The Tennessee Titans completed a late run to the playoffs last year with a victory in the final game of the NFL regular season.
This season, the Titans don’t have to wait until the last minute to make plans for January.
Tennessee can wrap up its first division title since 2002 on Sunday when it hosts Cleveland, the team it beat out for the AFC’s final wild card berth a year ago.
The Browns and Titans were both 9-6 heading into Week 17 last season. With a Cleveland win over San Francisco early on Dec. 30, the onus was on Tennessee to either win that night in Indianapolis to claim the AFC’s final playoff spot, or lose and send the Browns to their first postseason in five years.
Tennessee knocked off the Colts, and although it went on to lose in the wild-card round at San Diego, that playoff trip served as a springboard to what’s been a nearly perfect 2008 season. The Titans (11-1) can end Indianapolis’ five-year stranglehold on the AFC South with one win or one Colts’ loss.
“You kind of start to look forward, but you can’t look past this week,” defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch said. “We haven’t clinched a playoff spot. We haven’t even clinched our division. We have to keep winning. But a win this week would be huge and would be a huge step toward any postseason possibilities.”
Tennessee only had three days to bounce back from its first loss, 34-13 to the New York Jets on Nov. 23, but the short week was no obstacle. The Titans turned in perhaps their most complete effort of the season on Thanksgiving in Detroit, outgaining the Lions by more than 300 yards in a 47-10 rout.
“It’s nice to be able to do what you set out to do,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “Both backs got a lot of yards on their own, but they got a lot of help up front.”
The Browns (4-8) have been vulnerable to the run all season, as they were 28th in the league allowing an average of 149.3 yards—and 4.7 per carry— through their first 10 games. The defense can’t be blamed for Cleveland’s last two losses, however, as the offense has failed to score a touchdown.
After the Browns held Houston to three points after halftime in 16-6 loss on Nov. 23, things only got worse a week later when the Colts came to Cleveland. The Browns held Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis offense to 215 yards and kept them out of the end zone, but Derek Anderson’s fourth-quarter fumble was returned for a touchdown and that was all the points the Colts would need to win 10-6.
“The team played their hearts out today,” coach Romeo Crennel said. “This was a good football team we played. I think the guys can hold their heads up because we gave a valiant effort. We just didn’t finish.”
The loss was especially painful to the Browns offense, which had a quarterback suffer a season-ending injury for the second straight week. Just days after finding out Brady Quinn needed surgery to repair tendon damage in his right index finger, Anderson tore the MCL in his left knee late in the fourth quarter.
That leaves Ken Dorsey as the Browns’ top quarterback, though they also signed veteran Bruce Gradkowski this week to provide some depth behind Dorsey and Pro Bowl kick returner Joshua Cribbs, who was a quarterback in college.
The site of Dorsey’s first start since Nov. 27, 2005, should look familiar. He went 23-for-43 for 192 yards and two interceptions that day with San Francisco in a 33-22 loss at Tennessee.
With Dorsey having attempted just four passes in the NFL since the start of the 2006 season, Fisher figures the elusive Cribbs will get some snaps in an effort to give the Titans defense a different look.
“You have to expect and anticipate that they’re going to put him in unique situations, situations other than your standard, conventional quarterback position,” Fisher said.
Finding holes against Tennessee’s defense, though, won’t be easy. The Titans are second in the league in scoring defense (14.6 points per game) and have forced the most turnovers (25) in the AFC.
Cleveland’s defense has intercepted 17 passes, tied with Tennessee for third-most in the NFL. The Browns have picked off seven passes in their last three games, but forcing Kerry Collins into a mistake won’t be easy.
Collins has thrown one interception in his last 241 pass attempts, and he’s also tough to bring down. Collins has been sacked seven times in 12 games, tied with Denver’s Jay Cutler for fewest in the NFL. Cleveland is 30th in the league with 15 sacks.
The Browns have won their last two trips to Nashville - most recently in 2002 - and have won three in a row overall against Tennessee.