Two months ago, there was little to suggest that the Miami Dolphins or the Tennessee Titans would be playoff contenders.
Both teams have improbably done just that, whichever one loses Sunday’s matchup in Nashville will see its chances of making the postseason take a major hit.
The Dolphins were last in the AFC East after a 2-4 start, but wins in four of their last five games have moved them into contention for a second straight division title.
Last week’s 14-10 victory at Jacksonville kept Miami (7-6) one game behind New England in the East, and in the mix for a wild-card spot should the divisional pursuit fall short.
The Jaguars currently lead the Dolphins, Baltimore and New York – all of which own identical overall records – in the race for the AFC’s final playoff berth thanks to a 6-3 mark in conference play. Baltimore is 6-4, Miami 5-4 and the Jets 5-5 versus AFC opponent.
“We need to win the rest of our games,” Dolphins defensive end Randy Starks said. “If we don’t, it doesn’t matter who beats who. We know one loss would put us out of it.”
The Titans’ resurgence has been even more remarkable.
A year after finishing a league-best 13-3, Tennessee opened this season with six straight losses, culminating in a demoralizing 59-0 rout at New England on Oct. 18, just before its bye.
Tennessee has since won six of seven behind the inspired play of running back Chris Johnson and quarterback Vince Young, who replaced Kerry Collins as the starter following the bye week and immediately led the Titans on a five-game winning streak.
No NFL team has started 0-5 – much less 0-6 – and reached the postseason, but the Titans (6-7) are within a game of Jacksonville. However, they face long odds as they have to finish ahead of not only the group of four 7-6 teams, but also Pittsburgh and Houston, who are 6-7.
“It’s an AFC elimination game basically,” Tennessee defensive back Vincent Fuller said. “We have to win if we want to have hope for the postseason. We’re fortunate to be able to say there still is hope for the postseason, but we know we have to win this game.”
Johnson posted his eighth straight 100-yard rushing performance and scored two touchdowns in last week’s 47-7 home rout of visiting St. Louis. The NFL’s leading rusher (1,626 yards) is on pace to become the sixth player in league history to top 2,000 yards in a season, and is 480 shy of breaking Eric Dickerson’s NFL single-season record, set in 1984.
Johnson’s production could be even more essential if Young’s strained right hamstring prevents him from playing.
Young, who left last week’s win due to the injury, has a 95.8 passer rating since regaining his starting spot, throwing seven touchdowns and only two interceptions.
The former No. 3 overall draft pick is also unbeaten in four home starts this season, with a 69.1 completion percentage, 854 yards and a 107.3 rating at LP Field.
“Right now, we need a couple of wins to do what we need to do. I’m just taking my time and be safe on the safe side,” Young said. “I want to play. I definitely want to play. At the same time, it’s day to day. All I can do is treat it and take care of it.”
Collins started Tennessee’s last game against the Dolphins, a 13-10 loss in Miami on Sept. 24, 2006. Young, then a rookie, replaced Collins as the starter the following week and did not relinquish the job until early last season.
Thanks to their depth, Dolphins have overcome injuries at both the quarterback and running back positions.
Running back Ricky Williams has produced three 100-yard performances since Ronnie Brown suffered a season-ending foot injury, and quarterback Chad Henne has proven effective since Chad Pennington’s season-ending shoulder injury Sept. 27.
Henne has completed 61.7 percent of his attempts for 555 yards in wins over the Patriots and Jaguars the last two weeks. He and Williams each had 1-yard touchdown runs last Sunday.
Miami is 6-0 in games decided by a touchdown or less since Henne took over, and he’s engineered three successful fourth-quarter comebacks.
“I don’t think he ever played like a first-year starter,” Williams said. “We’ve always been impressed with how poised he is. Usually when you lose your starting quarterback and this young guy comes in, there’s panic. But we never flinched, and he has done a great job.”
The Dolphins are 5-2 in this series since the Titans moved to Tennessee. They beat the Titans in Miami in 2005 and 2006, but lost their last visit to Nashville, 31-7 on Nov. 9, 2003.