This week's version of "Sunday Night Football" very well could be a Super Bowl preview when the Tennessee Titans travel to the West Coast to take on the Los Angeles Rams.
The Titans (6-2) have the best record in the AFC and are cruising toward another AFC South title after their overtime road win against Indianapolis last week. But the win came with a heavy price, as Derrick Henry, the two-time defending NFL rushing champion who was leading the league by a mile again, was likely lost for the remainder of the regular season due to a foot injury that required surgery. The onus now shifts to quarterback Ryan Tannehill and a Titans defense that's been bending but not breaking all season long.
On paper, the Rams (7-1) appear to be one of the best teams in the NFC, as they are one of three in the conference (Arizona, Green Bay) with only one loss. But a closer look at their schedule shows that they've only played two teams all year with a winning record, splitting those games by beating Tampa Bay and losing to Arizona by 17 the following week. Sunday night against another premiere opponent will be a great test for Sean McVay's squad as they head into the back half of the season.
Sunday Night Football: Tennessee (6-2) at Los Angeles (7-1)
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 7 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Rams -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Replacing the King
How do the Titans replace Derrick Henry? They can't. There is no other player (non-QB) in the NFL more integral to a team's offense than the back-to-back rushing champ is to Tennessee's. Henry's 937 rushing yards are the most in the league so far this season, as are his rushing touchdowns (10) and first downs (49), and he's the only one averaging more than 100 yards on the ground per game (117.1). His 219 carries are 79 more than the next guy, Jonathan Taylor, who has already played his ninth game. That total also is the most by any player in NFL history through the first eight weeks of a season. Again, I say, there is no replacing Henry.
The next back on the Titans' depth chart is Jeremy McNichols, a third-down back who has more catches (21) than he does rushing attempts (7) this season. That's right, the Titans' second-leading rusher — well, third if you count Ryan Tannehill — has all of SEVEN carries this season. With expected backup Darrynton Evans also on IR, Tennessee understandably sought out reinforcements at running back in the form of free agents D'Onta Foreman and 36-year-old Adrian Peterson. (Remember kids, his nickname is A.D., not A.P.)
Foreman, a fourth-year vet, played sparingly for the Titans last season: 22 carries for 95 yards in six games. Peterson, however, is trying to prove he has one last gasp of football life in his body. His 14,820 career rushing yards are fifth all-time, and he is certainly one of the most dominating players of his era. The problem is, his era ended like five years ago.
Peterson hasn't averaged more than 4.5 yards per carry or 16 rushing attempts per game since 2015 when he led the league in carries (327), rushing yards (1,485), and touchdowns (11). Sure, playing in Washington and Detroit over the last few seasons doesn't exactly lend set you up for statistical success, and he did break the 1,000-yard mark in 2018 (1,042). But to expect Peterson to return to his form of the 2010s, or to be provide anything near to Henry's level of production, is silly. The most we should expect from an aging A.D. is to be a third of a platoon with McNichols and Foreman.
2. Rams' scary pass rush is now horrifying
Trying to contain All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald (5 sacks) is daunting enough. Trying to slow down Donald and linebacker Leonard Floyd (6.5 sacks) is downright scary. So, trying to stop Donald, Floyd, and the newly acquired Von Miller (4.5 sacks) may just be flat-out impossible for opposing offensive lines.
The Rams already lead the NFL with 25 sacks, which directly correlates to them pacing the league in interceptions (11) and yielding the second-fewest touchdown passes (5). Now, with the addition of Miller, one of the best of the modern era in pressuring quarterbacks, the Rams are truly all-in for a Super Bowl run with their defense. While Miller isn't the game-breaker he was during the Broncos' championship runs of a few years ago, he's still productive enough coming off the edge as he is on pace for the ninth double-digit sack season of his Hall-of-Fame-worthy career.
The Titans' offensive line is among the most porous in the league, having allowed 24 sacks so far this year (eighth in NFL). Last week, Tannehill was sacked three times by a Colts defense that is the worst in the league at pressuring opposing quarterbacks (16 percent pressure rate).
Tannehill himself has largely been marginal as well in 2021. His seven interceptions are tied for fourth in the league, and he ranks 11th in touchdowns (10) and yards per attempt (7.6), 17th in completion percentage (65 percent), and 20th in passer rating (90.0). With Jalen Ramsey likely covering star receiver A.J. Brown, Sunday night would be a great time for the oft-injured Julio Jones to return to the Titans' lineup and give Tannehill a much-needed second weapon.
3. Titans' D: Bend. Don't break.
The Tennessee defense is one of the most malleable units in the league. And yet, they refuse to break. Week after week, they give up big plays and yards in chunks. They rank 11th in yards allowed per play (5.7), 20th in first downs allowed (172), 22nd in total yards allowed (2,945), and 24th in passing yards (2,139) and yards per carry (4.5) surrendered.
But week after week, they hold their ground and find ways to win. In some ways, they remind me of Super Bowl-winning defenses from years past that played similarly, well enough to keep their respective teams in big games and forcing turnovers when needed the most. The 2006 Colts, 2010 Packers, and 2019 Chiefs come to mind — as do this year's Titans.
The last couple of weeks, Tennessee's defense has found somewhat of a groove despite having an injury-ravaged secondary. In the last two games against the Chiefs and Colts, the Titans have forced six turnovers and gotten seven sacks. They were able to sack Patrick Mahomes four times and limit him to just 206 passing yards and a 62.3 rating. The next week against Indianapolis, the Titans picked off Carson Wentz twice and held him to a 68.3 rating and just 4.5 yards per pass attempt.
Sunday night will be a major test for this Tennessee defense. Matthew Stafford has only been sacked a league-low seven times and is tearing up opposing secondaries with 22 touchdown passes, a 118 passer rating, and only four interceptions. But it isn't just Stafford's arm the Titans have to worry about, it's also the weapons around him. Wide receiver Cooper Kupp leads the league in all three major receiving categories (63 rec., 924 yds., 10 TDs), and he's complemented perfectly by Robert Woods (12.1 ypr, 4 TDs) and Van Jefferson (16.3, 3).
I wish like heck Derrick Henry was playing in this game. If so, it might have been the premier matchup of the entire regular season. But we'll make do without, for now. Maybe the Titans and Rams will meet again in February, both teams fully loaded and healthy. As for this Sunday night, give me Stafford and the Rams at home in a two-score win.
Prediction: Rams 34, Titans 24
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.