- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 27, 2003

They have one proven receiver. Their star running back averages just 3.1 yards a carry. Their quarterback and Pro Bowl defensive end are hurting again. And their pass defense is the third-worst in the league.

The Tennessee Titans shouldn’t be 9-2, but, then, the Titans haven’t been fazed by much during the tenure of coach Jeff Fisher.

The Titans own the NFL’s best road record (41-28) over the past eight seasons. They also have the NFL’s best regular-season record (53-20) since 1999, when they came up just short in the Super Bowl against supposedly unbeatable St. Louis.

The Titans overcame a 1-4 start to finish 11-5 and reach the AFC title game last year. They lost five starters during the offseason while not signing any free agents and haven’t missed a beat.

That was still true when NFL passing leader Steve McNair, who has replaced halfback Eddie George as the team’s heartbeat, left last week’s game in Atlanta with a strained calf and a 21-14 deficit. Backup Billy Volek, who had thrown just 16 NFL passes and none since 2001, went nine of 15 for 117 yards and a touchdown to lead Tennessee to a 38-31 victory.

McNair often plays hurt, but Volek might get the nod again Monday against the New York Jets since the Titans have a division showdown against the 9-2 Colts just six days later.

And Volek, an undrafted rookie in 2000, isn’t the only contributor that Titans general manager Floyd Reese has picked up dirt-cheap.

Reese claimed Frank Wycheck, now fourth all-time in receptions by a tight end, off waivers from Washington in 1995. Receiver Drew Bennett, who has 23 catches and three touchdowns, was undrafted in 2001. Scott McCarrahan, Lamont Thompson and Ray Wells, three of the Titans’ top four special teams tacklers, were added after failing to make the rosters of Kansas City, Green Bay and Cincinnati, respectively, this summer.

“We always short-list guys and say ‘If these guys pop up, which ones are we going to take first?,’” Reese said. “We’ve been fortunate to have that work out.”

And how tough is the Titans’ top-ranked run defense? Ask Atlanta’s Warrick Dunn, who had gained 340 yards the previous two games and was averaging 5.9 yards a carry for the year, the best by any runner with at least 100 attempts. Dunn managed 14 yards on 14 carries against Tennessee before suffering a season-ending foot injury in the fourth quarter.

Tale of two seasons — No 2003 free agent must feel worse than Buffalo linebacker Takeo Spikes. After enduring five hapless (19-61) years in Cincinnati, Spikes signed with the up and coming Bills this winter. Spikes got satisfaction from the Bills’ 22-16 victory over the Bengals in Week5, but Buffalo is 1-5 since and is out of the playoff hunt at 4-7. Meanwhile, Cincinnati is 5-1 since then and is leading the AFC North at 6-5.

The Bengals (Marvin Lewis) and Bills (Gregg Williams) are both coached by ex-defensive coordinators, but offensive production — or the lack of it — is the reason for their divergence. After scoring 69 points the first two weeks, Buffalo has averaged 11.6 points during its 2-7 slide and went three games without a touchdown for the first time in its 44 seasons. Meanwhile, Cincinnati which averaged 15.4 points during its 1-4 start, has averaged 27.8 since.

And Cincinnati — 18-78 on the road from 1991 to 2002 — will be .500 away from home this year with a victory at Pittsburgh on Sunday.

Priest no believer — Not everyone believes in the Bengals. Kansas City’s Priest Holmes, whose 15 rushing touchdowns are more than any team except Philadelphia, isn’t convinced that Cincinnati is for real even though the Bengals held him to 62 yards while dealing the 10-1 Chiefs their only defeat two weeks ago.

“I have no respect for the Cincinnati Bengals,” Holmes said, before noting that he meant owner Mike Brown’s organization, not the players or Lewis. “If they’re prepared to go where we’re going [the playoffs], we shall meet again. When that day comes, we’ll have the opportunity to have a little bit of a rematch.”

Not just Keyshawn — After Tampa Bay got by the Giants 19-13 on Monday to end a three-game losing streak and improve to 5-6, coach Jon Gruden said the Super Bowl champions had their old cocky vibe back.

“We might lead the league in swagger,” Gruden said. “We’ve got a lot of confident players. If we continue to play like that … we’re a handful.”

Memo to Gruden: Lose the swagger. You barely beat a visitor on a 2-5 skid and you’re still two games out of a playoff spot with just five games to play, two of which are at New Orleans and Tennessee.

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