Every AFC "Favorite" Has Been Knocked Down in '08

Alex MarvezCorrespondent IDecember 21, 2008

NASHVILLE—The Tennessee Titans have clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.


Sure, it's a great accomplishment-especially with how the Titans wrestled that edge from Pittsburgh in Sunday's 31-14 home victory. But in this wacky conference, what does it really mean for the long haul?

Every time a so-called AFC "favorite" has emerged this season, that squad has quickly gotten knocked off its pedestal.

The latest example was Pittsburgh (11-4). The Steelers entered LP Field with five consecutive victories over some of the NFL's toughest foes. They left beaten and humiliated. Titans running back Chris Johnson even taunted the Steelers by waving his own version of a Terrible Towel after a fourth-quarter touchdown.

"Each week, you can't blink," Steelers linebacker Larry Foote said. "You've got to win."

Last year, the AFC's top two playoff seeds were secured by the end of Week 15. New England and Indianapolis were that dominant.

Not so this season, where every Super Bowl contender has very visible warts.

We should have known the AFC would be wacky from the start.

Think back to early September. New England and San Diego—the two teams from last year's conference championship game—were considered the Super Bowl frontrunners. Cleveland was scheduled for seven—seven!!!—prime-time games coming off a 10-6 campaign. Jacksonville was supposed to push Indianapolis for AFC South supremacy. High hopes surrounded Oakland and the New York Jets after outrageous offseason spending sprees.

And then the real fun began. As soon as Patriots quarterback Tom Brady went down with a serious knee injury in the season-opener, the entire AFC was turned topsy-turvy.

It's still that way.

Just a month ago, New York had become the conference media darlings by spoiling Tennessee's then-perfect record with a 34-13 road win. The Jets then came crashing back to earth with consecutive losses. They now risk losing the division to Miami, a 1-15 club in 2007 that remarkably now stands at 10-5.

What franchise is considered the new flavor of the week?

The Colts (11-4) are on an eight-game winning streak but probably won't have any home playoff games as a wild card. New England (10-5) may not reach the postseason despite winning four of its past five contests. Baltimore (10-5) just defeated Dallas but also lost the previous week to Pittsburgh. The Dolphins need a road victory against the Jets next Sunday to guarantee a playoff berth and establish themselves as more than the lucky recipients of an easy schedule.

Let's not even get started on the underwhelming AFC West.

As for the Titans, they could keep rolling in the playoffs like against Pittsburgh or get upset à la last Sunday's 13-12 loss at Houston. Neither outcome would be shocking.

"The season is so long," Titans wide receiver Justin Gage said. "You have your ups and downs. It's like a rollercoaster ride. The teams that end up on top are the ones that can stay consistent throughout the whole season. That's the one we're trying to be."

The Titans made strides in that direction Sunday albeit in a manner as illogical as how the AFC has unfolded.

Conventional wisdom would tell you that a Tennessee defensive line missing two star players (Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch) as well as a key reserve (Kevin Vickerson) would struggle. Instead, unheralded rookies Jason Jones and Williams Hayes combined for 4.5 sacks, four forced fumbles (one recovered) and four tackles for losses.

The Titans didn't even need blitzing to pressure Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger into two interceptions, including one returned 83 yards for a touchdown by safety Michael Griffin in the closing seconds.

Pittsburgh's defense had tied an NFL record by not surrendering 300 yards in 14 consecutive games. Some of those opponents—including New England, Indianapolis and Dallas—had offenses with much more firepower than Tennessee. Yet it was the Titans bludgeoning Pittsburgh for 323 yards behind an efficient performance from quarterback Kerry Collins and a 117-yard combined rushing effort from Johnson and LenDale White.

Capping the bizarro proceedings was normally conservative Titans coach Jeff Fisher eschewing field goal attempts inside Steelers territory on two third-quarter drives. Both gambles paid dividends, with series that ended with touchdowns.

Johnson's 21-yard score on a fourth-and-one was especially sweet. He took an option-style pitch and easily darted through a Steelers defense frozen by a Collins fake handoff to fullback Andre Hall.

Johnson then pulled out a white Titans towel from his pants and began spinning in response to the horde of visiting Steelers fans that had done the same with their trademark twirlers.

"It was our time to wave some towels," Johnson said. "There were too many [in our stadium]. I wanted to give them a taste of their own blood."

That could be a rookie mistake. Should the two teams meet again, Foote said the Steelers will "bring that footage out" as pre-game motivation. Foote, though, knows Pittsburgh may not get a shot at revenge.

"We have so much stuff to do before we see those guys again—if we see those guys again," Foote said.

Such is life in the AFC.

This article originally published on FOXSports.com.

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