NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It might be November, with more than a third of the season still to play, but you can call Sunday’s game in Oakland between the Titans and host Raiders a playoff elimination game.
Both the Titans and Raiders are 4-6 and among a gaggle of eight AFC teams sitting at either 5-5 or 4-6 and vying for what appears to be only one available wild-card spot.
In the AFC, the Patriots (7-3) in the East, the Colts (7-3) in the South and Bengals (7-4) in the North appear headed to division titles and playoff berths. In the West, the Broncos (9-1) and Chiefs (9-1) will take up two more playoff spots as division winner and wild-card lock.
With six weeks remaining in the season, that not only leaves the Titans and Raiders, but also the Jets (5-5), Dolphins (5-5), Steelers (4-6), Ravens (4-6), Browns (4-6) and Chargers (4-6) all in the running for that last slot.
“Every year, there’s a team that’s going to come out of this thing in the AFC for that wild-card spot,” said Titans coach Mike Munchak, whose team has lost five of its last six games after a 3-1 start.
Should they finish the season tied, the Titans have beaten the Jets, Chargers and Steelers and own the head-to-head tiebreaker with those teams.
“You kind of have to lay that on (the players) of ‘Why not us?” he said. “It starts this weekend, and you can only win one at a time. So, you better start concentrating on one at a time. All efforts are on that. We understand it, and we need to go in and play better.”
Predictably, Raiders second-year coach Dennis Allen echoed the same sentiment that you can’t run the table to get to 10-6 or win four out of five to at least get to 9-7 — the records it usually takes to make the playoffs — without winning the game in front of you.
“I try not to focus on any of that stuff,” said Allen, whose team beat the Texans last Sunday, but hasn’t won two games in a row this season. “I try to focus on the process. The end results always take care of themselves, if you take care of the process.”
Part of the process for the Raiders is helping quarterback Matt McGloin get ready to face a Titans defense that will pressure the undrafted rookie, who is making only his second NFL start. Last Sunday against the Texans in his starting debut, the former Penn State QB completed 18-of-32 passes for 197 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 28-23 win.
Former starter Terrelle Pryor sprained a knee on Nov. 3 against the Eagles and had played poorly in his last four starts, completing only 50.8 percent of his passes with eight interceptions and only one touchdown. The former Ohio State quarterback has been cleared to return, but the Raiders are staying with McGloin in what might be the genesis of a quarterback controversy in Oakland.
In as much, both McGloin and Pryor could see action against the Titans.
“Yeah, absolutely there is a possibility of that,” Allen said of playing both quarterbacks. “We are going to see how Terrelle does this week in practice and see how he feels. If he is healthy enough to play, then he will be active in the game.”
That leaves the Titans preparing for both quarterbacks. McGloin is a prototypical drop-back pocket passer, while Pryor is more athletic and can pressure defenses with his arm and legs, as evidenced by leading the Raiders with 504 rushing yards.
“I think there will be a plan for him now that we know who’s at quarterback,” Munchak said of pressuring the unseasoned McGloin. “I think stopping the run is going to be the most important thing probably because that probably is the easiest way to make a quarterback feel uncomfortable, to force him to have to throw the football.
“We can go in thinking we’re going to go after him — yeah, he’s a young quarterback — but if we can’t stop the run, it doesn’t matter.”
Ironically, McGloin is not only from the same hometown — Scranton, Pa. — as Munchak, but both played at Penn State, where Munchak was an All-American offensive lineman. With those ties, their paths have crossed over the years.
“That’s an area that people really follow everyone,” Munchak said. “He went to West Scranton. I went to Scranton Central. That area is really big on following their players. It’s a big high school area, so people get to know the athletes really well — in all sports, not just football.
“That’s how it was when I played there. That’s how it was for Matt. I’m sure there’s a lot of Raiders fan and Titans fans in Scranton.”
Former backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick will be making his third start for the Titans while replacing starter Jake Locker, who injured his right foot in the loss to the Jaguars on Nov. 10. He underwent successful Lisfranc surgery this past Wednesday in Charlotte, N.C.
In the 30-27 loss to the Colts last week, Fitzpatrick — a nine-year veteran — completed 22-of-28 passes for a career-best 78.6 completion rate. His favorite targets were tight end Delanie Walker (10 catches for 91 yards) and wide receiver Kendall Wright (nine for 80).
But the Raiders know that stopping the running game of Chris Johnson, who leads the team with 632 yards, and backup Shonn Greene will be key to beating the Titans.
“When you think about those guys, I think you think about the running back position,” Raiders veteran free safety Charles Woodson said. “It’s going to be our focal point, of course, not letting the running back get yards. When (Johnson) hits that hole, he could be trouble for you, if you allow him to cut loose.
“They got some weapons over there at receiver. They got some guys that can catch the ball and take the ball the distance. We got to do a great job keeping those guys contained, making tackles and not allowing them to have yards after contact.”
Conversely, the Titans, who get the return of middle linebacker Moise Fokou after missing four games with a knee injury, will face a stout run game led by fifth-year veteran Rashard Jennings. He is second on the team in rushing with 480 yards and averages 5.2 yards per carry.
“Like I said, the big picture’s there,” Munchak said of Sunday’s game being a must win. “We all understand the situation we’re in. We can’t worry about what we didn’t accomplish to this point.
“We can’t get caught up in what it means if we don’t accomplish what we want to accomplish. We just got to concentrate on this window, being focused on tunnel vision on Sunday afternoon’s game and winning the football game.”