Several years ago the Tennessee Titans were one of the laughingstocks of the NFL. Vince Young, the third pick in the 2006 draft, has been a bust to date. Defensive Tackle Albert Haynesworth was suspended for five games and fined $190K in 2006 after stomping on the helmetless head of Cowboys’ Center Andre Gurode, who, fortunately, was able to resume his career and made the Pro Bowl in 2007. The Defense was always fairly strong, but an anemic Offense kept the team from being successful.
Fast forward to 2008. Vince Young has been replaced at quarterback (at least for the time being) by Kerry Collins, who had some issues of his own earlier in his career. The emergence of Running Backs LenDale White and rookie Chris Johnson has given the Titans’ Offense the best one-two running punch in the NFL. Albert Haynesworth has kept his temper in check, even joined Gurode in Hawaii as a Pro Bowl participant in 2007, and now anchors one of the strongest defensive units in the NFL.
With a record of 7-0 heading into Week 9, the Titans are the NFL’s last remaining unbeaten team. While their below-average passing game will prevent anyone from mentioning the 2008 Titans in the same breath as the 1972 Dolphins, or even the 2007 Patriots, the question remains, is an undefeated season realistic? It’s easy to look at their far below average passing game and conclude that the answer is “no”. Fair enough - then which team will be the one to knock the Titans from their lofty perch? And even if they don’t go undefeated, are they a legitimate Super Bowl contender?
In order for a team to defeat the Titans, they would have to either have a very strong running game and/or a very strong run Defense of their own. Looking over the Titans’ remaining schedule, the teams that fit these criteria the best are the Bears (Week 10 on the road), NY Jets (Week 12 at home), the Houston Texans (Week 15 on the road), and the Pittsburgh Steelers (Week 16 at home). And to answer the second question, I believe the answer is a resounding “no” - without a legitimate air attack to keep an opposing Defense honest, teams will be able to overplay the run against the Titans and defeat them. Pittsburgh is one team that comes to mind. Super Bowl winners need to have at least the appearance of balance on Offense, and right now the Titans are a long way from having that, in spite of their unblemished record.
Here are some thoughts on games and players for Week 9’s games:
Arizona at St Louis - We constantly hear about parity in the NFL and wonder if that’s a good thing. Case in point - if the host Rams are able to win this week’s matchup with the Cardinals (a distinct possibility), then they would be a mere one game behind the first place Cardinals, in spite of having a record of 3-5. For Arizona QB Kurt Warner, RBs Edgerrin James & Tim Hightower, WRs Larry Fitzgerald & Anquan Boldin, and K Neil Rackers all deserve to start. For the Cardinals, leave RB Steven Jackson (Questionable, thigh) on the bench unless you’ll have access to your team’s lineup right before gametime. QB Marc Bulger, WRs Torry Holt & Donnie Avery, and K Josh Brown should all be in your starting lineup. Leave both Defenses out of your lineup - I could easily see the losing team in this game scoring 28+ points.
Houston at Minnesota - Democratic candidate for Senate Al Franken may be able to run in Minnesota, but it’s unlikely the Texans will be able to do the same in Sunday against the host Vikings’ stout run Defense. Leave Steve Slaton on your bench this week if you have alternatives with better matchups. Houston players who should be started include QB Matt Schaub, TE Owen Daniels, and WR Andre Johnson. WR Kevin Walter (Probable, knee) is a decent bye week replacement, while K Kris Brown is a bye week replacement for only the truly desperate. For the Vikings RB Adrian Peterson, TE Visanthe Shiancoe, WR Bernard Berrian, and K Ryan Longwell should all be in your lineup. QB Gus Frerrotte is an adequate bye week replacement, as is WR Bobby Wade (especially in points per reception leagues). Again, leave both Defenses on your bench in anticipation of a fairly high scoring game.
Jacksonville at Cincinnati - On paper this game appears to be a mismatch. Still, as the cliche goes, games are played on the field, not on paper. True enough, but my guess is that the Bengals will prove to be little more than paper tigers on Sunday. Don’t be deceived by the Bengals’ ranking eighth in the NFL in fewest yards allowed rushing - the Bengals give up 4.3 yards per rushing attempt (which ranks 20th overall) - the only reason teams don’t run more on them is that it’s even easier to pass against them. Jaguars who should be started this week include QB David Garrard, RBs Fred Taylor & Maurice Jones Drew, TE Marcedes Lewis, WR Matt Jones (check to make sure he’s not suspended by the NFL, although that doesn’t appear likely at this point), K Josh Scobee, and the Defense. In spite of some of the “second half sleeper” hype you may have been reading about WR Reggie Williams (Questionable, hamstring), I’d leave him on the bench this week. The pickings are much slimmer for Cincinnati - WRs T.J. Houshmandzadeh & Chad Johnson are the only Bengals you should consider definite starts this week. However, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick makes a low-end bye week replacement, since he figures to throw many times against a weak Jaguars’ pass Defense. Avoid RB Cedric Benson and the Bengals’ Defense at all costs.
NY Jets at Buffalo - This matchup pits two teams whose fans were disgusted with their team’s performance last weekend. Cheer up, Jets’ fans, at least your team got a victory (albeit an ugly one against a cellar dwelling Chiefs team), and unlike ice skating, gymnastics, and diving, the NFL doesn’t care about style points. Looking ahead to this game, I don’t see the Bills being able to run against the Jets’ Defense, but their passing game is also hurting with WR Josh Reed out with an ankle injury. As a result, I expect a Jets’ victory, but since these are the Jets we’re talking about, it won’t be easy, and it won’t be pretty. Start Jets’ QB Brett Favre, and RB Thomas Jones. RB Leon Washington, TE Dustin Keller, and WR Chansi Stuckey all make good bye week replacements. I’d avoid WRs Jericho Cotchery (Questionable, Shoulder) and Laveranues Coles (Questionable, thigh) unless you know that you’ll have access to your lineup shortly before gametime Sunday. For the Bills start QB Trent Edwards (Probable, ankle) and WR Lee Evans. TE Robert Royal can be started as a bye week replacement, but I’d steer clear of RB Marshawn Lynch for this week. Both Defenses are adequate bye week replacements.
Detroit at Chicago - Neither of these teams can stop the pass, so neither team’s Defense should be in your starting lineup this weekend. Lions’ QB Dan Orlovsky may have reminded viewers of George Plimpton shortly after taking over the reins from the injured Jon Kitna, but he has played better the last couple of weeks and should be on your radar as a possible bye week replacement given this favorable matchup. WR Calvin Johnson and K Jason Hanson are both worth starting, and WRs Shaun McDonald and Mike Furrey are low-end bye week replacements. For the Bears QB Kyle Orton, RB Matt Forte, TEs Greg Olsen & Desmond Clark, and K Robbie Gould are all worth starting. WRs Devin Hester, Rashied Davis, and Marty Booker (Probable, knee) are all decent bye week replacements.
Baltimore at Cleveland - The Ravens’ rushing game figures to run roughshod over the Browns’ Defense this weekend, which would be great if we could only figure out which Ravens’ RBs will be healthy enough to play. Willis McGahee is listed as Questionable with an ankle injury - don’t include him in your fantasy lineups unless you’ll have access to your starting lineup shortly before game time. Ditto for Le’Ron McClain, who’s listed as Probable, also with an ankle injury. Rookie Ray Rice is the healthiest of the bunch, and this week may finally be his turn to shine - he’s worth starting as a bye week replacement, as are TE Todd Heap and K Matt Stover. WR Derrick Mason and the Ravens’ Defense are both worth starting. The Browns don’t figure to be able to run or throw against the stout Ravens’ Defense - TE Kellen Winslow and WR Braylon Edwards should both be in your starting lineups, if only because QB Derek Anderson will likely complete at least a few passes to somebody during the game - hopefully, somebody who isn’t wearing a Ravens’ jersey.
Tampa Bay at Kansas City - When former Bucs’ coach John McKay was once asked, “What do you think of your team’s execution?”, he famously replied, “I’m all for it!”. Although Chiefs’ coach Herm Edwards is far too diplomatic to say anything like that, the thought must have at least crossed his mind. Even though the Chiefs have managed to win a game this season (against Denver), they may be even worse than the winless Cincinnati and Detroit squads (Stinkball league participants, take note - the Chiefs host the Bengals Week 17. Plan accordingly!) Tampa Bay RB Earnest Graham, TE Alex Smith, WR Antonio Bryant, and the Defense should all be started this week, while QB Jeff Garcia and K Matt Bryant should be high-end bye week replacements. For the Chiefs, start TE Tony Gonzalez and WR Dwayne Bowe if you must, but don’t expect them to lead your team to victory this week (or any week)!
Green Bay at Tennessee - Tennessee figures to spend most of the game rushing against the Packers’ Defense, and Green Bay figures to spend most of the game throwing against the Titans’ Defense. The Titans’ run Offense figures to be successful, but Green Bay’s pass Offense figures to have a tougher time against the Titans’ pass Defense, and that’s why I like the Titans to remain undefeated. For the Packers TE Donald Lee and WR Greg Jennings are the only players I’d start this week - hopefully, you have better options this week at QB than Aaron Rodgers and better options at RB than Ryan Grant. For the Titans RBs LenDale White & Chris Johnson and TE Bo Scaife are worth starting. Both Defenses worth starting in a game where the winning team may have trouble scoring 21 points.
Miami at Denver - This game may not feature Dan Marino and John Elway, but it still figures to be one of the highest scoring games of the weekend. Dolphins who should be started include QB Chad Pennington, RB Ronnie Brown, TEs Anthony Fasano & David Martin, WRs Ted Ginn & Greg Camarillo, and K Dan Carpenter. Start-worthy Broncos include QB Jay Cutler, WRs Brandon Marshall & Eddie Royal, and K Matt Prater. RBs Michael Pittman and Ryan Torain are also low-end bye week replacements.
Philadelphia at Seattle - The Eagles have the misfortune of playing in the NFC East, football’s toughest division top to bottom bar none. Seattle has the misfortune of being a bad football team when injured QB Matt Hasselbeck is out, which will be the case once again for this matchup. For Philadelphia QB Donovan McNabb, RB Brian Westbrook, WR DeSean Jackson, K David Akers, and the Defense should all be started. For the Seahawks the list of fantasy starters is a short one: TE John Carlson and WR Bobby Engram. Enough said.
Dallas at NY Giants - Both starting QBs in this game have a Super Bowl ring; that’s about all that Cowboys’ QB Brad Johnson and Giants’ QB Eli Manning have in common. Johnson is the proverbial “X factor” in this game - if he plays well, this could be a very interesting game with a close final score. However, my bet is that won’t happen, and the Giants will win rather handily. For the Cowboys WR Terrell Owens is the only must-start, but WRs Roy Williams and Patrick Crayton are also worth starting if your other WRs have lousy matchups this week. For the Giants QB Eli Manning, RB Brandon Jacobs, and WR Plaxico Burress should all be starting, and WRs Amani Toomer & “Other” Steve Smith and the Giants’ Defense are good bye week replacements. The Giants kicking situation remains muddled, so continue to stay away.
Atlanta at Oakland - Two young, inconsistent QBs with strong rushing games behind them suggest that the fantasy options for this game are limited. For the Falcons RB Michael Turner and WR Roddy White are the only must-starts, while QB Matt Ryan, WR Michael Jenkins, and K Jason Elam are all decent bye week replacements. For the Raiders RB Justin Fargas and TE Zach Miller are the only players you’d want to start, although QB JaMarcus Russell can also be considered a low-end bye week replacement. Avoid both Defenses, even with the question marks at quarterback for both teams.
New England at Indianapolis - Both of these teams have been set back this season by serious injuries to key players. For the Patriots it’s obvious I’m referring to QB Tom Brady. It may be less obvious that I’m referring to Colts’ RB Joseph Addai - without a rushing game to keep opposing Defenses honest, Peyton Manning has struggled to put up the consistently great fantasy numbers we’ve all come to expect from him over the years. For the Patriots WRs Wes Welker & Randy Moss and K Stephen Gostkowski are the only players worth starting this week, but if you’re in need of a bye week replacement or two, QB Matt Cassel, RBs Kevin Faulk & BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and TE Ben Watson all are worthwhile options. Addai is still listed as Questionable with his hamstring injury, but all indications are that he will attempt to play this week. Assuming he does, Addai, Manning, TE Dallas Clark, WRs Marvin Harrison & Anthony Gonzalez, and K Adam Vinatieri should all be started. I’d avoid WR Reggie Wayne (Questionable, knee), and I’d also avoid both Defenses.
Pittsburgh at Washington - ESPN has announced that it will air taped interviews with presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain Monday evening. This figures to be a waste of air time, as it’s hard to believe that even undecided voters will hear anything new during these interviews that will help push them off the fence. While the game itself will not involve focus groups or spin control, it figures to be infinitely more interesting, especially if you like strong Defenses. For the Steelers only TE Heath Miller and the Defense should be in your starting lineup this week. For the Redskins only TE Chris Cooley and the Defense should be in your starting lineup. For all the other positions, hopefully you have better matchups this week; if not, sit back and enjoy the game!
Good luck this week!