Titans need win over Broncos to keep pace in AFC South
They are trying a new concept in Nashville these days -- meaningful NFL games in December.
When the Titans host the Denver Broncos on Sunday in Nissan Stadium (1 p.m. ET, CBS), Tennessee will do so as part of a three-way tie for first place in the AFC South. It enters with a 6-6 mark, the same record as the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts, who meet this week.
The last time Tennessee had more than a mathematical chance to make the playoffs at this stage of the season was 2011, when it finished 9-7 and missed out on the second wild card. The Titans stumbled to an 18-46 record the past four years, playing for nothing but pride down the stretch.
Titans coach Mike Mularkey noticed a different feeling around his team this week as compared to last year, when he served as interim coach after the firing of Ken Whisenhunt at midseason.
"You can tell by the way we practiced today, the way we practiced Monday," Mularkey said after practice Wednesday. "You can tell it's a different mindset. It's a much more fun atmosphere and a lot more energy in the building. It's important football. They understand that."
So does the team on the other sideline. Denver is practiced in the art of playing big games. After all, it did win the Super Bowl in February, and at 8-4, the Broncos would own the AFC's second wild card if the playoffs started this week.
However, Denver's 8-4 record is good for only third place in the AFC West, thanks to the Oakland Raiders' best season since 2002 and another good year for the Kansas City Chiefs. The Broncos have little room for error down the stretch with a finishing schedule that includes the New England Patriots, a visit to the Chiefs on Christmas night and a season-ender with the Raiders.
Making things more problematic for Denver is the uncertainty at quarterback. Trevor Siemian missed the Broncos' 20-10 win in Jacksonville last week due to a foot injury. He was limited at practice this week, leaving rookie Paxton Lynch to take the first-team reps.
Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said a decision regarding Siemian might be made on Saturday.
"I think it's me watching him come out of practice today more than anything," Kubiak said after Friday's session. "See how he feels tomorrow, soreness, those types of things."
Lynch's first NFL win wasn't exactly storybook, as he completed just 12 of 24 passes for 104 yards against a defense no one has compared with the 1985 Bears. But he at least avoided turnovers, which was all the Broncos needed against pick-six machine Blake Bortles.
"He didn't turn the ball over and didn't put us in bad situations," Denver wide receiver Demaryius Thomas said of Lynch. "It was a tough one for him. We put him in a situation where we needed a must-win."
Whoever plays under center could have opportunities to make plays downfield against a shaky secondary that made Matt Barkley look like Joe Montana during the fourth quarter of Tennessee's 27-21 win in Chicago two weeks ago.
The Titans responded by cutting starting cornerback Perrish Cox, who struggled to cover receivers all year. Tennessee could start journeyman Brice McCain or rookie LeShaun Sims opposite mainstay Jason McCourty on Sunday.
While McCain is more suited to a nickel back role, can Tennessee trust Sims against the likes of Thomas or Emmanuel Sanders?
"He's doing good," Mularkey said of Sims' progress on the practice field this week. "I think every rep is important for him out here. We're getting a good look by our guys. I'll probably make a decision more towards the end of the week on that."
The other storyline that could affect the game's texture is if the Titans' third-ranked running game can take advantage of an apparent mismatch. For all the good Denver does against the pass, the Broncos were undone at times by a run defense that ranks stunningly low at No. 28.
With Tennessee running back DeMarco Murray now healthier than he has been in a while after battling turf toe throughout November, thanks to the team's bye last week, he could be primed for a big game. That would allow the Titans to munch on the clock and perhaps diminish Von Miller's opportunities to get after Marcus Mariota.
The Broncos are hoping to get a boost for their injury-plagued running game with the signing of Justin Forsett, who enjoyed his best season in 2014 with Baltimore. The Ravens' offensive coordinator that year? None other than current Denver coach Gary Kubiak.
"He played really well in Baltimore with us and knows what he's doing," Kubiak said of Forsett.
Updated December 9, 2016