these days is winning more than Tennessee.

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