SUNDAY, DECEMBER 24, 2006 – 1:00 PM ET
RALPH WILSON STADIUM, ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK
CBS: Gus Johnson, Steve Tasker
DIRECTV NFL Sunday Ticket: Channel 704 (no HD)
RADIO: Buffalo Bills Radio Network
PLAY-BY-PLAY: John Murphy
COLOR ANALYST: Mark Kelso
SIDELINE REPORTER: Paul Peck
Tennessee Titans Radio Network
PLAY-BY-PLAY: Mike Keith
COLOR ANALYST: Frank Wycheck
SIDELINE REPORTER: Cody Allison
Sirius Sunday Drive: Channel 153
REGULAR-SEASON SERIES RECORD: Oilers/Titans lead, 24-16, but the Bills have a 5-3 record at Rich/Ralph Wilson Stadium.
PLAYOFF RECORD: Bills 2, Oilers 0, Titans 0, Referees 1. You know what I’m talking about.
LAST MEETING: December 14, 2003 – Titans 28, Bills 26
Buffalo took a 10-6 lead into halftime and extended it to 17-6 on Pat Williams’ 28-yard fumble return early in the third quarter, but Billy Volek threw two touchdown passes and ran for another score to give Tennessee an eight-point lead late in the game. Drew Bledsoe led a last-minute scoring drive, tossing his second TD pass of the day to pull the Bills within two and set up a game-tying conversion attempt. Bobby Shaw caught the pass, rolled over, held up the ball to show the referee he’d made the catch, and dropped it. Ruling: incomplete. Game over. And at 6-8, playoff push officially over.
LAST TIME IN BUFFALO: September 3, 2000 – Bills 16, Titans 13
Wild night in Orchard Park, in front of a prime-time television audience and an amped-up sellout crowd bent on revenge for Homejob Throwforward. Buffalo’s defense fed off the emotion, stuffing Eddie George (17 carries-37 yards) and holding the Titans to a mere 172 yards of total offense. Rob Johnson’s second-quarter touchdown pass to Peerless Price gave the Bills a 7-0 lead; they’d never trail on this night, although a short George touchdown run (following a 41-yard pass intereference penalty) tied the game midway through the fourth quarter. After the teams swapped punts, the Bills took over at their own 44 with 1:01 left on the clock. On second down, Alex Van Pelt – on for an injured Johnson – hit Eric Moulds with a short pass near midfield that Moulds took down to the Titans 20, setting up Steve Christie’s 33-yard field goal with 0:31 remaining. A long kickoff return helped set up punter Craig Hentrich’s 60-yard FG attempt at the gun, but the try was wide left, and the celebration in Hammer’s Lot – site of the very first “official” home-opener TBD-Gate, and every one since then – went on far into the night.
TITANS OVERVIEW (2006 RANKINGS)
OFFENSE (#27 total yardage, #7 rushing, #30 passing, #19 scoring):
The big storyline this week, of course, is Travis Henry’s return to Buffalo. Henry rolls into Orchard Park needing just 26 yards for the third 1000-yard season of his career, and he’ll be supremely motivated to show the Bills and their fans he's still a pretty good back. The running game got off to a slow start, but has steadily climbed in the rankings since Week Five… the same week Henry solidified his role as the starter. Coincidence? (That’s also roughly the same time a change was made at quarterback, which could also have something to do with it…)
Judging by the OL stats at FootballOutsiders.com, the Titans are a “right-handed” running team, so Ryan Denney and Chris Kelsay had better buckle their chinstraps.
Chris Brown and rookie LenDale White were both active for last week’s game, but neither has made much of an impact this season. Brown, as usual, has had problems staying healthy. The only fullback on the roster is undrafted rookie Ahmard Hall. Never heard of him? Too bad, because he’s a great story: he originally walked on at Texas while attending school on the GI Bill, following a four-year hitch in the Marines that included stops in Kosovo and Afghanistan. (Read more about him here).
If you include the Billy Volek mess in your calculations, the Titans have had three starting quarterbacks since shipping Steve McNair off to Baltimore last spring. Looks like the third time’s a charm; maybe Titans fans should send Volek thank-you cards for talking himself off the roster. Kerry Collins, too, deserves their kudos for graciously playing his way to the bench four games into the season.
Factoid: #3 overall pick Vince Young (Texas) averaged more rushing yards per game in college than Michael Vick. Young also managed to accomplish something Vick failed to do, willing his Longhorns to a national-championship-game win over a supposedly unbeatable USC Trojan squad. His throwing motion isn’t pretty and I doubt he ever leads the league in passer rating, but make no mistake: the kid knows how to make plays that win ballgames.
(Anyone who still doubted this after his bowl-game performances against Michigan and USC need only crank up a replay of the Tennessee-Houston game in front of Young’s hometown crowd, in which his scintillating 39-yard touchdown run in overtime merely provided more ammo for the we-shoulda-drafted-Vince potshots fired off by disgruntled Texans fans.)
It’ll be interesting to watch Young’s development in future seasons, especially if some decent receivers emerge to take the pressure off Drew Bennett. The Titans have had exceptionally bad luck at the position this year, with free-agent signee David Givens (Patriots) and their top two tight ends, Ben Troupe and Erron Kinney, all ending up on injured reserve. Brandon Jones, coming off an ACL tear of his own, now lines up across from Bennett. Former Bear Bobby Wade, Roydell Williams (J.P. Losman’s top target at Tulane), and Courtney Roby fill out the depth chart at WR, while Bo Scaife and midseason pickup Ben Hartsock see time at TE. (Scaife missed the Jacksonville game and hasn’t practiced yet this week; he’s listed as questionable with an ankle injury.)
Only Oakland (seven) has fewer passing touchdowns than Tennessee’s 11.
Michael Roos, Tennessee’s second-round pick in 2005, started all 16 games in his rookie season and graded out as the team’s top lineman. Longtime fixture Brad Hopkins was released in the offseason (and subsequently retired), clearing the left-tackle spot for Roos to claim. Jacob Bell began the year at RT, but Zach Piller’s season-ending injury forced Bell back inside to LG – the second time in three years he’s had to take over Piller’s spot. Stepping in at RT is second-year player David Stewart.
Benji Olson’s name has been atop the depth chart at RG for all but one game since the beginning of the 1999 season; with Hopkins’ retirement, Olson and punter Craig Hentrich are now the longest-tenured Titans. He teams with center Kevin Mawae to provide some veteran leadership for the youngsters on the line. They’ve allowed 23 sacks this season.
DEFENSE (#32 total yardage, #30 rushing, #25 passing, #27 scoring):
Those numbers are no misprint; Tennessee is having a rough year on defense. Only Washington has fewer sacks, only San Fran and Indy have allowed more rushing TDs… pick a stat, any stat, and you’ll probably find the Titans ranked in the mid-20s (or worse). Well, except for two fairly significant ones: they’re just outside the top ten in takeaways, and tied with three other teams for the league lead with five defensive touchdowns (including all three of the team’s six-pointers against the Jaguars last Sunday).
After escaping from Arizona prior to the 2005 season, Kyle Vanden Bosch took over as the leader of the defensive line, posting a career-high 12 sacks and earning a Pro Bowl bid. He hasn’t matched those numbers this year, but still leads the team with 5.5 takedowns. Travis LaBoy starts at right end; Antwan Odom, who split time with LaBoy earlier in the season, missed the last several games with a nagging knee injury before officially going on I.R.
When Albert Haynesworth isn’t busy doing stupid things and getting suspended, he’s actually a decent DT – and at 6-6 and 320lbs., he’s definitely a wide load. Robaire Smith returned to Tennessee last offseason after two years in Houston, providing an upgrade over Randy Starks at the other tackle spot.
MLB Peter Sirmon is listed as questionable after leaving the Jacksonville game with a knee injury; his replacement, Stephen Tulloch, has already started a couple of games in the middle this year, and would do so again if Sirmon can’t play. (Some think Tulloch should be starting anyway.) Keith Bulluck and ex-Colt David Thornton are solid on the outside, with Bulluck leading the team in tackles for the umpteenth year in a row.
Second-year CB tandem Adam ‘Pacman’ Jones and Reynaldo Hill have speed to burn. Jones may have his share of off-field “issues”, but he’s showing signs of playing up to the pre-draft hype that helped make him the #6 overall selection in 2005. Rookie nickel back Cortland Finnegan has shown some playmaking ability of his own, returning a David Garrard fumble 92 yards for one of the Titans’ three defensive scores last week.
The Steelers decided not to re-sign safety Chris Hope during the offseason, so the Titans snagged him early in the free-agent signing period; he’s tied with Jones for the team lead in interceptions. Lamont Thompson is back for his third season as the starting free safety.
Former Arena League kicker Rob Bironas is perfect from 40 and in this season, but just 4-9 from long distance. (One of those four successful attempts was a game-winning 60-yarder against the Colts, though. Yeah, that’s right – SIXTY.) Steady veteran Craig Hentrich is among the all-time league leaders at dropping punts inside the 20; this season is no exception, with 31 of his 80 kicks landing there.
Jones is as dangerous as any punt-catcher this side of Chicago’s Devin Hester, with two return touchdowns this season. Bobby Wade is the lead kick-returner, averaging 23.8 yards per attempt… but don’t be surprised if Pacman shows up back there, too; his 70-yard KR paved the way for the Tennessee offense’s only scoring drive against Jacksonville.
The coverage teams are above average: they haven’t given up a kickoff return longer than 47 yards or a punt runback over 25.
The similarities are eerie: two young teams with quarterbacks just beginning to find their way in this league – but who look like they might both end up being pretty damn good – and two defenses making big plays to counteract the large chunks of yardage they’ve given up this season. The difference might be Buffalo’s pass defense, which has allowed fewer than 200 yards in each of the last four games, with seven sacks and four interceptions in the last two. Nate Clements can go one-on-one with a nicked-up Bennett, and nobody else in the Titan receiving corps frightens me. That should leave Perry Fewell plenty of options to gameplan against the running ability of Henry and Young, as long as the players actually make the tackle once they get there…
One more thing: the current forecast calls for WNW wind at 16mph. Vince Young, meet the Hawk:
Paul Zimmerman in this week’s Sports Illustrated said:
Dr. Z’s Power Rankings
Should make for an exciting game to watch; too bad only about 45,000 people in Western New York will get that chance. The oddsmakers have installed Buffalo as a five-point favorite; the Bills should win, but only if they keep Tennessee’s defense/special teams out of the end zone.
For those of you making the trip in for the game, see you in Lot 1. Everyone else, have a Merry Christmas…and Go Bills!
NFL.com: injury report / Titans depth chart / Titans team stats / Bills depth chart / Bills team stats
Official team websites: BuffaloBills.com / TitansOnline.net