There are three undefeated teams in the National Football League and two of them square off this week at Nissan Stadium when the Tennessee Titans host the Pittsburgh Steelers. The other 5-0 team, the Seattle Seahawks, will play in Arizona later on Sunday in a game that has now been shifted to the 5:20 p.m. time slot while the original primetime game from Las Vegas is confronting the Raiders Covid-19 outbreak.
This battle in Nashville is between two teams that on our charts had totally different preseason projections.
Because the Titans made a late season run that took them from the middle of the pack in the AFC South Division to a playoff berth and postseason that landed them in the AFC Championship Game, we had them scheduled for a down point spread year in 2020. The reason for this is a team that catches fire late in a campaign one year, like the Titans did after head coach Mike Vrabel inserted Ryan Tannehill at quarterback in place of incumbent starter Marcus Mariota, has expectations the following season that exceed actual talent levels.
The fact that Tannehill suddenly turned into Johnny Unitas last season in leading the Titans to an even competitive game against the eventual Super Bowl Champions in the AFC title game, after beating Kansas City in the regular season, were solid reasons to question where the Titans heads would be coming into this year. Of course, the team and their fans would be excited about the prospects given their 2019 success, but on a motivational scale, that is seldom a good thing.
Contrast that with what the Pittsburgh Steelers prospects were coming into this season. They had endured one of the few campaigns that they missed the playoffs after future Hall of Fame Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was knocked out of the 2019 season early. In the prior two seasons, the Steelers, who once owned three of the most dynamic skill position players in the game with Roethlisberger teaming with runningback Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown, played last season without any of them and were bringing back only an old and often injured Roethlisberger this season.
That is excellent motivation for Pittsburgh coming into 2020, and they have taken full advantage of that edge. Roethlisberger is playing solid and he is getting great production from two other emerging stars in his offensensive arsenal, runningback James Conner and rookie receiver Chase Claypool.
Now, the preseason expectations played to form early. The Titans struggled in their season opener in a narrow win at Mile High over the Denver Broncos, 16-14, which resulted in a point spread loss. They were favored by three points. In second and third week action, the Titans managed narrow victories over suspect competition and two more point spread losses in close wins at Jacksonville and Minnesota.
Then, something happened to this Titans team, they got hit with the Coronavirus, and their season was suddenly shifted around to accommodate mounting medical concerns. Those challenges seemed to galvanize this unit, masterfully coached by Vrabel, and the Titans returned to action after a prolonged layoff with a victory over previously unbeaten Buffalo. Last week, they demonstrated character in coming from behind late and beating the Houston Texans in overtime.
Whatever preseason projections predicting doom for this squad has now been erased by a united team front that has the Titans looking like a squad that is going to build on their 2019 success instead of suffering from the likely motivational dip.
But, what does that mean on Sunday when the Titans host the charging Steelers?
It means we’ve got a real good game on tap for Nashville when these two AFC powers square off on Sunday. And while I expect the Titans will have trouble covering bloated point spreads this season, this week they are not carrying the load of too many points on the spread and are simply challenged by a quality opponent.
Which is something the Titans have proven this year they are capable of overcoming.
Qoxhi Picks: Tennessee Titans (-1½) over Pittsburgh Steelers