By Mike Lalor, Contributing Writer
On Sunday at 1pm, the Tennessee Titans (3-9) travel to the NYC/NJ metro area to take on the New York Jets (7-5) at MetLife Stadium. Following their emotional, 23-20 OT win against the Giants a week ago, the Jets will look to build on their momentum and keep pace in the tight AFC Wild Card race.
Where to watch: this game will be aired regionally on CBS markets in the NYC/NJ metro area and throughout Tennessee, and on DIRECTV CH 714. Veteran football and NBA play-by-play man Kevin Harlan will have the call with his partner and analyst, 2002 NFL MVP Rich Gannon. Otis Livingston will support the team from the sidelines.
Jets-Giants recap. Trailing most of the game, the Jets stopped the Giants on a pivotal 4th down-and-2 from the NYJ 4-yard line with just over eight minutes remaining. Giants’ Head Coach Tom Coughlin elected to capitalize on the momentum of a 23-play Giant drive that lasted for an amazing 12 minutes and 13 seconds, assisted by three Jet penalties that extended the drive. Instead of permitting a TD that would have put the Giants up 17 points and three scores, Jet DB Rontez Miles intercepted Giant QB Eli Manning at the NYJ 3-yard line, completely turning the tide in the opposite direction.
From there, Jet QB Ryan Fitzpatrick engineered two clutch scoring drives. The first drive resulted in a 24-yard FG from K Randy Bullock that closed the gap to 20-13 with over four minutes left. After the Jet defense held the Giants to a quick three-and-out, the Jet offense once again took over. Using a combination of passes and timely runs, Fitzpatrick moved the Jets into Giant territory – highlighted by a Fitzpatrick scramble for 15 yards that extended the Jets drive – and the game – on a crucial 4th down-and-6. From there, Fitzpatrick found WR Brandon Marshall, isolated in single coverage on the outside against Giant CB Prince Amukamara, for a 9-yard TD to tie the game at 20-20.
In overtime, the Jets won the toss and immediately drove into FG range, where K Bullock hit from 31 yards to put the Jets up, 23-20. On the ensuing drive, Eli Manning found WR Odell Beckham, Jr. on a key 4th down play, for a 20-yard gain – and setting the Giants up for a run at a potentially-game winning TD. But, the Jets held, forcing a game-tying FG attempt. After going 25-for-25 on his previous FGs in 2015, Giant K Josh Brown hooked one left from 48 yards away, and the Jets had beaten the Giants for the first time since 1993.
Jet update (7-5, 2nd AFC East, #6 in AFC playoff race). The Jets played well when it counted against the Giants, and no one more than #14, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick went 36-for-50, for 390 yards and 2 TDs in leading the Jets to victory. His leadership and fine play the last two weeks (58-for-87, 667 yards, 6 TDs, 0 INTs) has propelled the Jets, and his relationship and bond with his WRs – primarily Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, only continues to grow stronger. On a weekly basis, Brandon Marshall makes the case that his acquisition – from the Bears for a 5th round pick – was the NFL’s finest of the 2015 offseason. Marshall caught 12 balls for 131 yards, and the game-winning TD; on the year, he now has 83 catches for 1,062 yards, and 10 TDs. He is the first WR in NFL history to gain over 1,000 yards for four different franchises, and may be the first to go over 1,200 yards with four franchises before this season is over; that target is more than attainable. WR Eric Decker also played well, catching 8 balls for 101 yards…and RB Bilal Powell made a huge impact with 8 catches for 91 yards, and a TD; Fitzpatrick targeted Powell 13 times in the game.
With four weeks left in the regular season, here’s the AFC Wild Card picture, with each team’s remaining schedule:
#5 Kansas City Chiefs (7-5); (3 home / 1 away): vs. San Diego, at Baltimore, vs. Cleveland, vs. Oakland
#6 New York Jets (7-5); (2 home / 2 away): vs. Tennessee, at Dallas, vs. New England, at Buffalo
Outside looking in:
Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5); (1 home / 3 away): at Cincinnati, vs. Denver, at Baltimore, at Cleveland
Buffalo Bills (6-6); (2 home / 2 away): at Philadelphia, at Washington, vs. Dallas, vs. N.Y. Jets
…Kansas City has won 6 in a row, and is arguably the AFC’s hottest team. Their schedule is favorable – all remaining games are against non-playoff teams, with a combined W-L record of 14-34. They certainly have the inside track on one of the two AFC Wild Cards.
…The Jets are taking advantage of a soft spot in their schedule, winning their last two against the Dolphins and Giants. They have a tremendous opportunity to continue their momentum in the next two weeks against the Titans, and on a Saturday night (19 Dec) against a struggling Cowboys team in Dallas. The Jets two biggest remaining obstacles are against the Patriots at home in Week 16, and up in Buffalo in Week 17.
…Pittsburgh will likely need to close the year with a 3-1 run over their last four. That’s certainly possible, but their next two games, at Cincinnati (10-2) and vs. Denver (10-2) are highly challenging, before closing out the regular season on the road against the bottom half of the AFC North – at Baltimore and at Cleveland.
…Buffalo has the longest odds here, and will – at a minimum – need to go 3-1, and more likely sweep their last four to get in. The Week 17 finale against the Jets in Buffalo may prove decisive.
Jet injury front: The Jets are hopeful that CB Darrelle Revis (concussion) will return against Tennessee after missing last two weeks; he was listed as probable on the team’s Friday injury report. Less certain are the statuses of Revis’ secondary mates, including: CB Marcus Williams (knee/MCL), S Dion Bailey (ankle), and CB Antonio Cromartie (hip); all three are questionable for Sunday’s game. C Nick Mangold (hand) and LB Calvin Pace (abdominal) are probable.
• Jet QB Ryan Fitzpatrick – who in his 11th season, has not played in an NFL playoff game – threw for 390 yards against the Giants, the most by a Jet QB in 15 years (2000 Week 7, Vinny Testaverde – 378 yards in the “Monday Night Miracle” vs. Miami)
• WR Brandon Marshall is the first Jet WR to gain over 1,000 yards since current-Carolina Panther Jerricho Cotchery in 2007.
• Since K Nick Folk sustained a season-ending quadricep injury, K Randy Bullock has stepped in admirably. Over his first three games as a Jet, Bullock is 11-for-11 on PATs, and 6-for-6 on FGs, including three against the Giants
• Kudos to OC Chan Gailey, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brandon Marshall and the Jet offense: the Jets lead the NFL, scoring a TD 68% of the time they reach the “red zone”, inside an opponents’ 20-yd line; last year in ’14, the Jets converted TDs at a 36% clip
• The Jets rank 2nd in the NFL, allowing only 17 sacks through 12 games
• The Jets rank 11th in the NFL, allowing 20.7 pts/game, and are still the NFL’s best team against the run, only permitting 83.5 yds/game
Tennessee Update (3-9, 4th AFC South). Behind superb play from rookie QB Marcus Mariota, the Titans defeated division-rival Jacksonville 42-39 in one of Week 13’s most exciting contests. Mariota – the #2 overall selection (Oregon) in the ’15 draft, and a strong candidate for Rookie of the Year – accounted for 380 total yards of offense against the Jaguars. Mariota threw for 268 yards and 3 TDs, while rushing for 112 yards…including a fantastic 87-yard rushing TD, the third-longest rushing TD by a QB in NFL history. On the season, Mariota is 206-for-325 (63.4%), for 2,512 yards, 19 TDs and 9 INTs. His biggest area of weakness – turnovers. He has turned the ball over 15 times, the 9 INTs + 6 lost fumbles.
Against the Jags, Titan WR Dorial Green-Beckham overcame a critical drop that resulted in an interception of Mariota, to catch 5 balls for 119 yards and 1 TD. TE Delanie Walker continues to be the young QB’s favorite target, with another 8 catches for 92 yards and a 7-yard TD; he was targeted 12 times. On the season, Walker has 67 catches for 800 yards, and 4 TDs. RB Antonio Andrews ran 13 times for 58 yards and 1 TD, and is now the team’s #1 back after starting the season behind RB Bishop Sankey. Tennessee ranks 26th in the NFL, scoring 20.4 pts/game.
Defensively, the Titans – under Defensive Coordinator Ray Horton and Assistant HC/Defense Dick LeBeau – are improved in ’15. The unit ranks 21st in the NFL, permitting 24.7 pts/game…in ’14, the Titans gave up 438 points, 27.4 pts/game (29th in the NFL). Until Jacksonville QB Blake Bortles fired 5 TDs last weekend, the Tennessee pass defense had performed fairly effectively, and is 7th the NFL in passing yards allowed. The Titans do have 34 sacks in 12 games, led by LB Brian Orakpo (7.0 sacks; FA-Washington) and DT Jurrell Casey (6.0 sacks).
Titan injury front: WR Kendall Wright (back), DE Derrick Morgan (shoulder), and DT Mike Martin (knee) are questionable. DT Sammie Lee Hill (knee) and WR/KR/RB Dexter McCluster (knee) are probable, and expected to play; McCluster has missed the last three games.
After a 1-6 start, Titan ownership fired Head Coach Ken Whisenhunt; Whisenhunt went 3-20 in his short stint with rebuilding Tennessee. Interim coach Mike Mularkey is 2-3 since, and the team has already eclipsed last year’s 2-14 record. Mularkey has previous served as the HC of the Buffalo Bills (2004-2005; 14-18) and Jacksonville Jaguars (2012; 2-14).
What to expect, and a prediction: The matchup to watch here is the Jets offensive line vs. the Titans’ pass rush and pass defense. If the Jets can give QB Ryan Fitzpatrick time – they’ll be able to take advantage of their big wideouts in Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker. The Titans are not as strong against the run, and the Jets will look to exploit that advantage with RB Chris Ivory (only 10 carries and 47 yards against NYG), to open up the play-action passing game. On offense, the Jets’ front seven will need to pressure – yet contain – Marcus Mariota. Containing Mariota will force him throw into coverage, instead of breaking down plays with his legs and finding open receivers while in scramble-mode. The Jets are in a favorable part of their schedule, and while no week for them is easy, they’ll find a way to get to 8-5 before heading down to Dallas next Saturday night on NFL Network….Jets, 26-17.
Mike Lalor can be heard talking New York Sports on the Spadora on Sports radio program. Visit spadoraonsports.com.