There may be not be a bigger non-divisional matchup in the NFL this weekend when the Denver Broncos travel to the Music City for a Sunday afternoon meeting with the Tennessee Titans.
Both teams find themselves in a must-win situation against a non-divisional opponent to keep their playoff hopes alive. The Broncos (8-4) are the defending Super Bowl champions, but currently sit third in the AFC West, arguably league’s best division, behind the Chiefs and Raiders. Denver enters Sunday a game up on Miami and Pittsburgh for the second wild card spot.
The Titans (6-6) are currently locked in a virtual three-way tie for first place in the AFC South with the Texans and Colts. But Houston is on top right now because of a 3-0 divisional record, while Indianapolis owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over Tennessee thanks to a season sweep. That’s why Sunday’s game is so critical to the Titans’ playoff hopes.
Denver at Tennessee
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 11 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Tennessee -1
Three Things to Watch
1. Marcus Mariota vs. Denver Pass Rush
Mariota has blossomed in his second season, as he’s thrown at least two touchdown passes in eight straight games. No longer is Mariota deemed a liability as most young quarterbacks can be. Now, Mariota is a weapon in the Titans’ offense. But this week he faces arguably his toughest test as a professional, keeping his team’s playoff hopes alive against the NFL’s most notorious defense, headlined by pass-rush specialists DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, the driving force behind Denver’s 36 sacks.
A year ago, Mariota spent much of his rookie season on his backside, as he was sacked 38 times in 12 games. This year, the offensive line has been solid — as has Mariota — as the Titans have given up 18 sacks in 12 games. But it’s safe to say that the Tennessee front line hasn't faced anything like the Broncos’ combo of Miller and Ware on the outside, as well as edge rushers Derek Wolfe and Shane Ray. These four have combined for 27 of the team’s 36 sacks.
2. A Heavy Dose of DeMarco
While the Denver defense will be keeping close eyes on Mariota, the real key weapon for the Titans could be running back DeMarco Murray. Murray has been outstanding in his first season in Nashville, ranking second in the league with 1,043 rushing yards, as well as recording 45 catches and scoring 11 total touchdowns.
Despite these big numbers, a toe injury has hindered Murray somewhat recently, as he’s logged 20 carries just once in the last four games. (To be fair, one of those games he had 123 yards on just 17 carries in a blowout win against Green Bay.) And in the last two games, Murray has been held to a total of 113 rushing yards on 38 carries, which is an average of less than three yards per attempt.
The good news is that Tennessee is coming off of its bye, so Murray had a chance to get some rest and hopefully let his toe heal. In addition, while Denver’s defense has done its job against the pass, the same can’t be said on the ground. The Broncos are near the bottom of the rankings in rushing defense (28th) and have allowed eight different running backs to run for 100 yards this season. Expect a heavy dose of Murray, and probably even Mariota and Derrick Henry on the ground.
3. Under Center Blues
You know the old NFL saying, “If you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have any.” The Broncos find themselves in such a situation with Trevor Siemian and rookie Paxton Lynch. While neither Siemian nor Lynch will be confused with Peyton Manning anytime soon— not that he was all that great in the Broncos’ Super Bowl run, either — having certainty at the quarterback position is something that Denver does not have right now.
Siemian, the starter since Week 1, missed last week’s 20-10 win over Jacksonville with a foot injury, leaving the rookie Lynch to start. Lynch looked overwhelmed at times, completing just 12 of his 24 pass attempts for 104 yards. Head coach Gary Kubiak said on Friday that Siemian is on track to return, but the last time he returned from an injury to his non-throwing shoulder, he was rusty in the Broncos 21-13 home loss to San Diego in Week 6. It’s possible that both quarterbacks could be out there this Sunday.
Tennessee finds itself with a shot at winning the AFC South with just four games remaining, but will likely need to win out to do so. Denver isn’t out of the race in the AFC West just yet, but the Broncos need to keep winning to improve their chances of getting a shot at defending their Super Bowl title. This is new territory for the Titans, while the Broncos have been there, done that.
So how will two-tone blue respond at home with the stakes so high? Expect Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and his unit to give Marcus Mariota all he can handle, which will really test the quarterback’s recent improvements in taking care of the football. If the Broncos can create extra possessions and score points off of turnovers like they did last week against Jacksonville, the Titans could be in a world of hurt. I like Denver in a close one.
Prediction: Broncos 21, Titans 20
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.