NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee Titans have simplified their implausible playoff chase to Friday night's game with the San Diego Chargers.
Win, they remain alive another couple days needing more help. Lose, they become another reminder that teams don't make the playoffs after starting the season 0-6.
"This is it. We don't win this game, we're out,'' coach Jeff Fisher said Monday. "This is a huge challenge for us on a short week.''
The Titans finally have reached .500 for the first time this season at 7-7 after beating Miami 27-24 in overtime Sunday.
Now they are in an AFC knot of six teams a game back of Denver and Baltimore at 8-6 for the conference's wild-card berths, and they need either Denver or Baltimore to lose twice with four teams losing at least once more in the final two weeks to make history by earning a far-fetched playoff spot after their woeful start.
It's a jumble, but Fisher predicted an exciting final month for the NFL back on Dec. 7 with teams getting bounced in and out of the postseason even in the final week. It sounded like a nice distraction at the time, a ploy to keep his Titans motivated because being part of that picture meant they had to win out.
Now that challenge is even tougher.
The Titans announced Monday they have lost two starting defenders to season-ending injuries with top tackler Keith Bulluck out with a torn left ACL and linebacker David Thornton having surgery to repair his shoulder and pectoral muscle. Bulluck is the one who got the defense lined up on each play, wearing the communication device.
They will be replaced by rookie Gerald McRath and Colin Allred, and it will be middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch calling the defensive sets.
"When your name's called, you've got to get up and perform,'' veteran center Kevin Mawae said.
The Titans understand that too much lies out of their control to dwell over the complicated formula of who must lose which game to help them. Chris Johnson, who posted his ninth straight 100-yard rushing game in Sunday's 27-24 overtime win over Miami, said he pays attention if a team they need to lose is playing, then roots for the other guys.
"Some things are falling our way, but at the end of the day, you can only control what you can control,'' Johnson said. "A couple of years before we got here, it was the same situation and they went out and lost. If they had won, they would have gone to the playoffs. So, this year, we're just going in and taking care of what we have to take care of.''
That would be 2006 when the Titans started 0-5 and won eight of the next 10. They went into the regular season finale needing to beat New England with Denver and Jacksonville losing with Cincinnati losing or tying Pittsburgh. The other three games all fell the way Tennessee needed except the Titans were routed 40-23 by New England.
It was a strong lesson to the Titans including Vince Young. The then-rookie sat stunned on the sideline after the loss, and he remembers that feeling too well. He said he knew they would get another chance to be in the same situation and wanted to be ready to handle it.
Now he has led the Titans to seven wins in eight games to reach this point again.
"I'll take it as a learning thing for myself. I know what I have to do all this week to prepare, to get myself ready, to lead this team out and come back to get a win on Christmas,'' Young said.
San Diego couldn't be hotter, having won 17 straight games in December dating back to 2006 and winners of nine consecutive this season. The Chargers have clinched the AFC West but can earn themselves a first-round bye by beating Tennessee.
Mawae isn't worried about the Titans being prepared, not with 2006 as such a fresh reminder of what can happen if they keep winning.
"If you just take care of your business, opportunity could possibly be there and hopefully that'll be the case at the end of the week,'' he said.