What a difference a month makes.
Just over four weeks ago, the Tennessee Titans and their fans were teeming with optimism. And with 20 of 22 starters returning from a loaded 13-3 squad, why not?
Coach Jeff Fisher said himself that he felt this team was perhaps more talented than last year's. Throw in the fact that the stench of a bitter, early playoff exit was still on their minds, and just about everyone had this motivated squad picked to be playing deep into January.
Little did folks know that by the time summer gave way to autumn, the talk of the town would not, in fact, be about home field advantage or playoff seeding. No, these days it's more murmuring about next year's draft, Fisher's job security and what little dignity can be salvaged this season.
Mathematically, all is not lost; this is true. Stranger things have happened in this league. But this reeling franchise needs to play darn near perfect football for the rest of the season to have a shot at the postseason.
Sunday's matchup with the darn near perfect Indianapolis Colts will, in essence, define the rest of their season.
It'd be one thing if both teams were undefeated. But to be winless and have your season be all but lost makes it that much tougher to get up for a marquee opponent.
Granted, pride is always a factor, regardless of the win/loss record. But if Indy gets off to a fast start, do you think the Titans will have the mettle to not roll over? Aside from the obvious goal of winning the game, the most important part of this game for them is their attitude, fight and spirit.
Even with a loss, Tennessee getting its collective head on straight bodes well for the future. Because so far, they lack an identity, which makes the losing that much more tough. Moral victories carry more weight than usual at this point.
But regarding an actual victory? It doesn't bode well for the Titans. Here are a few of the more glaringly ominous matchups that they will face Sunday.
Kryptonite for Chris?
Thus far, Titans running back Chris Johnson has been one of the few bright spots. In fact, he leads the league in rushing. The fact that Tennessee has the leading rusher when they've played from behind and pass so much is all the more impressive.
But against the Colts he might have to make some adjustments. Thanks to Johnson, Indy's weakness quite possibly becomes their strength. Their defense is undersized...but super fast.
If these were the Titans of old, then the Colts would have cause for concern. Tennessee could simply use their brand of big back, ball control power football. But with their new speedy look, it could prove to be a long day for Johnson.
Lendale White could be used to spell him more than usual, but given his newly slender body, that might not work either.
Crunchtime for Kerry?
In this case, "crunchtime" isn't so much a metaphor for a rapidly needed gut check as it is a literal truth. When you have the super speedy Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney chasing an over-the-hill, immobile quarterback with confidence issues, disaster tends to strike for the offense.
The running game could ease some of the pressure, but given Indy's quick strike offense, the Titans could find themselves in the all-too-familiar position of playing from behind and becoming pass happy. If that's the case, coach Fisher just might have to put in Vince Young...out of necessity.
Doomsday for the Defense?
If there were ever a time for the defense to dial in that long-lost swagger, it would be now.
Last Sunday, the Titans made David Garrard look like a 2007 Tom Brady.
This week, Peyton Manning comes to town.
That's potentially cataclysmic.
Defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil's scheme thus far has proved to be a colossal failure. The front four isn't producing the same amount of pressure on the quarterback this year; new blitz schemes are needed.
Conventional wisdom says that this will be a feast or famine affair. Either Peyton Manning will have a record-setting day and further bolster his MVP ranking, or Tennessee will finally rise to the challenge and stymie him, given his high caliber reputation.
Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Shaub, Mark Sanchez and David Garrard, in spite of their respective successes, don't strike the same chord of fear as Manning. That fear just might wake them up to actually start playing actual defense.
As is the case with most division rivals across the league, Tennessee knows how to play Indianapolis tough, regardless of who's having the better year.
When the game clock strikes 0:00 on Sunday, we will have a better idea as to the future of the Tennessee Titans. If they get blown out, then it perhaps might be time for a major overhaul.
If they compete with the Colts, then there's the aforementioned moral victory to build on for the rest of the season going into next year (see: 2006's 0-5 start with an 8-8 finish).
And if they win? As has been said before, they would need 11 more games of miracles to make the playoffs, but it would certainly be a catalyst for an in-season turnaround.
What a difference a game would make.