Matt Schaub is out for the season. All of a sudden, the Titans are back in the race for the AFC South, and their success or failure will largely depend on whether the success of Chris Johnson in the last couple of games is a flash in the pan or a true return to form.
Chris Johnson had 174 total yards against the Panthers on Sunday—130 on the ground and 44 through the air. He also had a touchdown.
Now, I don't think it's time to consider him back up to where he was (especially when you consider that the Panthers had the 27th-ranked rushing defense), but he's getting closer. If you look at his performance in the last three games, that becomes apparent.
Three weeks ago, the Titans were playing the Colts. The Colts' run defense is a joke, but even so, Johnson only racked up 34 yards on 14 attempts for a pathetic 2.4 yards per rush. He caught three passes for an additional 17 yards through the air.
A week later, against Cincinnati, Johnson had a much better game. In fact, he looked like his old self for the first half, where he picked up nearly all his rushing yards, before being shut down in the second.
For the game as a whole, he had 14 attempts for 64 yards, and four catches for an additional 46 yards. However, despite this strong start, he was completely ineffective in the second half. He looked slower and wasn't hitting holes as effectively.
Then, finally, this week, facing a poor defense, Johnson ran 27 times for 130 yards with an additional 44 yards from four passes. Again, I'll emphasize that the Panthers have one of the league's worst rush defenses, but so do the Colts, and Johnson was ineffective against them.
What do we make of this? Two things: Chris Johnson was out of shape and unmotivated.
Is Johnson's improvement for real?
It wasn't until Johnson's starting job was threatened by Javon Ringer that we started to see improvement from him. When that improvement did come, it came gradually.
Against the Colts, nothing. Then, Javon Ringer breaks out, getting nearly twice the yardage that Johnson got against the Colts. Then, the next game, Johnson starts out well against the Bengals, knowing that his job is in jeopardy, but can't keep it up. Finally, against the Panthers, he puts up respectable numbers.
On the bright side, there's nothing permanently wrong with Chris Johnson. However, the most likely explanation is that without coaches to motivate him during the lockout, he let himself get out of shape. Then, while he was holding out, he wasn't getting in any better shape, so his progress stalled.
Unfortunately, his return to form is probably too little, too late. The Texans are sitting at 7-3, and even though they lost Schaub for the season, they have a commanding lead in the AFC South.
If the Titans win four of their remaining games, including a win over the Matt Leinart-led Texans at the end of the season, the Titans could very well make the playoffs. However, for them to do that, they're going to need Chris Johnson to keep improving until he's back to top form.
The Titans have the Falcons next, followed by home games against the Buccaneers, Saints and Jaguars, and road games against the Bills, Colts and Texans. Four wins is possible, but it'll be tough. Let's hope Johnson is up to the task.