Because now what? How do you stop a Titans team that just proved it doesn't have to run the ball to win a ballgame? What should be made of a Tennessee team that can go nowhere on the ground, and still win a big game on the road with its passing game? That's the sobering dilemma that the rest of the league now faces in the wake of Tennessee's 21-14 win over the Chicago Bears on Sunday at Soldier Field.
The Bears came out Sunday and dared the Titans to beat them in the air, and they did. The team that loves to win on the strength of its running game, and its defense just re-drew its blueprint right before our eyes. And it worked like magic.
"Good teams, when they can't do one thing, they do the other,'' said Titans head coach Jeff Fisher, speaking of his good team. "We like to carry balance in the ballgame between the run and the pass, but obviously it wasn't working today. Footing was an issue today, so we picked it up and threw it. That's what you have to do sometimes.''
There was no balance to be had on offense for Tennessee on this day. With the Bears loading up the line of scrimmage with extra run defense, the Titans after one quarter had rushed six times for one yard. At the half, they had 13 carries for minus-5 yards, and only improved to 3 yards on 17 carries. For the game, Tennessee's 20 yards rushing on 29 attempts (0.7 yard average) was its lowest output on the ground since 1965.
No matter. If they couldn't beat the Bears' fifth-ranked rushing defense (81.8 ) with their third-ranked rushing offense (149.1), the Titans were utterly content to remake themselves into a pass-first, ask-questions-later offense for a day. Tennessee quarterback Kerry Collins wound up completing 30 of 41 passes for 289 yards, all season highs, and then some.
The Titans had entered the game without a 200-yard passing game this season, making them the only other 8-0 team in NFL history besides the 1973 Minnesota Vikings to earn that distinction. Tennessee's sub-200 yard passing streak actually matched the 11-game winning streak it brought into the game, dating from the final three regular season games of 2007.
But when forced to, the Titans showed superb adaptability against the Bears, consistently making them pay for their over-emphasis on Tennessee's run game. That can only serve the Titans well from here on out, as defenses now have more to consider than the mere slowing of Tennessee's two-headed "Smash and Dash'' running game, featuring LenDale White and rookie Chris Johnson.
"They didn't think we could throw the ball, but we exposed them in throwing the ball,'' said White, who "led'' the Titans in rushing with 14 yards on 10 carries, including his NFL-leading 11th rushing touchdown. "Kerry did a great job of getting it to the receivers. You can always take away one aspect [of the offense], but you can't do both. We showed that today. Every week is not going to be the 'Smash and Dash.' ''
The Bears defensive approach came as no surprise to the Titans, because more and more teams are trying to test their commitment to the run by forcing them into a passing mode. But no one had accomplished it all season as successfully as Chicago, whose defensive strength is its run stuffing.
"We knew probably after the second series [we'd have to throw the ball],'' Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger said. "I knew we were going to throw it to win. I thought we would all week. But I thought we could mix the run in there. Eventually it was just ridiculous to try and mix the run in there.
"We set a [team] record against Kansas City for rushing [332 yards in Week 7], and we probably set a record today for inefficiency.''
Collins was sacked just once despite all his drop-backs, and he completed passes to seven different Titans, including touchdowns to tight end Bo Scaife and receiver Justin Gage. Remarkably, it was Collins first scoring pass to a Tennessee receiver since a Week 2 at Cincinnati.
"We might not throw the ball like that every week, because we've got two great running backs and a great offensive line,'' said Sciafe, who had a game-high 10 catches for 78 yards and that score. "So the world doesn't get to see it, but the guys in the locker room and in this organization, they all know we can do it. So the confidence is there.''
And the confidence that was on display Sunday in regards to the Titans passing game has to create some doubt in the minds of the defenses that still have to game plan for Tennessee. The Titans don't have a wide receiver on pace for even 50 catches this season, but that doesn't mean their passing game can't win a game when it has to -- witness Tennessee's franchise-record sixth consecutive road victory.
"I hope that's what it showed today, that you can't automatically go eight in the box against us,'' Sciafe said. "We're always going to try and come out and run the ball, because that's our strength. But if we have to adjust, we'll adjust. So people are going to have to change the way the play against us. If you take one thing away, we're going to hurt you with something else.''
Chicago learned that the hard way. The Bears success against the Titans potent running game was impressive. But it didn't make a difference in the outcome of the game, even though the Bears talked all week about the necessity of making Collins beat them with his arm.
"If you lose, it doesn't matter what you've done,'' Bears defensive end Alex Brown said. "I know they didn't run the ball that much, but when you give up 7-yard passes, 10-yard passes, and guys are running free and unblocked....I don't know. I'm going to stop here before I say something I'll regret tomorrow.''
So far, every team the Titans have played this season has ended up with more than a few regrets. Tennessee is still unbeaten and just proved it can now beat you in more ways than with its running game and its defense.
Throughout the NFL, that's a 9-0 that elicits an "Uh-oh.''