The second half of the season begins on Sunday for the Bills in a place that still makes me cringe and twist in frustration: Tennessee.
I really don’t need to mention anything more that the “T” word because, well, we know what kinds of emotions it evokes out of Bills fans worldwide. Buffalo returns to the scene of the crime almost 10 years later and both ironically and unfortunately, this is the last place we saw the Bills in the playoffs. Let’s hope this time around, the ending is more favorable.
Buffalo returns to action off a bye week with hopes of salvaging what’s been an enigmatic and troublesome season. The Bills blew a 12-point lead in New England in mere minutes on Monday Night to open the season. They played respectably against New Orleans and Houston, only to wear down and eventually break down in close games in the fourth quarter that turned into blowouts. They were embarrassed in Miami and turned in maybe the worst game under Dick Jauron’s watch against Cleveland, but turned in two great defensive efforts that guided the Bills to consecutive road wins in New York and Carolina.
Now the Bills embark on the second half of their season against a rejuvenated Titans squad, but all has not been well in the Music City this season. After starting last season 10-0, the Titans finished 13-3 and clinched the top seed in the playoffs. But Tennessee was upset at home against Baltimore in the Divisional Round and it’s been all downhill from there. The Titans started this season 0-6, failing to score more than 17 points in five of six games and reached the lowest of lows in New England, losing 59-0.
But once you hit bottom, there’s no where to go but up. After the ugly loss against the Patriots, the Titans made some adjustments during their bye week, including benching starter Kerry Collins in favor of Vince Young. Tennessee responded with consecutive victories against Jacksonville at home, 30-13, two weeks ago and last week on the road against San Francisco, 34-27. In the Titans’ two victories, Young has passed for 297 yards and a touchdown, but he’s completing 73.0 percent of his passes and hasn’t turned the ball over. Before Young’s insertion as the starter, Tennessee committed 18 turnovers in the first six games. Of course, when you can turn around and hand the ball off to Chris Johnson, that helps a lot too.
In the last two games, Johnson has rushed for 363 yards and four touchdowns. There’s been no sophomore slump for Johnson and he appears to be establishing himself as one of the game’s best running backs. Johnson leads the NFL with 959 rushing yards and he’s got five scores of more than 50 yards this season. Against the worst rushing defense in all of football, Johnson could put the Titans on his back and win this game by himself. This won’t be the 0-6 Titans the Bills will be facing on Sunday. Though it’s only been two games and they’ve got a long way to go to see .500, the Titans are running the football and they aren’t turning the football over. The defense is beginning to play better as well. In last Sunday’s win over San Francisco, the defense forced four turnovers, including an interception for a score. So let’s recap: good running game, no turnovers, and good defense. Now we’re starting see the Titans of last year.
The Bills enter Sunday’s contest at 3-5 with deflating expectations. Their tumultuous first half of the season featured both difficult and head-shaking losses, numerous injuries (both short term and season ending), and a crippling offense. And I haven’t even mentioned the many splendid decisions made the front office. One of those decisions was signing free agent wide receiver Terrell Owens. His arrival brought excitement and expectations to an offense that had become dull, boring and predictable. Eight games later, Owens has had little to no effect on the offense, totaling only 281 receiving yards and just one receiving touchdown. Now, Owens is dealing with a hip injury and his status for Sunday’s game is uncertain.
What is certain is that quarterback Trent Edwards will go back under center for the first time since Week 6 when he was knocked out of the game against the Jets with a concussion. Edwards missed games against Carolina and Houston, but has been cleared to return to action. How effective he’ll be remains to be seen. In last four starts, Edwards has thrown one touchdown and four interceptions. Edwards hasn’t thrown for more than 230 yards in any of the six games he started. The Bills’ offense ranks 30th in passing and 29th overall.
Despite being the NFL’s 32nd ranked rushing defense, it’s been the Bills 10th ranked passing defense that’s largely been responsible for their two victories in the past three games. Against the Jets and the Panthers, the Bills forced a combined 10 turnovers. Rookie safety Jairus Byrd has been a revelation in the secondary, recording two interceptions in each of the Bills’ last three games. Byrd is tied for the NFL lead in interceptions with seven.
The injury news didn’t seem to improve much during the bye week. Owens is dealing with a hip injury he suffered earlier this week and it looks like he’ll be questionable at best going into Sunday’s game. Defensive end Aaron Schobel is dealing with a groin injury he suffered against Houston two weeks ago and it looks like he’ll miss the game, as will linebacker Keith Ellison who suffered a quad injury suffered against the Texans. Cornerback Terrence McGee and defensive tackle Kyle Williams will both be missing in action; McGee is still recovering from minor knee surgery he had during the bye week and Williams continues to deal with a sprained knee he suffered against Carolina.
What the Bills should do: keep the Titans offense off the field by sustaining drives and take shots down the field against the Titans’ pass defense that ranks dead last in the NFL. If you want to keep the ball out of the hands of Chris Johnson, the Bills cannot afford to make it an afternoon of three and outs. Finally finding a good rhythm between Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson in the backfield wouldn’t be a bad idea either.
What the Titans should do: Three little words- run the ball. If you’ve got the game’s leading rusher against the game’s worst rushing defense…do I really need to solve the puzzle? Expect the Titans to hitch their wagon to Johnson. I’m guessing Johnson gets at least 20 carries and probably a few scores. I won’t begin to speculate how many yards he’ll rack up, but I’ll guess there will probably be some crooked numbers next to his name in the box score
Prediction: Titans 24, Bills 14. Can the defense find some way to slow or stop Chris Johnson? What will Trent Edwards look like in his first start in nearly a month? Who will or won’t be able to play on Sunday? Coming off the bye week, the Bills are 3-0 under Jauron and they want to start fresh with a good victory. Yes, they’ve won their past two games on the road, but there are too many questions for the Bills going into the game against the rejuvenated Titans. The Titans’ best attribute is running the football and stopping the run just so happens to be the Bills’ worst characteristic. Against the NFL’s best rusher, that’s not likely to change.