Saturday, November 22, 2008

Jets visit undefeated Titans: A preview

Not having internet for a few days really gets me more behind than I'd like to on posts here. But I have it back (for now) and here's a preview for the big game tomorrow!

Last week the talk was of the Jets visit to Foxboro to face the New England Patriots being the game of the year for the Jets. New York won an exhilarating game, one that might have been the best game the NFL has seen all year.

But for the Jets, there is no break on the schedule, as they now must travel to Tennessee to face the undefeated Titans. At 10-0 they are just six games away from an undefeated season, but the Jets might be the best competition they have faced all year.

Gang Green can afford a loss here, as they will likely be favored in their last five games, but that would give the winner of the Patriots-Miami Dolphins game a share of the division lead. A win validates the Jets as not just a favorite in the AFC East but as one of the best teams in the NFL.

The Oakland debacle will be history if the Jets can pull off the upset here. No longer can analysts dismiss this team, and people will have to take notice of players not named Brett Favre.

But even for Favre, a win this Sunday will be validation, not just for him but the entire organization as well. A win virtually assures the team of a playoff spot barring a total collapse down the stretch, and that was the minimum this year. Anything else would have been a failure for this team with their nemesis Tom Brady on the sidelines this year.

To get to that point, however, the Jets need to win this week, and that will be a tall order. The Titans did not start 10-0 because of smoke and mirrors: they can both run the ball and stop the run, and they rarely lose games in the trenches.

The Titans will almost certainly try to establish the run first, even against the Jets stout front seven. Chris Johnson is a dynamic rookie with the speed to break open any run. Lendale White is the thunder to his partner’s lightning, and the Titan offensive line has opened holes almost all season.

When teams sell out to stop the two backs, Kerry Collins has been able to burn teams down the field to number one target Justin Gage. Brandon Jones and Bo Scaife handle the underneath balls.

Most importantly, Collins hasn’t been able to make mistakes. And nothing has contributed more to the Titans start than turnovers. They are number one in the league in turnover ratio, a stat that the Jets must take note of. Favre hasn’t thrown an interception in three weeks, and Jones rarely fumbles. If the Jets can stay mistake-free, they will have a good chance to win, but Tennessee won’t be giving out gift turnovers.

Defensively, the Jets actually match up quite well with Tennessee. When healthy, Gage has been Collins’s clear number one weapon, especially down the field. Darrelle Revis will almost surely be following his every move, with Ty Law guarding the sure-handed Jones. Law is expected to start in place of Dwight Lowery in just his second game back in the NFL, but he should match up well with Jones. Scaife will be dangerous at tight end as the Jets had trouble with Ben Watson last week, but the secondary matches up well.

More intriguing than that however will be the matchup of strengths in the trenches. Ex-Jet Kevin Mawae will have his hands full with Kris Jenkins, and the Jets have a good chance of slowing the Titans’ running game. Two weeks ago, Chicago was able to stop them, but Collins was able to use Gage down the field en route to a victory. If the Jets can stop the run without putting eight in the box all the time, the Titans could have trouble scoring.

However, while the Titans might not put up that many points, the Jets may struggle as well. Cortland Finnegan leads a good secondary while Albert Haynesworth is as dominant as Jenkins on the inside. Thomas Jones will not find running lanes as easily as he has in previous weeks. He was able to take a lot of pressure off Favre recently, but the Titans are very difficult to run on.

Like Tennessee, the Jets will likely try to attack the Titans with their tight end. Dustin Keller has emerged with back-to-back 100-yard games, and the Titans have allowed the eighth most yards to opposing tight ends. Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery have been somewhat quiet lately, and that may continue this week, as this appears to have all the makings of a pretty low scoring game.

Eric Mangini must have drilled the idea of turnovers in his team’s head. It’s how Tennessee is 10-0: they run the ball, they stop the run, and they don’t make mistakes. If you win the battle of the trenches and don’t make mistakes, it’s very difficult to lose. The Jets are somewhat similar to the Titans in style of play as that’s what the Jets have done in their recent run.

Special teams could be an x-factor. Jay Feely and Reggie Hodges seem to have shored up the kicking game (though Mike Nugent might return), but it’s hard to have full confidence in both right now. Leon Washington has been a dynamo in the return game, and if he can make a big play like he did in the New England game, it might push the Jets over the top. Bottom line, the special teams have the potential to either win or lose the game for the Jets.

On the other side, Tennessee has a formidable kicking duo with kicker Rob Bironas and veteran punter Craig Hentrich. Chris Carr is a steady return man who handles both kicks and punts and rarely makes mistakes, so this is yet another area where the Titans are solid.

This game should be close. Unless Favre self-destructs, the game should be pretty tight and low-scoring, and whoever makes the least mistakes and the most big plays should win. Red zone efficiency will also be a key, as the Jets will need to take advantage of every opportunity they get.

The Jets do have more confidence now than they have had all season, and the Thursday night game against the Patriots gives them an extra three days of preparation. That certainly couldn’t hurt, as the Jets will look to piece together some of what has worked this year against Tennessee and apply it to their own strengths and weaknesses.

The Titans are 10-0 and formidable. But they are not elite in any particular area, and a team like the Jets who could battle with them in the trenches might be able to defeat them. Kerry Collins has proven me wrong all season, but at some point, he’s going to lose a game for the Titans. That loss will come this week.

20-16 Jets.

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