NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Titans are treating Sunday's season opener against the Patriots as they would a season ender.
Lavelle Hawkins called it a playoff game, and Nate Washington upped the ante by saying it is being treated as a championship.
There's good reason for that: New England has made the postseason three consecutive years, won the 2011 AFC Championship and is six months removed from narrowly losing a bid for its fourth Super Bowl title since 2001.
"Definitely pumped up — ecstatic about the opportunity we have, not only in the season but in this first opponent," Washington said. "I think we can come out and truly gauge where we're at (by) facing such a reputable opponent. We have much respect for these guys and we've been working very hard throughout the week. We're going to take this as our championship. Our first game is going to be our championship and we're going to ride on in from there."
The Titans are looking to end a three-year postseason hiatus in Mike Munchak's second year as head coach and Jake Locker's first season as starting quarterback. Tennessee has opened three of the past five seasons against AFC South foe Jacksonville, and the team is excited about playing a rarer opponent to start a season.
"I really feel like this week is the most important week, especially coming in the first week, playing the Pats, and getting an opportunity to get a win," Hawkins said. "That's going to push us through 16 weeks, so this game is important. It's a playoff game. I hope our guys are going to look at it like that, and I know we will."
The Titans, of course, will not receive a Lombardi Trophy, division title or postseason berth by winning one game, nor will they be eliminated from achieving those goals if they don't. More than 30 years of recent history, however, shows a correlation across the NFL with opening-day success and playing beyond the regular season.
Since 1978, when the NFL went to a 16-game schedule (and excluding the shortened 1982 season), teams that win on Kickoff Weekend are more than twice as likely to reach the playoffs. Of the 490 winning teams in season openers, 258 (52.7 percent) made the playoffs and 152 won division titles. Of the 490 losing teams, 111 (22.7 percent) went to the playoffs and 66 won division titles.
The Titans are 5-2 in season openers at LP Field since 1999, and two of three division titles the franchise has won since becoming the Titans (AFC South in 2002 and 2008) have been preceded by wins on Kickoff Weekend. The exception was 2000 when the Titans won the AFC Central, despite opening with a 16-13 loss at Buffalo. The 2000 season is the only time since becoming the Titans that the franchise has lost an opener and made the playoffs.
Last season Tennessee opened with a 16-14 loss at Jacksonville but defeated Baltimore 26-13 in its home debut. The Titans finished the season 9-7 and missed the playoffs via a tiebreaker that Cincinnati claimed.
Munchak said a yearly goal is to win the division and talked about the importance of beating teams in the AFC since those results often determine playoff berths and seeds.
"We don't make predictions and think about it, but we know what our goals are," Munchak said. "It starts this Sunday. Winning AFC games are always a big part of it, as we found out last year, we lost out for a tiebreaker. We understand all that, it's one game at a time as we all know. I think, again, we're very optimistic about this season.
"We know all the games will be tough with the good teams we're going to have to play," Munchak continued. "We know we're going to have to be on top of our game real early. But it's a 16-game season, so whatever happens, you can't let that take away from how it finishes. You hope you start out always with a great start — last year we were 3-1. This year, you hope to do at least that or better."
The Titans are expected to go into Sunday's game with four receivers: Washington, Hawkins, Damian Williams and Kendall Wright while Kenny Britt serves a one-game suspension.
"That's alright. We're good with that," Williams said. "Obviously we'll have a little bit of help when Kenny comes back. It's just something we've been working for and we've got to push through it. We know what's ahead of us and how hard we have to work for it."
Tennessee dressed five receivers in 12 of 16 games last season, including the opener when Britt made five catches for 136 yards and two TDs.
Britt suffered a season-ending injury in Week 3 last season, however, prompting the need for more from Washington, Williams and Hawkins. The three responded with career bests, and the Titans added Wright with the 20th overall pick of the 2012 NFL Draft this season. Wright has been a rapid learner and shown versatility during the preseason and said he thinks the receiving corps is ready for the load against the Patriots.
"If we have somebody that needs a breather, one of the other three can come in and play any position, so I feel confident that we'll be ready," Wright said.
Tennessee coaches and players have prepared for New England since the spring through voluntary organized team activity practices, a mandatory minicamp and training camp. Although the preparations included a change with Locker starting over veteran QB Matt Hasselbeck, Washington said players feel better about this being the second year in the system.
"I think we have a different attitude around here," Washington said. "I think last year it was kind of iffy, especially with the lockout and everything that was changing. These guys have been here throughout the whole offseason and understood the mentality of the coaching staff, understand what they want out of us, and we understand what we want out of each other."
Offensive coordinator Chris Palmer, who has installed more Run 'N Shoot concepts with the full offseason, often likes to point out during media sessions that each game and every season in the NFL is different.
That will again be true this season, but the Patriots are likely to provide an accurate litmus test.
"That's something that is going to go a long way for us, whether we win or lose, whatever the case may be," Williams said. "It's going to teach us a whole lot and where we are as a team and where we need to go."