Philadelphia visits Tennessee for the second time in history for a huge inter-conference battle between two Super Bowl hopefuls fighting to stay atop tough divisions.
1. Eagles-Titans is a battle of surprisingly elite passing teams. Philadelphia enters the game No. 2 in the NFL in passer efficiency (103.3 rating), a micro-shade behind only Peyton Manning and the Colts (103.4). The Titans enter the game No. 6 in passer rating (96.7), behind only Colts, Eagles, Chargers, Patriots and Saints.
But there's a big difference between the Eagles, Titans and those other teams on the list. All those other teams feature elite quarterbacks: Indy's Manning and New England's Tom Brady are Super Bowl MVPs and bona fide first ballot Hall of Famers; San Diego's Philip Rivers is No. 2 in career passer rating (96.3) and New Orleans QB Drew Brees is a prolific passer fresh off a Super Bowl MVP season.
Philadelphia and Tennessee, meanwhile, are led by a strange hodgepodge of troubled or aging passers. Frequently, the teams don't even know who'll be under center from week to week. Despite the lack of continuity, both teams pass the ball as well as the league's best. Here's how the four passers have performed this year:
Michael Vick (Eagles): 59 of 96 (61.5%), 799 yards, 8.3 YPA, 6 TD, 0 INT, 108.8 rating
Vince Young (Titans): 62 of 101 (61.4%), 745 yards, 7.4 YPA, 7 TD, 2 INT, 98.8 rating
Kevin Kolb (Eagles): 71 of 105 (67.6%), 804 yards, 7.7 YPA, 5 TD, 2 INT, 98.3 rating
Kerry Collins (Titans): 28 of 41 (68.3%), 259 yards, 6.3 YPA, 2 TD, 1 INT, 91.4 rating
Those are great numbers from a curious quartet: Vick spent two years at the height of his career in jail; Kolb had started just two games in three years when Philly traded away its best QB in a half century (Donovan McNabb) to hand him the job; Young's rocky career included a reported suicide watch in 2008, but he's won 67 percent of his starts; and Collins is the only QB in the league old enough to chuckle at Brett Favre's Molly Ringwald jokes.
Young or Collins looks like a game-time decision for Tennessee; Kolb will take the field for the Eagles, but Vick appears fully recovered from his rib injury and will probably see playing time.
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Despite the lack of continuity, all four quarterbacks have put up big numbers and helped their teams win games. It's an enviable situation for both clubs in a league in which consistency at QB means everything and in which so many teams struggle to find even one good player at the position.
Stat That May Interest Only Us of the Week: Collins is No. 12 all time in career passing yards (38,877). The quarterbacks keeping him out of the top 10 are Johnny Unitas (40,239) and Joe Montana.
2. Jeff Fisher owns Andy Reid and the AFC owns the NFC. Tennessee coach Fisher and Philadelphia coach Reid square off for the fourth time Sunday, making this the most frequently played inter-conference coaching battle in the NFL today.
Fisher has won all three previous meetings:
2006 -- Tennessee 31, Philadelphia 13 (in Philly)
2002 -- Tennessee 27, Philadelphia 24 (in Tennessee)
2000 -- Tennessee 15, Philadelphia 13 (in Philly)
Fisher's unblemished record against Reid -- the NFC's best coach of the past decade -- has come during an era of clear AFC domination over the NFL's senior circuit. The NFC has not posted a winning record against the AFC since 1995.
The recent trends are not favorable for Philly, either. The AFC went 37-27 in inter-conference play last year, with only the champion Saints saving the NFC from further embarrassment (5-0 vs. the AFC, including the Super Bowl win).
The AFC is 15-11 in inter-conference play this year, and the Titans have already bested two of Philly's Glamour Division (NFC East) rivals on the road, the Giants and Cowboys.
The Eagles, for their part, dominated at Jacksonville, 28-3, in their lone game against an AFC opponent.
3. Tennessee's Defensive Hogs are one of the great statistical stories of 2010 -- and an ex-Eagle is a big reason why. The Cold, Hard Football Facts Defensive Hog Index rates each defensive front from No. 1 to No. 32 by measuring how they perform in three critical indicators: stopping the run, pressuring the quarterback and getting off the field on third down.
The Titans right now are No. 2 in the indicator, behind only the Defensive Hog-dynasty Giants. Tennessee finished No. 22 on the indicator during their Jekyll-and-Hyde 2009 season (0-6 start, 8-2 finish).
Credit a vastly improved pass rush led by defensive end Jason Babin, who struggled to get playing time with the Eagles last year. He's fourth in the NFL with 6.0 sacks, including four in Tennessee's last three games. It's already a career-high for the seven-year veteran.
Babin's defensive end mate, Dave Ball, is second on the team with five sacks, also a career high, while Tennessee tops the NFL with 24 sacks. The Titans plundered just 31 passers in all of 2009.
Examined through the colorful statistical kaleidoscope of our Defensive Hog Index, the Titans are No. 12 against the run (4.0 YPA), No. 3 at forcing Negative Pass Plays (13.13 percent of dropbacks end in a sack or INT) and No. 2 on third-down defense (opponents convert 28.9% of attempts).
The NFL is all about winning the passing wars -- but in terms of efficiency (passer rating, yards per attempt) and not volume (attempts, completions, yards). Efficiency wins Super Bowls. Volume wins your barroom fantasy football league.
And the Eagles and Titans are legit Super Bowl contenders, at least at this point in the season, because they're winning the passing efficiency wars.
Before the start of the 2009 season, to prove the importance of passing efficiency on both sides of the ball, Cold, Hard Football Facts.com introduced a new Quality Stat: Passer Rating Differential. We simply subtract a team's Defensive Passer Rating from its offensive performance.
The theory was that the best teams are the teams that dominate the passing wars. Well, Passer Rating Differential was a smash hit: the Saints dominated the indicator in 2009 and dominated the Colts in the Super Bowl.
We have full confidence the indicator will prove its worth again. The Chargers actually top Passer Rating Differential right now. But they're a true curiosity at this point: dominant on the stat sheets but not on the field (2-4). Sooner or later, San Diego will come into statistical equilibrium. Either the statistical domination will end or the team will start winning.
But the rest of the list is quite relevant to our Game of the Week: the Eagles and Titans are Nos. 2 and 3, respectively, dominant in their passing efficiency on both offense and defense. The Eagles and Titans -- and it's no coincidence -- are followed immediately on the Passer Rating Differential list by last year's Super Bowl teams:
Philadelphia-Tennessee is a battle of two evenly matched clubs, each of whom harbors legit Super Bowl hopes. The Eagles enjoy slight advantages in passing efficiency on offense and defense, while the Titans are better in the trenches, topping Philadelphia on both our Offensive and Defensive Hog Index.
If you're looking for one statistical mismatch that could turn the game in favor of one team, look at what happens when the Eagles have the ball and step back to pass.
Philadelphia, despite its efficiency, has suffered an extraordinarily high number of Negative Pass Plays: nearly 10 percent of dropbacks this year have ended in a sack or interception. Only eight teams, most of them bottom dwellers, suffer Negative Pass Plays more often than the Eagles.
Tennessee, as noted above, counters with perhaps the league's best pass rush and one of the best defenses at forcing mistakes in the passing game: the Titans force a Negative Pass Play (sack or INT) on more 13 percent of dropbacks, the third best rate in the NFL.
Look for a big sack or pick by Tennessee to ultimately turn the tide in its favor.
Tennessee 24, Philadelphia 21
(Week 6 prediction: New England 21, Baltimore 20. Result: New England 23, Baltimore 20.)