Friday October 31st, 2008

Now that the Titans have beaten all three of their divisional opponents at home, opening a commanding four-game lead in the AFC South, it's only natural to start wondering how far 7-0 Tennessee can extend its undefeated season.

A check of the schedule shows Tennessee has just four of its remaining nine games against winning teams, but one of its toughest challenges will come this week, when Green Bay (4-3) visits LP Field in Nashville. In a quirk of scheduling, both the Packers and the Titans are coming off impressive home wins over the Colts: Green Bay beat Indy 34-14 in Week 7, then enjoyed a bye last weekend. The Titans beat the Colts 31-21 Monday night, pushing their league-best regular-season winning streak to 10 games -- tying the second-best streak in franchise history.

The Packers are 2-1 on the road this season and they might be catching the Titans coming off the emotional high of having beaten their top divisional rival at home. Tennessee has been a model of consistency this season, but the Packers pose a threat for a number of reasons:

1) Aaron Rodgers gives Green Bay a clear edge in the quarterback matchup against Tennessee's Kerry Collins. The Packers' first-year starter is playing at an extremely high level, completing 65.6 percent of his passes for 1,668 yards, with 12 touchdowns, four interceptions and a 98.8 passer rating that ranks seventh in the NFL. That's better than both Eli and Peyton Manning, Jay Cutler, Donovan McNabb, Ben Roethlisberger, Jake Delhomme and some guy named Favre in New York.

And coming off the bye, Rodgers is approaching healthy once again after suffering a dislocated throwing shoulder in a Week 4 loss at Tampa Bay. He had his best day of practice since the injury on Thursday, and his dissection of the Colts two weeks ago (21 completions to eight receivers) increased the growing feeling around the league that he brings a steady, surprisingly veteran element to the Packers passing game. Rodgers leads the NFL in third-down passing with a 120.3 rating, and nine of his 12 scoring throws have come on third down.

"I'm impressed with Rodgers, I really am,'' said ex-Baltimore head coach Brian Billick, now a FOX game analyst. "I think he has a complete game. He's very poised, and as Bill Walsh liked to say, he has all the throws. He's shown a command of that offense, and he's doing it without much of a running game to work with. I'm impressed with what I've seen so far.''

2) The Packers secondary should be back to full strength this week with the return of both cornerback Al Harris and strong safety Atari Bigby. Harris is returning from the torn spleen he suffered against Dallas in Week 3, and Bigby missed the past four games with a hamstring injury. In Harris and Bigby's absence, Green Bay developed nice young backup options in cornerback Tramon Williams and safety Aaron Rouse, but the return of the veterans only adds to a unit that has already returned five interceptions for touchdowns this season, one shy of Green Bay's franchise record.

As well as the Titans run the ball, you have to think that sooner or later their lack of a true No. 1 receiving option will cost them in a game. They likely won't have a wide receiver with more than 60 receptions for the fourth year in a row. Starters Justin Gage and Justin McCareins have a combined 23 catches, and all Titans receivers total just 43 receptions -- only slightly more than Titans tight ends (41 catches). In fact, the Titans are the first team since the 1985 Deiter Brock-quarterbacked Los Angeles Rams to start 7-0 despite not topping 200 yards passing in any game.

3) While I expect the Titans' two-headed and fourth-ranked running game (145.0 yards per game) to pound away at a Packers defensive front that has been susceptible to the run (141.9 yards per game, 25th in the league), Green Bay's run defense has shown improvement of late. After allowing an average of 161.4 yards rushing per game in their first five games, the Packers held Seattle and Indianapolis (admittedly a pair of run-challenged teams) to just 113 and 73 yards, respectively, for a 93.0 yard average.

Chris Johnson and LenDale White have combined for an NFL-best 14 rushing touchdowns this season, and Johnson, a rookie, leads the AFC in rushing with 626 yards. The Packers might employ a four-linebacker package in an effort to limit Tennessee's running success, much like the Colts tried Monday night with decent results. The Titans gained just 88 yards rushing on 31 attempts, a 2.8-yard average, but they did punch in three touchdowns on the ground.

Having nearly ended their division race after just eight weeks, the Titans face a new challenge: Playing the role of the hunted rather than the hunter. How will they cope with the second-half spotlight that inevitable falls on the NFL's last remaining undefeated team, with exponentially more attention and expectation coming their way with every victory? We're about to find out, because dead ahead is their toughest three-game stretch of the season: Green Bay, at Chicago, and at Jacksonville.

"The Colts are not the team to beat any more,'' Titans veteran linebacker Keith Bulluck said this week. "I think we made a statement within the division, and I think we have made a statement all year with our play. The Colts were the team to beat, and I think now the Titans are the team to beat.''

Bulluck is right about that. It's the unblemished Titans who now wear the bull's-eye. And starting with Green Bay this week, the rest of the NFL will begin taking aim.

• When the 49ers start their Week 10 game at Arizona with Shaun Hill at quarterback -- they have their bye this week -- they'll become the 12th team this season to start at least two passers. Every division in the league is represented by at least one team, and the NFC West has been hit particularly hard, with only the Cardinals not starting multiple quarterbacks.

Kansas City and Seattle are the only teams to have three starting quarterback thus far, and it's no coincidence that the Chiefs and Seahawks are a combined 3-11 in 2008. In a few cases, playing a second quarterback has worked out just fine: Tennessee is 6-0 with Collins starting, New England is 4-2 with Matt Cassel opening games, Minnesota is 3-2 since having Gus Frerotte take over, and Tampa Bay is 5-3 despite boomeranging from Jeff Garcia to Brian Griese to Jeff Garcia (in typical Jon Gruden fashion).

• I know this is crazy, but the 2-5 Rams could still win the NFC West. Since Jim Haslett took over for Scott Linehan, St. Louis is 2-1, with a very competitive loss at New England last week. The Rams could definitely upset the 4-3 first-place Cardinals this week at home, and that would put St. Louis just one game behind Arizona in the NFC West with eight games remaining.

Makes you think that NFL teams might start firing more coaches early in the season, in order to give their team as much time as possible to climb back into their division race.

Mike Singletary dropping trou in order to motivate his team at halftime of their game against Seattle last week has to be one of the strangest stories we've heard in the NFL in a long time. The most amazing part of the whole thing for me is the 49ers new head coach apparently continued to address his team for three or four minutes with his pants around his ankles. Oh to have been a mind-reader in the 49ers locker room at that point.

I loved Singletary calling out underachieving 49ers tight end Vernon Davis in Sunday's priceless post-game tirade, but who knew it wasn't even the coach's most memorable motivational ploy of the day? I think it's a very good thing the obviously passionate Singletary and his team have a bye this week, because things need to settle down a bit in San Francisco. You don't want your rookie head coach to start producing headlines faster than he does victories.

• Sorry, but I don't find the Chargers' dismissal of defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell all that shocking. While Cottrell has had some undeniable success in the NFL as a coordinator, this is the third consecutive job he has been fired from, and in all three cases his defenses eventually struggled mightily against the pass. That was the case when the Jets let him go after three years in 2003, the Vikings canned him after the 2005 season, and now the Chargers -- ranked last in the NFL against the pass.

• They lost at home to the Browns last week, but don't count the 3-4 Jaguars out of the AFC wild-card race just yet, even though there are seven teams with better records than Jacksonville. Jack Del Rio's puzzling ballclub is about to enjoy a double dose of the closest thing the NFL schedule has to a homecoming opponent: back-to-back trips to Cincinnati and Detroit, who are a combined 0-15.

If the Jaguars take care of the Bengals and Lions, they'll be 5-4 and staring at consecutive home games against Tennessee and Minnesota. Jacksonville always plays the Titans tough -- it lost 17-10 in Nashville in Week 1 -- and the Vikings are just 1-3 on the road this season.

• Seattle's Mike Holmgren coaches against his former Packers assistant Andy Reid in Philadelphia this week, maybe for the last time. Both Holmgren and Reid love to coach, but I could see both eventually moving into a Bill Parcells-like football czar role for some NFL team. With the Parcells experiment in Miami providing a successful model, maybe that's how Holmgren eventually lands back in San Francisco, and maybe how Reid gets eased off the sideline and into another key role in Philadelphia. Both ex-coaches would then have the authority to hand-pick their team's coach, the way Parcells did with Tony Sparano in Miami.

And here's another coaching name who someday may take a similar route to the front office and a more personnel-related role: Denver's Mike Shanahan.

• Here's hoping both Tennessee and Detroit continue heading in their distinctly opposite directions, because if they do, there could be an 11-0 versus 0-11 showdown looming at Ford Field on Thanksgiving Day. Both the Titans and Lions need four more -- wins in Tennessee's case, losses in Detroit's -- to make it a reality.

We got so close to an even more dramatic clash of the undefeated and the winless last year when New England and Miami looked like they were destined to meet at 14-0 and 0-14 in Week 16 in Foxboro. But the Dolphins ruined things by winning at home in overtime against Baltimore the week before.

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