NASHVILLE, Tenn. –- At the quarter mark of the 2013 season, the Tennessee Titans and New York Jets — like all NFL teams — would rather be considered legitimate contenders than upstart pretenders.
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Yet, both teams enter Sunday’s game at LP Field with similarities beyond just their 2-1 records that have them considered as early surprises in the AFC. Each team has a handful of would haves, should haves and could haves for making a case to having played well enough to actually be undefeated by knocking off their respective divisional favorites.
Yet, on the grand scheme of the NFL this weekend, this might not be one of those marquee match-ups. But for the Titans and Jets, it could well mean who can remain among the pack of teams in the AFC playoff hunt instead of one constantly chasing it.
“Well, it’s big because it’s an AFC game also,” Titans coach Mike Munchak said about being 3-1 instead of 2-2. “That always means a lot, too, because of all the tiebreakers that come up later on, but you’re not worrying about that right now.
“Again, it’s an AFC game, a home game, three in a row at home, you just want to take care of business.”
That’s especially so for the Titans, who complete their three-game homestand a week from Sunday against currently unbeaten Kansas City, followed by consecutive match-ups against NFC West powers Seattle on the road and San Francisco at home. Last Sunday, they rallied at home to beat the Chargers, another team with AFC playoff hopes.
“You’re concentrating on this one,” Munchak said. “This is the biggest one of the year because it’s the one we’re playing Sunday. We need to find a way to win two (in a row). We need to learn how to find success two weeks in a row.
“So, there’s a lot of things that we can accomplish this weekend. We just have to play good against a good football team.”
After opening the season with a convincing win at Pittsburgh, the Titans blew a late eight-point lead and lost in overtime at AFC South Houston. They rallied to beat San Diego last Sunday when third-year quarterback Jake Locker guided a 94-yard, game-winning drive.
The Jets opened with a one-point win at Tampa Bay, dropped a tough three-point decision at AFC East nemesis New England, and then beat visiting Buffalo, another division foe, last weekend.
“With us, every game we went into, we thought we’d win,” said fifth-year Jets coach Rex Ryan, whose team lost 14-10 at Tennessee last season. “So we’re not where we wanted to be. We’re probably where we were expected to be, but hey, we’ll just keep working.
“Obviously, we know we have to improve a great deal. But we’re working to get better each day and each week.”
The similarities between the teams abound. Play-action running game to set up the pass, play-making receivers on the outside, pressuring defenses and an influx of free agents and key rookies that were meant to help the teams make turnarounds from disappointing 2012 seasons.
After the Titans went 6-10 and the Jets went 8-8, that placed both head coaches on the hot seat heading into the 2013 campaign.
Yet, the most striking similarity comes at quarterback, even though Titans quarterback Jake Locker is in his third season and Jets QB Geno Smith has played but three games. Each is considered the wild card for just how far each team can advance this season.
In the midst of growing pains, Smith has completed 55-of-102 passes for 801 yards with three touchdowns and six interceptions. His overall rating is a meager 65.0. But in the loss to the Patriots, he threw three picks and had a rating of 27.6. In the wins over the Bucs and Bills, it was a respectable 80.6 and 89.9, respectively.
“I’ve been making progress,” said Smith, the second-round draft pick out of West Virginia. “The good thing is that it’s been steady, it’s been day-by-day. I try to take every single rep in practice as hard as possible and just try and perfect my craft.
“It’s a long ways coming. I’ve slowly been getting better. That’s always a good sign, especially with a young player, so I’m pleased with it as well.”
Especially following last Sunday’s win over Buffalo in which Smith had four completions of more than 40 yards –- two to Santonio Holmes (69 and 40) and two to Stephen Hill (51 and 45). Hall-of-Famer Joe Namath was the last Jets quarterback to pull that trick way back in 1972.
“They’ve been very successful,” Munchak said of the Jets’ offense led by Smith. “I think they’re one of the best in the league with the explosive plays. So, for a young quarterback, that’s really a great stat. The fact that he can move and he’s mobile and all those things has really helped their offense.”
Same can be said for Locker, who showed off his legs (299 yards passing) and arm (68 rushing) in an effort last Sunday that might have finally cemented him as the franchise quarterback that his No. 8 overall draft pick of 2011 suggests.
Thus far, Locker has completed 51-of-87 passes for 572 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. His rating is 89.8. The Titans have yet to commit a turnover this season.
“I think he’s throwing the ball with more accuracy than he’s done,” Ryan said of Locker. “Clearly, he’s always been great at running when he tucks that ball in and runs. … He’s a dual-threat that way because he can run with it, but he’s become more accurate as a passer.”
In the win over the Jets last season on Monday Night Football, Titans running back Chris Johnson ripped off a 94-yard run –- a franchise record. He now has six careers touchdowns runs of 80 or more yards, the NFL record.
“You can’t give that guy space,” Ryan said of Johnson, who tops the AFC with 256 rushing yards. “If he has it, we all know what he can do. … He’s extremely explosive. He’s going to get our attention, there’s no question about that.
Titans backup running back Shonn Greene, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards the past two seasons for the Jets and was to be a change-of-pace back to Johnson, will miss Sunday’s game against his former team because of an ankle injury.
Receiver Kenny Britt injured a rib last Sunday and has been limited in practice this week. The decision for him to play will most likely come at game time. Injured last week but expected to play this week is tight end Delanie Walker (knee) and middle linebacker Moise Fokou (neck).
The Jets might not have the services of rookie cornerback Dee Milliner, the first-round draft pick out of Alabama, and running back Chris Ivory. They both have hamstring injuries.
In the loss to the Titans last season, Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez completed less than 50 percent of his passes and had a rating of 32.6. He was replaced late in the game by former Jet Tim Tebow.
These days, Sanchez is out with a shoulder injury suffered in the fourth quarter of a preseason game. Tebow is out of football after being released by the Jets following last season and by the Patriots before the start of this season.