After watching the Titans roll to a surprising 8-0 start, it's impossible to ignore the tremendous coaching job being done by Jeff Fisher and his staff. The 15-year veteran has his team atop the AFC South with a four-game lead, sitting in great position to secure home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
In constructing this championship-caliber team, Fisher appears to have taken a page from his playing days as defensive back on the 1985 Chicago Bears. That team relied on a smothering defense, a powerful running game and a spunky quarterback on the way to an 18-1 record and Super Bowl title. Looking at the foundation of his Titans' team, the similarities are evident.
The suffocating defense ranks first in the league in scoring (12.9) and second in takeaways (18). Its attack-first philosophy keeps offenses on their heels. Led by Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch, the Titans have sacked quarterbacks 22 times, seventh-best in the league.
Not to be outdone, the Titans' secondary has developed into one of the league's best due to the emergence of Cortland Finnegan, Michael Griffin, Nick Harper and Chris Hope. The quartet has limited quarterbacks to a 62.3 passer rating and has only allowed four passing touchdowns while picking off a league-leading 13 passes.
But Fisher's biggest accomplishment has been pulling together an offense that many predicted would struggle moving the ball. The Titans have the league's third ranked rushing attack thanks to the "Smash and Dash" tandem of LenDale White and Chris Johnson. White, who plays the role of the bruiser, has rushed for 404 yards while contributing a league-high 10 rushing touchdowns. Johnson, the team's change of pace back, has been sensational as a multi-purpose player and currently ranks fourth in rushing with 715 yards.
In addition, Fisher's decision to insert Kerry Collins into the lineup in place of a struggling Vince Young has helped the Titans offense become a more balanced unit. Collins, who ranks 14th on the all-time passing list, has delivered enough timely plays in the passing game to keep defenses from successfully loading up with eight-and nine-man fronts to stop the run. He's been especially effective at throwing to tight ends Bo Scaife and Alge Crumpler.
Fisher has repeatedly been asked to identify the reason for the success of a team that now has an 11-game regular season winning streak. Although he believes the seeds of their greatness were sewn during the 2006 season (that team went 8-8 after starting 0-5), he contends that Tennessee's focus on the weekly task at hand has been more critical.
"We learned the hard way that... you just take them one week at a time, because you can't concern yourself with what you did last week or what may happen weeks down the road," Fisher said. "The only thing that you can affect is the upcoming week. That's the great approach that they're taking."
The Titans have gotten to this point by not looking too far ahead, but their surprising success this year makes it a solid bet that Fisher earns the league's coach of the year award at season's end.
1. Jeff Fisher, Titans (Last week's ranking: 1)
2. Tom Coughlin, Giants (2): The defending champions are whipping their opponents, proving last season's title was not a fluke.
3. John Harbaugh, Ravens (NR): The rookie head coach has built the team around a dominant defense and a strong running game. Sounds a lot like the 2000 Ravens, who bullied their way to a Super Bowl title.
4. Mike Smith, Falcons (NR): No one could've predicted that Smith would lead the franchise out of the doldrums in his first season. With five wins in the Falcons' first eight games, Smith has already surpassed last season's win total (four) and positioned the team for a run at a postseason berth.
5. Ken Whisenhunt, Cardinals (NR): The Cards head coach has made all the right moves during the first half. Kurt Warner has excelled as the team's starting quarterback, and Whisenhunt's decision to insert rookie Tim Hightower into the starting lineup has juiced the running game. With a three-game lead within the division at the halfway mark, the Cards look like a solid bet to be in the playoffs for the first time since 1998.
1. Clinton Portis, RB, Redskins (2): Although he had a tough time finding running room against the Steelers' top-ranked defense, Portis showed he may be the most complete back in the game by totaling 124 yards from scrimmage.
2. Kurt Warner, QB, Cardinals (4): The former league MVP continues to defy odds by posting one of the best seasons in his career at 37. Warner surpassed the 300-yard mark for the fourth time last weekend and has the Cards in a position to win their first division title in 33 years.
3. Eli Manning, QB, Giants (3): The Super Bowl MVP hasn't been spectacular, but has been extremely efficient in leading the team to the NFC's best record. Manning's growth as a passer has made him the perfect complement to the Giants' smash-mouth ground attack.
4. Drew Brees, QB, Saints (NR): The two-time Pro Bowl quarterback has been astonishing this season. Brees has passed for over 300 yards in six games and is on pace to surpass Dan Marino's single-season passing mark of 5,084 yards.
5. Albert Haynesworth, DT, Titans (NR): The raw numbers (29 tackles, six sacks) don't fully reflect his impact on the team's success. Haynesworth not only gobbles up blockers in the running game, but also frees up his line mates to rush unobstructed to the quarterback. With the Titans' defense keying their unbeaten start, it time to recognize Haynesworth as one of the league's best players.
1. Drew Brees, QB, Saints (1)
2. Clinton Portis, RB, Redskins (2)
3. Kurt Warner, QB, Cardinals (3)
4. Philip Rivers, QB, Chargers (4): The Chargers' star leads the league in passing touchdowns (19) and has emerged as one of the top passers in the game. With the team struggling at the midway point, it will be imperative for Rivers to continue his sizzling play for San Diego to have any chance of winning its third consecutive AFC West title.
5. Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings (NR): The former Offensive Rookie of the Year has topped the century mark in three consecutive games. His resurgence has sparked the Vikings' return to playoff contention and catapulted Peterson up the charts as the league's second-best rushing leader.
1. Albert Haynesworth, DT, Titans (1)
2. James Harrison, LB, Steelers (2): The energetic pass rusher wears down opponents with his relentless effort. Harrison's one-and-a half sack effort against the Redskins pushed his season total to 10, second-best among the league's top pass rushers.
3. Joey Porter, LB, Dolphins (5): The fiery leader of the Dolphins' defense has been a force off the edge. He registered at least a partial sack for the sixth week in a row; he's the league leader with 11.5 on the season.
4. Justin Tuck, DT, Giants (NR): The Giants' top pass rusher has been underappreciated for too long. After recording two and a half sacks against the Cowboys, Tuck ranks as the league's fourth-best sack artist (8.5).
5. Kris Jenkins, DT, Jets (NR): The three-time Pro Bowl tackle has single-handedly transformed the Jets' defense into a dominant unit. With Jenkins dominating the point of attack, the Jets have turned loose a vastly improved pass rush that is reminiscent of the "New York Sack Exchange" from the early '80s.
1. Chris Johnson, RB, Titans (1): He has emerged as one of the league's top playmakers. Johnson's performance against the Packers showcased his outstanding versatility as a runner/receiver and helped the Titans remain the league's lone unbeaten squad.
2. Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons (3): The Falcons have uncovered a rare franchise-type quarterback with Ryan. He has completed almost 59 percent of his passes and has a passer rating (85.4) that rivals Brett Favre and Ben Roethlisberger. With Ryan's career off to such a stellar start, league observers are comparing him to Peyton Manning at this stage of his career.
3. Matt Forte, RB, Bears (4): Fresh off the bye week, Forte re-establishes himself as one of the top runners in the game. His 641 rushing yards rank seventh in the league, and his 30 receptions are fourth-best among running backs.
4. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles (2): Although the dynamic playmaker is seeing his opportunities shrink with the return of the team's starting receivers, Jackson speed and big-play ability add a different dimension to the Eagles' offense.
5. Tim Hightower, RB, Cardinals (NR): The fifth-round pick had a stellar debut as a starter (22 carries for 109 yards and one score). His seven rushing touchdowns lead all rookies.
1. Jerod Mayo, LB, Patriots (3): The league's top rookie tackler continues to be a factor in the middle of the Patriots' defense. His 11-tackle assault on the Colts didn't lead to a victory, but did push Mayo into the lead for this award.
2. Curtis Lofton, LB, Falcons (1): The budding star has been impressive. His five-tackle effort against the Raiders helped the team post its first shutout since 2002.
3. Chris Horton, S, Redskins (2): He continues to be a key contributor. His all-around versatility allows defensive coordinator Greg Blache the freedom to incorporate his safeties into the pressure package.
4. Chris Long, DE, Rams (4): The second overall pick is beginning to come into his own as a pass rusher. Though he failed to register a sack against the Cards, he leads all rookies with four sacks at the halfway mark.
5. Dwight Lowery, CB, Jets (NR): He has quietly held his own against some of the game's top receivers. His ability to man the corner in superb fashion has allowed the team to be more aggressive with its exotic blitzes.