Oct 23, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; San Diego Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa (99) celebrates a sack with outside linebacker Melvin Ingram (54) against the Atlanta Falcons in the third quarter at the Georgia Dome. The Chargers defeated the Falcons 33-30 in overtime.
Brett Davis/Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Jack Conklin came in on day one and was ready to play right tackle in the NFL. Joey Bosa came in a whole lot later than day one but was more than ready to sack NFL quarterbacks.
The former Big Ten Conference rivals square off Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego when Conklin’s Tennessee Titans meet Bosa’s San Diego Chargers, and the winner of this individual matchup between ballyhooed rookies could decide the game’s winner.
By most metrics, Conklin has been one of the top right tackles in football this year, enabling Tennessee (4-4) to establish its first real offensive identity in years.
With Conklin and Taylor Lewan bookending the line at tackle, DeMarco Murray is on pace to rush for more than 1,500 yards and the Titans are only a game behind the idle Houston Texans for first place in the AFC South.
Bosa was the last first-round pick to sign, his agent feeling that San Diego was squeezing him on contract language. It took Bosa until Week 5 to get into the lineup, but he already has four sacks in four games and has forced opponents to double-team him.
Tennessee coach Mike Mularkey is confident in Conklin’s ability to neutralize Bosa, pointing to Conklin’s work against him in last year’s Michigan State-Ohio State game.
"That’s one thing we saw about Jack — there weren’t a lot of guys that gave him problems or a lot of mismatches at all," Mularkey said. "We like what Jack’s done for us against some very good pass rushers that we’ve faced this year."
Conklin and his teammates up front definitely had their way with hapless Jacksonville in last week’s Thursday night game, rolling up a 27-0 halftime lead and cruising to a 36-22 win.
It guaranteed the Titans of upping their win total for the second straight year and gave them multiple home wins for the first time since 2013.
That’s also the last time Tennessee played any kind of meaningful football in the season’s second half. Mularkey is telling his team to treat the final eight games like they’re starting a game.
"We’re starting from scratch," he said. "We can’t watch what anybody else is doing. All we have control over is this game, and lock in. Whatever we have to do, see if we can repeat, continue to make the progress that we’re making."
While the Titans are shooting for their first playoff berth since 2008, the Chargers (3-5) are at best longshots for a wild card. They trail Denver and Oakland by three games in the AFC West, thanks largely to their inability to close out games.
San Diego coughed up fourth quarter leads in their first three losses, including a 14-point advantage at Kansas City in Week 1 and a 13-point margin three weeks later to New Orleans.
The Chargers also botched the hold on a potential tying field goal late in the fourth quarter in Week 5 at Oakland, and failed on four plays from the Denver 2-yard-line last week in a 27-19 defeat.
Despite the steep odds, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers says the team can still make a run at the playoffs.
"I’m fired up," Rivers said. "We have two at home to get 5-5, get the bye and we go have a six-game season. This feels a little bit like our 2007 season to me. We hem-hawed around and found a way to get to 5-5 and never looked back."
Of course, that 2007 team was loaded with talent, deep enough that it finished 11-5 and reached the AFC championship game despite a spate of injuries to key players.
This team lost key starters to season-ending injuries after Weeks 1, 2, 3 and 4, leaving them with little margin for error.
But any team with Rivers, who is on pace to throw 30 touchdown passes, has a chance in any game.
Rivers has mismatch possibilities in the passing game if he can find running back Melvin Gordon or tight ends Hunter Henry and Antonio Gates against Tennessee linebackers and safeties who have not covered receivers well this year.
Guard Matt Slauson looks at last year’s Kansas City Chiefs, who started 1-5 and won 10 straight games to reach the playoffs, as an example San Diego can follow.
"It’s the same thing," he said. "We can still accomplish everything we need to accomplish. We’ve just got to play better as a group."