In spite of their 1-2 record, the Tennessee Titans have shown glimpses of brilliance so far this season. Thanks in large part to rookie sensation, Marcus Mariota, Titans fans finally have reason to believe in the promise of a bright future after struggling through years of sub-par football in Music City. That being said, Tennessee still has a ways to go, and there are plenty of growing pains yet to come before they can truly call themselves contenders.
On Sunday, the Titans will host Rex Ryan’s Buffalo Bills in a Week 5 AFC cross-divisional matchup. Like the Titans, the Bills are a team on the rise, just a little further along in their progression. A talented roster, and the emergence of Tyrod Taylor as a viable NFL quarterback, have many believing that the Bills are a legitimate playoff contender this season. Unfortunately, injuries and penalties have proven costly en route to a mediocre 2-2 record thus far.
The Titans were able to heal up coming off of a bye in Week 4, while the Bills are coming off of a tough 24-10 loss to the Giants. Both teams are in desperate need of a victory on Sunday, especially the Bills, who now sit behind the eight ball in the AFC East.
The Titans and Bills have a storied history dating back to 1960. Tennessee leads the all-time series against Buffalo with a 28-16 record. The two teams last met in 2012, resulting in a 35-34 victory for the Titans. Tennessee has won five consecutive games against Buffalo. The series is best represented by two classic games. The first being an epic 1993 playoff game, dubbed “The Comeback,” in which the Bills stormed back from a 35-3 third quarter deficit to win 41-38 in overtime. The second being the Titans 22-16 playoff victory over the Bills in 2000, which everyone knows as “The Music City Miracle.”
Buffalo at Tennessee
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Buffalo -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The Titans' Offensive Line vs. The Bills' Defensive Line
Buffalo was supposed to field one of the fiercest defensive lines in all of football this season. So far, the results have proven otherwise. In the first four games, Bills All-Pro defensive linemen Kyle Williams, Mario Williams, and Marcell Dareus have accounted for just two sacks. As a team, the Bills have just seven sacks heading into Week 5. Surprising to say the least, especially for a group that accounted for an NFL best 54 sacks last season, 30 of which were supplied by the aforementioned trio of star defensive linemen. Even more surprising considering that defensive guru, Rex Ryan, is now the head coach.
Fortunately, Week 5 could provide just the medicine for what ails them. On the other side of the line of scrimmage will sit a Titans offensive line that has already given up twelve sacks through just three games. Not good, especially for a team with a mobile quarterback. Tennessee could have offensive guard Chance Warmack back from injury this week, but even if that is the case, a struggling Titans line will have their hands full against a potent Bills defensive front. This is by far the worst offensive line Buffalo has faced this season, and it should provide them with ample opportunity to finally get their pass rush on track. Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota should be prepared to put his mobility to good use on Sunday.
2. A Depleted Buffalo Backfield
The Bills rushing attack was supposed to flourish behind newly acquired star running back, LeSean McCoy. And it has flourished, producing nearly 130 yards per game. But not because of McCoy, who has been hampered with a hamstring injury since preseason. Rookie Karlos Williams has been the primary bread winner in McCoy’s stead, averaging 5.4 yards per carry and scoring a touchdown in each of the Bills’ four games. Unfortunately, it is also very likely that Williams will be unavailable for Week 5 after suffering a concussion in last week’s loss to the Giants.
If that is the case, the Bills will be forced to rely on third string, short yardage back, Anthony Dixon, to tote the rock against the Titans in Week 5. Cierre Wood would serve as back up, and the recently signed Dan Herron could also be in the mix. They also have a fleet footed and capable runner in quarterback Tyrod Taylor. That being said, it doesn’t necessarily bode well when you are down to your third, fourth, fifth, and sixth options in an offense built around the run game. The Titans rank middle of the pack in the NFL in run defense, so all is not lost on the Bills' rushing attack this week. But it is certainly going to be more challenging without the likes of McCoy and Williams.
3. Will the Bills Flag Their Way to Another Loss?
The Buffalo Bills were the second most penalized team in the NFL in 2014. Unfortunately, the trend has continued and only gotten worse under the new regime. In four games, the Bills have already accrued 47 penalties for 428 yards, by far the most in the NFL. It has also played a major role in both of their losses this season. Buffalo had 17 penalties for 135 yards in last week’s 24-10 loss to the Giants, and they had 14 penalties for 140 yards in their Week 2 loss at home to the Patriots. Buffalo’s most convincing win came in Week 3 against the Dolphins. They committed just 5 penalties for 40 yards in that game, en route to a 41-14 victory.
The correlation is pretty clear. Penalties can kill a team’s chances to win, and they have been a thorn in the side of the Bills most of the season. In order to help correct the problem, Buffalo Head Coach Rex Ryan has been making any player who commits a penalty in practice do push-ups. Whether or not this will rectify the issue is yet to be determined, but given their track record to date, Bills penalties, or a lack thereof, could weigh significantly on the outcome of Sunday’s game against the Titans.
A Week 5 victory at home, against a solid Bills team, would go a long way in jump starting a young Titans team into contention for what appears to be a wide open AFC South division. In order to get it done, Head Coach Ken Whisenhunt will have to employ a flawless game plan on offense. Rookie quarterback, Marcus Mariota, will have to continue to play well beyond his years to overcome a talented Bills defense that is easily the best he has faced to date. The Titans wide receivers must find a way to separate from Buffalo lock down corner backs Ronald Darby and Stephon Gilmore, and the offensive line will have to play the game of their lives to fend off the Bills’ All-Pro defensive front. On defense, Tennessee should find success holding down the line of scrimmage against a beat up Bills rushing attack, but linebackers Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan will have their hands full trying to contain the elusive Tyrod Taylor.
The Bills badly need a Week 5 victory if they have any hope of trying to keep pace with the dominant Patriots. Rex Ryan is not likely to steer away from the run game, so it is imperative that his makeshift back field shows up against a middling Tennessee run defense. In the passing game, Tyrod Taylor should be able to continue a successful trend of connecting with tight end Charles Clay, and the return of Percy Harvin should help open things up if Sammy Watkins is a scratch. On defense, the Bills must simply defeat a shaky Titans offensive line and pressure Marcus Mariota from start to finish. The rest should take care of itself. If the Bills can avoid the costly penalties that have plagued them in both of their losses this season, they should cruise to victory. If not, the well-rested Titans stand a very good chance at pulling off the upset at home.
Prediction: Bills 27, Titans 17
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.