At 5-8, the Tennessee Titans' already slim playoff chances have dipped to a lowly 1.3 percent after getting hammered by Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos, via Football Outsiders. While there are still three games remaining in the season, the focus for the Titans seems to have shifted to the offseason before last week's game even started.
With the loss, these last three weeks could serve as some players' audition for a new head coach and/or general manager. For Mike Munchak, they will serve as his last chance to show his coaching acumen and earn one more year as the head man of the Titans.
First up on the docket is the Arizona Cardinals, a team that is no slouch at 8-5. The Cardinals have plenty to play for as they sit just one game back of being in the playoffs. Each team has its own motives for the game, but obviously, only one can prevail.
Let's take a look at some of the key matchups that could prove to be the deciding factor in the game. Despite the teams' vastly polar opposite records, the Cardinal are only three-point favorites, via Odds Shark.
Kendall Wright vs. Arizona's Nickelback
The Cardinals have the unenviable task of finding a replacement for standout rookie free safety and nickelback Tyrann Mathieu, who is out for the remainder of the season due to a torn ACL and LCL. Mathieu has not been an easy man to replace judging by the number of names that fell out of Coach Bruce Arians mouth after being asked about his lost free safety, via Kent Somers of AZcentral.com.
Antoine Cason did a great job jumping in this ballgame and did a really fine job on tight ends and playing man to man. Javier Arenas has played a little safety. Jerraud Powers jumped in there at nickel and Antoine jumped out at (covering a) wide receiver, so we have enough cover guys, but now you have to substitute to get what we had before with a non-substitution situation.
While listed as the team's starting free safety, Mathieu has helped make the Cardinals defense the fifth best in the league in total yards allowed and seventh in points allowed by excelling at covering the slot. He is ranked second among all corners by Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) rating system behind Darrelle Revis.
Enter the Titans' second-year standout, Kendall Wright. Wright may have had his quietest games of the season last week, but leading up to the game, he had emerged as Ryan Fitzpatrick's favorite target.
The Titans will need to emphasize that connection even more to take advantage of the sudden hole in Arizona's defense. The emergence of Justin Hunter over the past few weeks, combined with the return of tight end Delanie Walker to the lineup, should help open things up for Wright to get his season back on track.
Averaging 5.6 receptions per game for just shy of 66 yards, Wright will be vital to keeping drives alive for the Titans' improving offense.
Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. Cardinals Secondary
During the last five weeks, Fitzpatrick has gone from scoring six total touchdowns, with one turnover, to three total touchdowns and five turnovers. The turnovers have proven to be too much for this team to overcome.
The Cardinals are tied for sixth in the league with 25 forced turnovers. The Titans lost Walker early in the game against the Indianapolis Colts two weeks ago, and Fitzpatrick has struggled at times since.
Over the last two weeks, Fitzpatrick has averaged 186.5 yards per game after averaging 268.6 the three weeks prior. The one thing that changed during that time was the concussion to Walker.
Walker's to the lineup should help Fitzpatrick stop forcing the ball into bad situations and keep the turnovers to a minimum.
Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner vs. Larry Fitzgerald
Despite the four passing touchdowns allowed last week in Denver, the Titans still have allowed the fewest scores through the air in the league. While Larry Fitzgerald may not even be the leading receiver (in yardage) on his own team, he is tied for sixth in the league with 10 touchdown grabs.
Five of Fitzgerald's touchdowns have come over the last four weeks. During that time, Carson Palmer has thrown for an average of 326 yards and two touchdowns per game. McCourty and Verner rank fifth and 10th on PFF, but the Titans' two young corners will likely take turns guarding the All-Pro Fitzgerald.
Free safety Michael Griffin will make his return to the team after serving a one-game suspension for an illegal tackle. His presence in the secondary improves the Titans' coverage ability because of his strength in covering ground in a hurry.
Verner and McCourty will need help over the top to limit Fitzgerald in the red zone. If they can, the Titans' top-15 defense will have given the team a quality opportunity to win the game.
Andy Levitre vs. Calais Campbell
When the Titans signed Andy Levitre to become the team's new starting left guard during the offseason, it was primarily to improve the rushing attack. However, Levitre is best in pass protection. It hasn't been his best season, but he has improved as the season has worn on, and he's become more acclimated to his surroundings.
This week provides his toughest matchup of the season in the form of 6'8", 300-pound defensive end Calais Campbell. He's been on an absolute tear this season, playing predominantly in run support and rushing the passer.
He has consistently been getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks every week and has stepped up his game by batting six passes over the last six games. He's been invaluable in stuffing the run, making several stops throughout the year.
The Titans will likely need to have center Brian Schwenke help Levitre early and often to help keep the pocket clean and ensure that running lanes are open. Expect fewer screen passes this week to help chip the oncoming onslaught of Campbell (six sacks), John Abraham (11 sacks) and Karlos Dansby (six sacks).
The Titans have faced an inordinate amount of 3-4 defense this season and should be well prepared for the different looks they'll see. The offensive line's ability to keep the pocket clean will be integral to the team's success.
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