On paper, the Tennessee Titans are in good shape.
The 13-3 playoff team returns the majority of its starters, and figures to play with a chip on its shoulder after a 2008 season that many regard as having prematurely ended in a bitter loss to Baltimore.
Granted, the loss of their defensive stud Albert Haynesworth looms large—literally and figuratively—but the Titans should have enough key cogs in place to not only compete, but contend.
Of course, there is one caveat.
In today's NFL, parity is the norm, thanks in no small part to free agency and the salary cap. What looks like a snooze-fest, now, in August—week 14's matchup against the Rams comes to mind—might turn out to be the hardest ticket in town come December if the Rams can surprisingly put it together.
Cinderella's are given in the league, every year.
Yet today's analysis will attempt to give the give bird's eye view, August Edition. Here is a look at some of the more red letter, intriguing match-ups on the docket for Tennessee this season.
Week 1, Pittsburgh Steelers
Right out of the gate, the Titans face the last team they tasted victory against when it counted.
And the Heinz Field environment couldn't be more hostile, given that last year's infamous sideline Terrible Towel stomping after a Titans victory in Nashville is no doubt still fresh on the minds of the Steelers and fans alike.
The Steelers, a team with no major holes to fill from last year's Super Bowl title, might present the most problems for the Titans on...offense. While neither squad has ever been known as a powerhouse on that side of the ball, this game could quite possibly be the one where Tennessee feels the loss of Hanynesworth the most.
Ben Roethlisburger, one of the more deceptively slippery quarterbacks in the league, would be hard to rattle even with an all pro defensive tackle chasing him. Yet he figures to have even more time to work with his dangerous receiving corps, considering the Titan's diminished front four.
What does give Tennessee a shot in this one is their strong linebackers and secondary, with the former effectively canceling out a rejuvenated Willie Parker and a returning Rashard Mendenhall.
Look for this one to come down to just a few big plays in an otherwise defensive battle. Whoever breaks one, wins.
Week 5, Indianapolis Colts
This game is interesting for a number of reasons. For starters, anyone who follows the AFC South knows that with these two squads, it's usually "either/or" in terms of dominance.
Yet these days, both are contenders.
The marquee matchup in this one might very well be coaching.
The Titans' D doesn't look to have too many concerned with Indy's diminished receiving corps. Granted, Peyton Manning behind center always makes the Colts dangerous, but this squad is a shell of the mid-2000's offensive juggernauts that dominated defenses.
No, the battle here will be waged on the sidelines, with the Jim Caldwell era having gotten underway in Indianapolis. While it is true that it was he who did in fact have a large part in masterminding those great aforementioned Colts offenses, he will undoubtedly install a few new wrinkles of his own to keep foes on their toes.
Ask any competitor what one of the things they fear most, and not knowing an opponent that well usually comes up. Titan's coach Jeff Fisher's moves and counter moves to the Caldwell attack will be interesting to watch, especially with new Tennessee defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil.
Week 6, New England Patriots
Again, it will the the Titans' defense on the hot seat.
This autumn battle in Foxboro will both pose and answer questions for both teams.
The smart money is that while the Pats will compete better than 2008, they will never be as good as their record-setting 2007 form.
While Brady is back, there are obviously many questions as to how his knee will hold up and if he is indeed, the same passer he always was.
The Titan's may have lost Haynesworth, but there are plenty of other weapons to give them an edge against the Pats' lackluster offensive line.
Kyle Vandenbosch is always a threat, and Jevon Kearse appears to have plenty of gas left in the tank having showed up to camp looking more like his 1999 self.
Ideally the Titans won't have to lean on Cortland Finnegan, Nick Harper and Co. too much if the front four does their job. In addition, if defensive coordinator Cecil does his job, then the talented linebacking corps—which recently brought back the solid Rocky Boiman—can be properly utilized to blitz and confuse Brady as well.
Week 12, Arizona Cardinals
If the Cardinals have any say in it, their November visit to Nashville will be just another stop on their mission to get back to the Super Bowl.
While that might seem obvious—every team wants that--it is important to point out the fate of recent Super Bowl runner ups. There is almost always an inevitable hangover, with most not even making the playoffs the next year.
But if all goes according to plan, then this game promises to be a doozy on both sides of the ball.
First, the Titans' offense, which presumably will have hit their stride at this point, should run roughshod over Arizona's porous-at-best defense.
Quarterback Kerry Collins, rewarded with the starting job and a fat two-year contract, looks sharp; leading the offense with crisp precision so far this preseason.
Running back Chris Johnson now has a leaner, meaner Lendale White to complement him, which figures to give even good defenses fits. The only gray area for Tennessee would be the receiver position versus the solid, Adrian Wilson-led secondary of Arizona.
With no true stars, most receivers on the Titans would be possession receivers on other teams.
On the other side of the ball, things are a bit more dour for Tennessee, with the ever-dangerous Cardinals receivers posing the biggest threat. While the Titans have great talent in their secondary, Larry Fitzgerald and Co. look to have the edge here. It all depends on if Steve Breaston continues to get better and which Anquan Boldin shows up.
All in all, Tennessee should make another deep run in the playoffs this year. Historically, this franchise doesn't make a habit of being a one hit wonder, given their consistent history and smart drafting.
All that's left at this point for them to merely execute, and they should be punching their tickets to Miami.