Friday November 21st, 2008

When the NFL's 2008 schedule came out last April, Jim Schwartz took a look and, like defensive coordinators everywhere, said another silent word of thanks that Brett Favre was happily ensconced in retirement. Avoiding Favre altogether was always a much wiser approach than defending against him.

"When he retired, I was like, 'Whew, we got away with that one,' because we had Green Bay on the schedule this year,'' said Schwartz, the Tennessee Titans' eighth-year defensive coordinator. "And then he showed up on the schedule anyway, because we had the Jets too. And if he would have gone to Minnesota, we would have seen him there too. We were really rooting hard for Tampa Bay, to tell you the truth.''

Favre's a Jet, and not a Buc, so for Schwartz and his Titans defense, Week 12 is their day of reckoning. If 10-0 Tennessee is to continue an undefeated season that no one could say they ever saw coming, it's going to have to successfully deal with Favre, who is fresh off the biggest win of his career's brief second act. With a four-game winning streak and having just slayed their own personal dragons in New England to take over first place in the AFC East, the 7-3 Jets represent the hottest, most complete opponent Tennessee has faced all season.

Schwartz's Titans defense has actually fared quite well against Favre in the past, intercepting him three times and forcing six turnovers overall in a 48-27 crushing of Green Bay at Lambeau Field in Week 5 of 2004. In a 26-20 home defeat of the Packers in Week 14 of 2001, the Titans intercepted Favre once, forced a fumble, and held him to just 201 yards passing.

None of which, of course, is giving Schwartz much comfort this week, after watching tape all week of Favre's almost error-free performance in New York's 34-31 overtime win over the Patriots in Foxboro on Nov. 13. The Favre that Schwartz has scouted in recent weeks is a Favre who is taking care of the football (just one interception in his past three games), completing a high percentage of passes (72.5, or 87 of 120 during the course of New York's four-game winning streak), and looks more comfortable in his new green and white skin as the weeks go by.

"The longer this season has gone on, the more he has an idea what they want from him and the more they have an idea of what his strengths and weaknesses are,'' Schwartz said. "It's just a matter of them getting more familiar with each other. But during this winning streak, they've run the ball for an average of about 145 yards a game, and he hasn't had to put it in the air 45 times a week. You're seeing them play much more consistently, and they're really staying committed to running the football.''

Somewhat paradoxically, the Titans' run-first mentality has given way the past two weeks to a more passing-centered offense, with quarterback Kerry Collins throwing for five of his eight touchdowns on the season in back-to-back road wins at Chicago and Jacksonville. After not having a 200-yard passing game in the course of winning 11 consecutive games from late 2007 through Week 10 of this year, Tennessee has rung up 289 and 230 yards the past two games. Go figure.

Because of that, some are predicting the Jets-Titans showdown at LP Field in Nashville could morph into a pass-fest between a pair of 30-something quarterbacks who have thrown for more than 100,000 yards in their careers -- only the third such pairing of veteran passers in league history. The whole premise is an unlikely turn of events when you consider that at the start of training camp this year, Favre was still officially retired and Collins was merely the Titans' 35-year-old backup behind starter Vince Young.

"I think it'll be a great matchup,'' Titans head coach Jeff Fisher said. "Some people have tagged this as it's going to end up being a shoot-out. You never know. Both quarterbacks are capable of making plays. I think it'll be one that a lot of people are going to want to watch.''

As the weeks go by, and the victories continue to mount, the Titans are becoming the NFL's must-see main attraction. You know the hype is getting serious, because Mercury Morris -- aka the Miami Sound Machine -- felt compelled to weigh in this week on Tennessee's run at perfection and how it impacts the legacy of the 1972 Dolphins. (Please, no, make him stop).

Interestingly, this week's game against the first-place Jets represents an echo of sorts in that it's the third time in less than 11 months that a New York team will be trying to snap the winning streak of an undefeated powerhouse from the AFC. I seem to recall the memorable Giants-Patriots battles in Week 17 of last season and in February's Super Bowl shared the same plot-line.

And to take the analogy a somewhat tortured step further, the Titans' test against the Jets this week coincides with the point last year when the Patriots' quest for perfection got exponentially tougher. New England breezed to a 10-0 record in 2007, winning those games by an astounding average margin of 25.4 points. But starting with their Week 12 struggle at home against Philadelphia, which they survived 31-28, the Patriots had to work for it, winning three times by three points and once by 10 over the course of their final six games.

Will that be the case for Tennessee, which has a healthy average winning margin of 11.3 points per game this season, or do the Titans' four wins by seven points or less mean they've already been living on the edge throughout 2008's 10-0 ride?

If Tennessee can get past the Jets, its schedule softens for a while, with games upcoming at Detroit (0-10), home against Cleveland (4-6), and at Houston (3-7) on tap in Weeks 13-15. The Titans could then be 14-0 as they prepare for a Week 16 visit from Pittsburgh and a trip to division rival Indianapolis in the regular-season finale. Wouldn't that be more fun than last year's Titans at Colts Week 17 meeting, when Indy, having already clinched its playoff seed, played the game like the rest of Jim Sorgi's career depended on it?

"It makes no sense to look ahead,'' Fisher reminded the media this week. "All you have to do is put the Jets tape on and look at the Jets and what they've done. You can't afford to look ahead.''

True enough. The Jets and Favre cannot be overlooked. Even though Schwartz and his defense were hoping to avoid this particular challenge in 2008. But one way or another it seems, the Titans run at perfection was destined to go through No. 4 at some point.

"This is the NFL, and everybody's good,'' Schwartz said. "But yeah, when you're going up against a guy like Favre, because of the longevity, and the fact that most of our guys would have watched him play since they were in high school, guys get jacked up to play this one. He's one of the all-time greats, and he still looks like Brett Favre out there. He can still zip it. He still has the confidence. And he's still out there having fun, the way he always has.''

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