NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Titans like to play physical football and call themselves resilient.
It's also time to consider them contenders.
Tennessee hits the midway point with the NFL’s longest active winning streak at five games — the past four over playoff teams from last season. The Titans also are the AFC’s first team to seven wins, and their latest is the most impressive for a team trying to reach its first Super Bowl since January 2000.
Counted out after losing Derrick Henry to a broken right foot, the Titans (7-2) went on the road and thumped the Los Angeles Rams 28-16 in a game that wasn't that close thanks to a dominating defensive performance.
The Titans are off to their best start yet under coach Mike Vrabel in his fourth season. His approach of doing whatever it takes to win has the Titans confident that whatever is asked of them will work.
“We can beat anybody,” safety Kevin Byard said.
The Titans have played the toughest part of their schedule and are 4-1 on the road. They finish up the season with five games at home, starting Sunday hosting the New Orleans Saints (5-3). They'll get their bye Dec. 2 to rest up for a finishing stretch that has only one winning team in the final five games.
Linebacker Harold Landry III credited Byard for summing up how the Titans aren't out to prove people wrong, but prove themselves right.
“We know how talented we are in that locker room and the group of guys that we have man, and we just go to work every day and just prepare," Landry said. "Week in and week out, we come out here and play our brand of football.”
A defense that was at or near the bottom of the NFL in several categories last season has taken a big leap in improvement. The Titans were last in allowing third down conversions in 2020 and now are 12th in that category. They're 14th in points allowed after being 26th last season.
After ranking 30th in sacks with only 19 last season, a trio already has topped that mark. Landry has matched his career high with nine sacks. Defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons, coming off his best game with three sacks and 10 quarterback pressures, has 5 1/2 sacks. Free agent signee Denico Autry has five sacks.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The offense. Yes, the Titans rank sixth in scoring, but they have eight games left without the back-to-back rushing champ Derrick Henry. Protecting Ryan Tannehill is a must. No quarterback has been sacked more than Tannehill with 27 through nine games.
Until the Titans prove they can run the ball more effectively with their committee approach featuring Adrian Peterson, opposing defenses will be targeting Tannehill. A.J. Brown, a 2020 Pro Bowl receiver, can help. He has had some key drops this season, including two on third downs against the Rams.
Safety Kevin Byard. The 2017 All-Pro has bounced back from a down season with his best season yet. Byard is tied for second in the NFL with five interceptions, and he just scored on the first pick-six of his career to help the Titans grab control against the Rams. That was his second TD this season after returning a fumble for a score in Jacksonville.
Kickoff returner. Five different Titans have returned kicks, yet Tennessee ranks 30th, averaging only 18.1 yards per return. The Titans haven't had a return longer than 31 yards this season.
Henry. The biggest injury is by no means the only issue the Titans are facing with 15 other players on injured reserve. Four defensive starters have been on injured reserve, though safety Amani Hooker and linebacker Jayon Brown have returned.
6-0. The Titans have not lost to any of the six 2020 playoff teams they've played this season, including going 4-0 against Buffalo and Kansas City and then Indianapolis and the Rams on the road.
The Titans' schedule eases tremendously with only trips to New England, Pittsburgh and Houston remaining. The Saints are one of three teams currently with winning records left. The Titans still have two games against Houston (1-8) and host the Jaguars (2-6) and Miami (2-6).
Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker
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