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NFL Preview - Miami (7-6) at Tennessee (6-7)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Back when they were both 0-3, the notion of the Tennessee Titans and Miami Dolphins playing one another in a meaningful game in mid- December would have seemed mighty far-fetched.
But after scratching and clawing their way back to relevance, the battle between the Titans and Dolphins at LP Field will indeed have much to say about the shape of the AFC playoff race.
Tennessee would lose three more times after that 0-3 start, but after a 6-1 stretch of football that included last week's 47-7 rout of the St. Louis Rams, the Titans have earned the right to think about playing beyond their regular season finale on Jan. 3rd.
Jeff Fisher's team won't be able to do it alone, as the Titans enter Week 15 still behind a glut of 7-6 teams, including their current opponent the Dolphins, as well as the Jacksonville Jaguars, Baltimore Ravens, and New York Jets. While worrying about the exploits of those teams, Tennessee will also have to get past a gauntlet of clubs that starts with Miami and continues with the San Diego Chargers and the home-tough Seahawks in Seattle in Week 17.
Complicating matters for the Titans is their starting quarterback situation. Quarterback Vince Young, who has opened all six Tennessee victories this season, left last week's win with a hamstring strain, after previously battling a nagging knee problem in practice.
Young has been deemed day-to-day as he attempts to prepare himself to face Miami, and if he can't go, Kerry Collins would be back behind center for Tennessee. Collins, who is 0-6 as a starter this season, completed 11-of-19 passes for 154 yards with a touchdown and no turnovers after relieving Young against the Rams.
The visiting Dolphins, meanwhile, are looking to boost their postseason prospects on two fronts.
Miami, which moved to 4-1 in its last five games with last week's critical 14-10 win at Jacksonville, has not conceded its place in the AFC East race. The Dolphins remain one game behind the 8-5 New England Patriots as Week 15 commences, and would take over the division tie-breaker with the Pats if New England loses at Buffalo on Sunday.
The Dolphins would also be in good shape in the wild card race with a victory on Sunday, as a team that already owns head-to-head tie-breakers against the Jaguars and Jets would knock out one of its chief AFC pursuers.
Miami's final two weeks include matchups with the Texans (12/27) and Steelers (1/3), both at Dolphin Stadium.
The Dolphins hold a 17-13 edge in the all-time series with the Titans, and have won the last two head-to-head meetings. Miami was a 13-10 home winner when the clubs last met, in Week 3 of the 2006 campaign. Tennessee's most recent win in the series was a 17-7 home affair in 2004, and the Titans were 31-7 victors in the most recent meeting in Nashville, in 2003. Miami last won in Tennessee in 2001.
The Dolphins lost a 17-9 tilt to the Oilers in a 1978 AFC First-Round Playoff, which ranks as the only postseason meeting between the clubs all-time.
Tennessee head coach Jeff Fisher is 2-6 against Miami in his career, while the Dolphins' Tony Sparano will be meeting both Fisher and the Titans for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
The Dolphins figure to make very little secret of their offensive approach on Sunday, as Ricky Williams (975 rushing yards, 24 receptions, 12 TD) and a power-running game that ranks third in the league (150.1 rushing yards per game), including a league-high-tying 19 rushing touchdowns, takes center stage. Williams is 25 yards shy of his first 1,000-yard season since 2003, which would mark the longest gap between 1,000-yard campaigns in NFL history. The veteran carried 28 times for 108 yards and a touchdown in last week's win over the Jaguars, making life easier for Chad Henne (2067 passing yards, 9 TD, 9 INT) and a developing Miami passing attack. Henne was a solid 21-of-29 passing for 220 yards with no touchdowns and an interception, also adding a one-yard touchdown sneak in the victory. Wideout Greg Camarillo (39 receptions) had his best game of the season in the triumph, hauling in seven balls for 110 yards to offset quiet days for Devone Bess (62 receptions, 1 TD) and Brian Hartline (24 receptions, 3 TD). Tight end Anthony Fasano (24 receptions, 1 TD), who had 10 catches for 141 yards in his previous two games combined, did not have a grab in Jacksonville. The Miami o-line surrendered two sacks against the Jags, bringing their total to 27 for the year.
Tennessee's ability to walk away with a win on Sunday will be largely predicated on how it fares against the Dolphins' rushing attack, and a defense that ranks a solid seventh in the league against the run (98.8 yards per game) would seem to be up to the task. The Titans have prevented each of their past five opponents from amassing 100 ground yards, and last Sunday limited Rams phenom Steven Jackson to 39 yards on 18 totes. A stout interior line led by tackles Tony Brown (36 tackles, 5 sacks) and Jovan Haye (26 tackles) will try to bottle up Williams at the point of attack, with linebackers Stephen Tulloch (89 tackles, 2 sacks) and Keith Bulluck (103 tackles, 3 INT) among those trying to clean up the mess behind them. Brown had five stops against the Rams last week, while Bulluck posted a game-high 10 tackles and two interceptions. A Titans pass defense that had struggled mightily earlier in the year has generally righted itself, thanks in large part to better health in the secondary. Cornerback Cortland Finnegan (50 tackles, 5 INT) and safety Vincent Fuller (28 tackles, 3 INT, 1 sack), two of the formerly injured Titans, combined for three interceptions last Sunday, while corner Nick Harper (68 tackles), who missed a large chunk of time with a broken arm, picked up nine solo tackles. The Titans remain 31st in the league against the pass (258.8 yards per game) and have been inconsistent rushing the passer, though end William Hayes (44 tackles, 4 sacks) has been a bright spot there.
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
The major question mark for the Tennessee offense this week involves Young (1383 passing yards, 7 TD, 3 INT, 219 rushing yards), who has undoubtedly given the Titans a spark since entering the lineup in Week 8 and has shown improved poise and maturity in the pocket. If he can't play, that could make things a bit more difficult for MVP candidate Chris Johnson (1626 rushing yards, 42 receptions, 13 TD), who will be going for his ninth consecutive 100-yard game and needs to average 124.7 yards per outing the rest of the way to hit 2,000 for the year. When the Titans throw it, Nate Washington (36 receptions, 5 TD) and Kenny Britt (38 receptions, 3 TD) have been the club's most consistent wideouts, with tight ends Bo Scaife (38 receptions, 1 TD) and Alge Crumpler (27 receptions, 1 TD) a big part of the team's aerial attack as well. Britt had a team-high 75 receiving yards in last week's win over the Rams, while Crumpler caught Collins' (1225 passing yards, 6 TD, 8 INT) lone touchdown pass of the evening. A strong Titans offensive line has allowed just 12 sacks all year, for an offense that ranks a healthy 10th in the league overall (360.4 yards per game).
The Dolphins defense attempting to slow Johnson this week ranks just 13th in the NFL against the run (106.1 yards per game), but should come in with some confidence after limiting the Jaguars' Maurice Jones-Drew to 59 yards on 18 carries last Sunday. The Fins got a nice push up front from linemen Paul Soliai (19 tackles) and Randy Starks (46 tackles, 6 sacks), who had four stops each in the win, though top run-stopping linebackers Akin Ayodele (54 tackles) and Channing Crowder (47 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) were both relatively quiet in the win. Starks, who is tied for second on the team in sacks along with Jason Taylor (31 tackles, 6 sacks, 1 INT), and behind only Joey Porter (32 tackles, 8 sacks), was a third-round pick of the Titans in 2004 and played in 60 games for the team from 2004 through 2007. The Miami pass rush, which has generated an impressive 38 sacks this year, has helped make things easier on a secondary featuring a pair of rookie cornerbacks in Vontae Davis (40 tackles, 3 INT) and Sean Smith (33 tackles). That duo has also been assisted by versatile safeties Yeremiah Bell (97 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT) and Gibril Wilson (82 tackles, 1 sack), who combined for 13 tackles in the Jacksonville win last week.
The Dolphins have one worthwhile fantasy option, and that is Williams, who should get enough touches on Sunday to justify his presence in fantasy lineups. Otherwise, Miami players like Camarillo, Bess, Fasano, and kicker Dan Carpenter have been hit-or-miss.
For Tennessee, Johnson's performance will determine several playoff results around fantasy nation, and there's no reason to expect that he won't get his yards. No other Titans should be enticing in this matchup.
The injury to Young threatens to disrupt the Titans' new-found offensive rhythm, whether he plays or not. A hobbled Young won't pose the same threat to the defense that a healthy one would, and there's a chance Tennessee will choose not to subject him to injury on running or option plays. If Collins plays, a strong Dolphins pass rush can simply pin its ears back and attack. For that reason alone, Miami is the pick here in a game between two evenly- matched clubs. The Fins aren't spectacular offensively, but they know what they are, and continuity on that side of the ball will be a mark in the favor of an important Miami victory.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Dolphins 16, Titans 14
12/17 18:13:56 ET