Titans face must-win vs. Bears
Tennessee Titans running back DeMarco Murray knows that he and his teammates have some work to do if they want to reach the playoffs.
At 5-6, the Titans might have to run the table to earn their first postseason berth since 2008.
“You want to stack up as many wins as you can, especially in our position,” Murray said. “We're in a scenario now where we have a chance to do that. We're a good football team, and we're going to keep fighting.”
This week, the Titans will take their fight north as they square off against the Chicago Bears (2-8). Tennessee will try to climb back to .500 before heading into a bye in Week 13.
Meanwhile, Chicago is looking for anything positive to build upon in what has become a nightmare season. The Bears have lost two games in a row and five of their last six as they prepare for what likely will be quarterback Matt Barkley's first NFL start in place of an injured Jay Cutler.
The game will mark the first appearance at Soldier Field for Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota. The 23-year-old Hawaiian has enjoyed a breakout season with 2,772 passing yards, 23 touchdowns and eight interceptions for a 100.3 passer rating. He needs 228 passing yards to become the first 3,000-yard passer for Tennessee since Matt Hasselbeck in 2011.
Mariota also will try to improve upon his franchise record by throwing for multiple touchdowns in his eighth consecutive game. He reached seven straight games last week to move past Hall of Famer Warren Moon, who had six multiple-touchdown games in a row in 1987.
The second-year quarterback credited his teammates in the huddle for his success. He said his receiving corps, which includes wide receiver Rishard Matthews and tight end Delanie Walker, provided him with confidence on every play, including deep routes downfield.
“They make it easy on me,” Mariota told reporters at the Titans' practice facility this week. “If I get it to a spot, I know those guys will go get it.”
Murray also has proved to be dependable in his first season with the Titans. The 28-year-old is second in the NFL with 1,000 rushing yards and has punched in 11 touchdowns (eight rushing, three receiving). He has scored at least one touchdown in six straight games.
The duo of Mariota and Murray could challenge a Bears defense that is reeling from another round of injuries and suspensions. Rookie linebacker Leonard Floyd — Chicago's first-round pick in 2016 — could miss the game because of a concussion after he was carted off the field last week. The team's leading tackler, linebacker Jerrell Freeman, also will be out after he received a four-game suspension this week for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
Freeman's absence in the middle of the defense will create more playing time for rookie linebacker Nick Kwiatkowski, a fourth-round pick out of West Virginia.
On offense, the Bears appear to be in even worse shape. Cutler injured his right shoulder last week against the New York Giants and likely will be sidelined for at least one game, if not more. The Bears already are without Pro Bowl guard Kyle Long (ankle) and Pro Bowl wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, who will serve the second game of a four-game suspension for PED use.
Bears coach John Fox said Wednesday that Barkley would start at quarterback if Cutler cannot play. David Fales, a San Jose State product who rejoined the team this week, would be the No. 2 option.
Barkley, 26, is four years removed from his playing days with the USC Trojans. He has appeared in five NFL games as a backup, throwing for zero touchdowns and six interceptions.
Fox said the numbers did not tell the entire story. He said he liked Barkley's poise Oct. 20 against Green Bay as he came off the bench to complete 6-of-15 passes for 81 yards and two interceptions.
“These guys are on the team for a reason,” Fox said. “Matt has been in big spots. He won't blink. He didn't blink — not being very experienced with us — in Lambeau.
“It's not going to be too big for him. He's been in big games. He understands what it is to be a good teammate, and he'll do everything he can to be as prepared as he can.”
Barkley will have plenty for which to prepare.
Tennessee boasts a dynamic pass rush that includes linebackers Brian Orakpo (nine sacks) and Derrick Morgan (eight sacks). Both players are vying to become the first Titans defender with double-digit sacks in a season since Jurrell Casey registered 10 1/2 sacks in 2013.
Overall, the Titans rank No. 8 in the NFL in scoring (25.5 points per game) but are No. 23 in the league with an average of 25 points allowed. The Bears rank second-to-last in scoring (15.7 points per game) and are No. 19 in the league with an average of 23.7 points allowed.