NASHVILLE, TN, Oct. 2, 2008 — Add Tony Dungy to the list of believers in the Tennessee Titans, one of three unbeaten teams left in the NFL.
The Tennessee Titans are quickly gaining respect after starting out 4-0 for the first time in franchise history.
"They have been as impressive as anybody I've seen all year,'' says the Indianapolis coach, whose team is already 2 1/2 games behind Tennessee in the AFC South. "They're not turning the ball over, they're playing really hard on defense and making it tough for the other team to score. Consequently, they're 4-0.''
The Titans take that mark to Baltimore on Sunday in what is bound to be a bruising game with another team that loves to punish opposing offenses.
Kerry Collins, currently the Titans quarterback, knows all about that. He faced the Ravens in the 2001 Super Bowl when he was with the Giants and was sacked four times, threw four interceptions and ended the game with a meager passer rating of 7.1
Except for Ray Lewis, most of those Ravens are gone.
But the defense is almost as good, tied for second in the NFL with 14.3 points per game allowed and carrying a team with a rookie QB, Joe Flacco, to a 2-1 record.
The No. 1 team in points allowed? Tennessee at 11.5. It features Cortland Finnegan, the league's leading interceptor with four, and Albert Haynesworth, who has five sacks from the defensive tackle position, a most difficult feat.
Flacco, Baltimore's first-round draft pick, is looking like he might become the team's first long-term quarterback since it moved from Cleveland in 1996. He wasn't supposed to start, but is playing because Kyle Boller is injured and Troy Smith got sick.
So far so good.
Flacco engineered a 76-yard fourth-quarter drive in Pittsburgh to send the game into overtime. The Ravens lost, but are just a half-game behind the Steelers in the AFC North and in position to challenge in a division where the Browns and Bengals are in danger of falling off the radar.
Collins, 35 and in his 14th NFL season, is obviously the more experienced QB. He is prone to turnovers under pressure, but since taking over for the injured Vince Young, he's been very good at doing what's in vogue now for QBs: "managing the game.''
"So many things are just about knowing the situations, knowing when to take your shots and knowing when not to take your shots,'' says Collins, who will retain his job when Young is healthy.
"I know that I have been in every situation possible. Hopefully I make more good decisions in those kinds of situations than bad. .... I'm on a good football team. Are we a great football team yet? No, I don't think so. But finding ways to win and winning ballgames just keeps adding to the confidence, keeps adding to the makeup of your team.''
In other games Sunday, Chicago is at Detroit; San Diego at Miami; Atlanta at Green Bay; Seattle at the New York Giants; Indianapolis at Houston; Kansas City at Carolina; Washington at Philadelphia; Tampa Bay at Denver; Cincinnati at Dallas; Buffalo at Arizona; New England at San Francisco; and Pittsburgh at Jacksonville.
Minnesota is at New Orleans on Monday night.
The New York Jets, Oakland, St. Louis and Cleveland are off.
Washington (3-1) at Philadelphia (2-2)
It's early, but given the high level of the NFC East, this is close to a must win for the Eagles. Some stats: Philadelphia has allowed nine points on three field goals in two home wins; 65 points and eight touchdowns in two road losses. The Eagles badly missed RB Brian Westbrook, who could be back from an ankle injury, in last week's loss in Chicago, the first to a non-division opponent by an NFC East team.
The Redskins, already finishing their division road schedule, have to maintain the level they had in their upset of Dallas, especially against a defense that's so good at home. There's no question this is a different Washington team than the one that stumbled badly against the Giants on opening night.
"We've earned a little respect,'' cornerback Fred Smoot says. "But we've got another NFC East game this weekend that we've got to win. We ain't going to jump the gun.''
Tampa Bay (3-1) at Denver (3-1)
The Broncos have allowed more than 29 points per game, third worst in the NFL behind winless St. Louis and Detroit. The Bucs have allowed less than 20, a more traditional way to start 3-1. Indeed, the Broncos are a bad officiating call and a missed field goal away from being 1-3.
This is another homecoming game for Brian Griese, who started his career in Denver as John Elway's potential successor. Griese won when he returned to Chicago two weeks ago. For Griese, even Tampa is a homecoming - he's on his second tour there.
Pittsburgh (3-1) at Jacksonville (2-2)
"We live week to week and day to day,'' says Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin after finishing Monday night's game with Mewelde Moore as the only healthy running back. The Steelers also lost their best offensive lineman, guard Kendall Simmons, with a torn Achilles' tendon.
Running shouldn't be a problem for the Jaguars, who last year had the NFL's top tandem in Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew. But Taylor is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry. Jacksonville beat Pittsburgh in the playoffs last season after a 32-yard, fourth-down run by QB David Garrard set up Josh Scobee's winning field goal. Scobee does that - without his two winners this year, the Jaguars would be 0-4.
Minnesota (1-3) at New Orleans (2-2) (Monday night)
The Vikings, one of the favorites to win the NFC North, have been plagued by turnovers, but are only a game behind Chicago and Green Bay.
"It's frustrating, because we're a better team than our record shows. But the record is the record,'' safety Darren Sharper says. "We're just killing ourselves at the wrong times in games.''
New Orleans' problem is defense with 100 points allowed, only 11 less than the Saints have scored. Drew Brees has thrown for a league-leading 1,343 yards in four games and has completed 72.3 percent of his passes even without the injured Marques Colston and Jeremy Shockey. New Orleans usually needs it.
Seattle (1-2) at New York Giants (3-0)
A tale of four receivers.
The Seahawks, who started the season picking up wideouts off the street, will get Deion Branch and Bobby Engram back from injury.
The Giants will be without Plaxico Burress, suspended by the team for failing to show up at a practice on the first day of its bye week. New York is lucky to be deep at receiver, and coach Tom Coughlin seems to be happy to give Domenik Hixon, who has been excellent in spot duty, a chance to play more.
Indianapolis (1-2) at Houston (0-3)
The first home game for the Texans, whose opener with Baltimore was postponed because of Hurricane Ike. The roof remains damaged at Reliant Stadium, so this game will be outdoors, rain or heat.
The Texans weren't too put off by losing in overtime in Jacksonville. "It's very encouraging just when you're watching how our guys fought,'' linebacker DeMeco Ryans says.
The Colts, seeking their sixth straight AFC South title, had more losses in September than in any year since 2001. The main reason is injuries on the offensive line, plus the knee problem that caused Peyton Manning to miss most of training camp and left him rusty. Safety Bob Sanders, the 2007 Defensive Player of the Year, remains out.
Buffalo (4-0) at Arizona (2-2)
This is a game the Bills can lose: a long trip to play a team eager to rebound from a 56-35 loss to the Jets. Trent Edwards has become a clutch quarterback in his second season, making Buffalo a team that needs only to stay close; it won after trailing the Raiders and Rams.
Kurt Warner is still Arizona's QB after six turnovers against the Jets. That will be the Cardinals' problem all season: Warner's got outstanding receivers and can still throw like a two-time MVP, but needs protection. He also might be without star wideout Anquan Boldin (head).
New England (2-1) at San Francisco (2-2)
Interesting game between a team on the rise and one on the decline this year because Tom Brady is out. If Bill Belichick has an extra week to prepare (or, in this case, to fix things) it's supposed to be time to look out. But he had two weeks to prepare for last season's Super Bowl and what did that get him?
The 49ers have loudmouth cornerbacks, a position second only to wide receiver in that category. San Francisco's group was talking a week ago about being able to shut down anyone. Then Drew Brees threw for 363 yards and three TDs.
San Diego (2-2) at Miami (1-2)
What tricks did the Dolphins dream up during their bye week? Presumably the Chargers have looked at enough tape that they've figured out ways to control Ronnie Brown and the read option.
Despite two straight wins, questions remain about the Chargers, such as how they allowed themselves to fall behind the dysfunctional Raiders 15-0. One problem: a defense without Shawne Merriman is 28th in the league in yards allowed, although some of them were in garbage time against Brett Favre and the Jets.
Atlanta (2-2) at Green Bay (2-2)
The Packers could be in real trouble if Aaron Rodgers' shoulder injury causes him to miss significant time. With all the criticism of GM Ted Thompson during the preseason Favre fiasco, the one that's legitimate is failure to sign a veteran back up to Rodgers - only rookies Matt Flynn and Brian Brohm are behind him.
The Falcons may have found their level. Matt Ryan and the other youngsters are fine against bad teams (Lions and Chiefs) at home, not so fine against the better ones (Panthers and Bucs) on the road.
Kansas City (1-3) at Carolina (3-1)
Carolina's problem last season was Jake Delhomme's injury and an underachieving defense. Delhomme is back and the defense is in the top 10 in yards allowed, meaning the Panthers are likely to be in the NFC South race all year.
The Chiefs remain a lower-echelon team despite their win over Denver. But Larry Johnson (198 yards rushing) demonstrated last week he still has it, and Damon Huard demonstrated that a decent caretaker quarterback is better than a Tyler Thigpen.
Cincinnati (0-4) at Dallas (3-1)
Maybe Ocho and Owens will hold dueling news conferences after the game to complain about getting thrown to only 15 or 20 times. That might be the only thing interesting about this game, especially if Carson Palmer's sore elbow keeps him out. Figure Dallas to be a little angry after losing to the Redskins last week.
Chicago (2-2) at Detroit (0-4)
The post-Millen era begins for the Lions. "He's not here. He's removed. I think everybody liked Matt, but it's the nature of the business,'' coach Rod Marinelli says.
Kyle Orton is functional as Chicago's quarterback, but it's still the defense that wins, as demonstrated by the goal-line stand to beat the Eagles last week. One key is the health of safety Mike Brown. When he's not hurt, the Bears are 25 percent better.