Titans staring at must-win games with final playoff push

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee Titans and Arizona Cardinals are headed in distinctly different directions.

The resurgent Cardinals (8-5), under first-year coach Bruce Arians, need to win to keep playoff hopes alive.

Playing in arguably the NFL’s toughest division (NFC West), also featuring the Seahawks (11-2) and 49ers (9-4), the Cardinals are just one game off the pace for the final NFC wild-card spot.

Conversely, the floundering Titans (5-8), who have lost seven of nine games, need to win — or, at least, show some moxie down the stretch — to help their head coach save his job.

New team owner Tommy Smith, son-in-law of late owner Bud Adams, has decreed these final three games as crucial in the evaluation of third-year coach Mike Munchak.

Earlier this week, Smith said he would wait until the season is finished to assess the situation that might find the Titans missing the playoffs every year since 2008.

That includes two previous seasons of going a 9-7 (2011) and 6-10 (2012) under Munchak, the Hall of Fame offensive lineman with the Oilers/Titans, assistant coach and head coach.

“I would hope that most owners would do it that way,” Munchak said of his eventual evaluation with Smith. “I would think you want to make a good decision. That’s an important decision when you decide how you’re going to go forward with your organization, your business.

“You want to find out what the plan is going to be and how to go forward with that. I would assume most would do it that way, give thought to how do we move forward, what the best way to move forward and wait until the season is over, which is in three weeks.”

In last week’s loss at Denver, Tennessee surged to an early 21-10 lead before Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning took over the game. Six of the Titans’ eight losses have come by nine points or less, including three by a touchdown or less.

“They’re disappointed if we’re not in the playoffs,” said Munchak of the Titans, who have not been mathematically eliminated from the postseason. “But we’re not out of the playoffs yet. There’s still a couple percent chance, two or three I hear, so we’re going to play the odds on that still.

“We’re told we’re not (eliminated), so I think you’re going to see us at our best against a good football team. Let’s let the season finish and decide what is best for this team.”

On Sunday, the Titans regain the services of tight end Delanie Walker, who missed the past two games with a concussion.

Walker had become a favorite target of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has taken over as starter since Jake Locker was lost to injury five games ago.

The return of Walker, who has career highs of 45 catches, 454 yards and five TDs, alleviates pressure of defenses focusing on wide receivers Kendall Wright, Justin Hunter and Nate Washington.

Wright leads the club with 73 catches for 857 yards, but has seen double teams during Walker’s absence.

“It will help a great deal,” Titans offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said of Walker’s return. “It’s going to help the guys around him as well. It will help Kendall and take some of the pressure off him and take some of the attention off him as well.

“The last two weeks, Kendall’s been doubled, especially on third down. People are very aware of the season he’s had and the success he’s had, so it definitely helps to get Delanie back.”

Walker’s presence might be most important on third down. Last Sunday, the Titans converted a season-worst 22 percent of third-down plays into first downs after converting 40 percent the previous week in a loss to Indianapolis.

In four games prior to Walker being out, the Titans converted 54.5 percent of third-down plays.

“When I am out there, I think I am a key guy on this offense,” said Walker, who spent the previous seven seasons as backup to 49ers standout tight end Vernon Davis. “And when I’m out there, I think teams look to try to stop me. And when I’m not out there, they can focus on Kendall and Nate and do other things to stop them.

“We’ve got great receivers that can make plays when they’re matched up one-on-one. Even in double teams, they still make plays. But when they’re one-on-one, we get the big plays we’re looking for, so if I can create a mismatch for any of our guys, that’s what I’m here for, and I’m excited to get back out there.”

This week, the Titans face a Cards offense led by quarterback Carson Palmer, who completed 84.4 percent (27 of 32) of his passes for 269 yards in last Sunday’s home against the Rams. That was the second-best completion percentage in a game in franchise history, trailing only Kurt Warner’s 92.3 percent.

Despite having a sore elbow recently on his throwing arm, Palmer has completed a league-best 70.4 percent the past four games, averaging 326 yards, with eight total touchdowns and two interceptions.

For the season, the 10-year veteran has completed 301 of 468 passes for 3,458 yards with 20 TDs, 17 interceptions and an 85.6 rating.

“The last couple months, I’ve really started to feel confident in what I’m doing, what guys are doing around me, and really started to feel comfortable,” said Palmer, whose favorite targets have been veteran wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald (67 catches for 774 yards and 10 touchdowns) and Michael Floyd (56-886-4).

“It’s great,” Palmer said of playing with Fitzgerald. “Obviously, playing with a guy like Larry, his numbers speak for themselves and what he has done speaks for itself. I was fortunate enough to play with Chad (Johnson in Cincinnati), and I’ve been fortunate to play with a lot of good receivers.

“You either need one really, really good one or lots of good ones, four or five good ones that can win one-on-one matchups.”

While losing four home games in a row and trying to prevent the franchise’s longest home losing streak since 1996, the Titans haven’t allowed a touchdown pass but have given up an average of 29 points per game.

Munchak vows that his team will approach Sunday’s game as if there is still very much on the line.

Then again, there is — like Munchak’s job going forward.

“Come Sunday, records don’t mean anything,” Munchak said. “Once Sunday starts, I think you’ll see us play as hard as we would no matter if we’re 10-0 or out there with whatever record it was.

“I think when you’re going through this type of thing, it’s tough on Mondays and Tuesdays if you don’t win and you’re struggling some.

“Once you get to Wednesday, I think the spirits get lifted. They see the challenge ahead, they want to win, they want to finish strong. By the time you get to Friday, they’re excited again. I think you’ll see that effort on Sunday.”