Saturday, October 3, 2009

Week 4 Pick: Titans -3 @ Jags

For the second consecutive week, I'm taking a road favorite, and this week, that favorite has a worse record than the home dog. But in a week with many intriguing lines, I think the Titans giving only 3 points at Jacksonville represents the best value on the board. Here's why:

1. This line reflects an overreaction to the Titan's brutal 0-3 start.

It's true that the Titans have not played well to date, and are one of the few 13 game winners in NFL history to start the next season 0-3. But I think the Titans are much better than their record indicates, and they will turn things around this week in Jacksonville. First, they have lost their 3 games by a combined 13 points. The Titans had the lead at some point in all of these games, and as Brian Baldinger pointed out on Playbook this week, the Titans are 4 negative plays away from being 3-0. Last week was particularly brutal, as two special teams fumbles almost singlehandedly dealt the Titans a loss. But I have faith that Jeff Fisher is correcting the Titans' deficiencies, and film study reveals the Titans addressing one weakness each week; for instance, their maligned pass defense bounced back from a torching at the hands of Matt Schaub to only allow 146 yards through the air last week. And now the Titans have resigned a veteran reliable returner to eliminate negative plays on special teams. In short, the Titans are a very talented team, probably the best 0-3 team of this decade, and they have have lost three games by a narrow margin, all stemming from very specific somewhat fluky turns of event in the 4th quarter that Fisher is addressing head on.

Second, 2 of their 3 losses have come in very tough games. They opened at the Steelers, a notoriously difficult place to play, particularly during the only game this year in which Polamalu has played (and he was the best player on the field before going down), and lost by a FG in OT. They also lost by a TD on the road to a Jets team that some analysts have as an early Super Bowl pick. Close games against these teams are not the sign of a bad football team; they are a sign of a team working out some kinks that is also suffering some bad luck. Granted, I do have some sympathy to Parcells's old saying that "you are what you are," and that the all the talent in the world can't belie the Titans' crappy record. But after three close games against good teams, I'm not ready to throw in the towel on the Titans. After all, this is the same team that 3 years ago started 0-5 and recovered to win 8 of 10 games. Everyone from Keith Bullock to Titans bloggers is treating this game as a must-win, statement game. I expect Fisher to have them ready to play and start climbing out of the cellar.

2. The Jags present a uniquely enticing opportunity for the Titans to turn things around.

The Jags were a consensus last place team entering the season, squarely in rebuilding mode and expected to be one of the worst teams in football. Granted, they did win last week, and there is the inevitable attendant overreaction, with one commentator typically stating that the Jags "whole world has changed" as a result of that win. But of course, it has not. The Jags win in game 3 was in some ways the inverse of the Titans season, with a series of somewhat fluky plays in their favor, including a late Texans fumble at the 2 yard line and a questionable offensive pass interference call, proving decisive in the Jags narrow victory. The late bounces in their favor obscured a second half in which the Texans absolutely shredded the Jags defense. The game also demonstrated that the Jags have a poor pass offense and that their corners and outside LBers are struggling to adjust to their new 3-4 defense. Ultimately, I do give them credit for winning the game, but keep in mind that the Texans are a very young and inconsistent team, and that it was a game they should have dominated. That game was more about the Texans identity--a young, mistake prone albeit talented team--than the Jags. In fact, when you look at a comparison of the Titans and the Jags stats against the Texans this year, the Titans come out ahead in most categories--except in end result. And remember, I pointed out earlier that in the first quarter of the season, veteran gamblers prefer to rely on metrics like yardage instead of points or win-loss, because in the long-run it is a more accurate predictor of future success when the sample size is small. One win does not a team make, and this still appears to be a rebuilding, bad Jaguars team.

Moreover, the Titans match-up quite well with the Jags. Thus far, the Titans pass defense has been their most surprising weakness. Luckily, the Jags are ill-suited to exploit that weakness, as a combination of Garrard's weak arm and his middling WR corps has deprived the Jags of a vertical passing game. The Titans have primarily struggled in coverage against two specific WRs: Santonio Holmes and Andre Johnson. The Jags have nobody of that caliber that can present a similar threat. As such, they are likely to rely on Maurice Jones-Drew and the ground game.

But the Titans are well positioned to stymie this element of the Jags attack. The Titans rush D is very good, particularly up the middle, which is where Jones-Drew overwhelmingly likes to direct his runs. It is true that MJD is coming off a very solid game, but it is equally as true that said success was against a putrid Texans run defense on pace to set records in futility. If the Titans can maintain anything close to their stunning 1.1 YPC allowed on interior runs, they will have a very successful defensive day. But on the other side of the ball, the interior rushing game presents a truly lopsided match up, pitting the top interior rushing RB in the league in Chris Johnson against the 30th ranked interior rush defense. To repeat, the Jags biggest weakness matches up to the Titans greatest strength. Such is the recipe for offensive domination by the Titans.

Not surprisingly, the Titans have a successful history against Jacksonville, having won 4 of the last 5 from the Jags, including the last 2 in Jacksonville, outgaining them by an average of 100+ yards in those games. In those games they have run the ball well, and in the new 3-4 defense without Henderson/Stroud anchoring the run defense, there's no reason to think that the Titans approach--or the results--will change. They also get TE Bo Scaife back this week. Not only has he made a crucial game changing play against the Jags in the past, but he's Kerry Collins' security blanket against pressure packages. Given that the Jags will likely try to emulate some of the Jets schemes from last week--although undoubtedly not as effectively--his presence will be beneficial, both schematically and psychologically.

3. The Titans have every incentive to run up the margin of victory.

If you accept my premise that the Titans will win this game, you should also think that their victory will be decisive enough to cover this 3-point spread. In the 2 games that the Titans won last year following losses, they won by an average of 27 points, 2 of their most lopsided wins of the whole year. Perhaps more instructively, the last two times the Titans ended a multiple game losing streak, they won by an average of 13 points. I think the pattern repeats itself here, because the Titans recognize two crucial things: they need a killer instinct, and they have had terrible luck in close games this year. Thus, I expect the mentality to be "enough is enough" and to not allow the game to get close enough to where a dumb special teams fumble or other late 4th quarter meltdown can affect the outcome. History suggests that's how Fisher's teams bust out of losing streaks, and I think the pattern repeats itself here.

Conversely, the Jags are feeling good about themselves, but also don't sound very inspired or motivated to get better. The biggest story in Jacksonville this week was Del Rio publicly excoriating their QB for his radio show. The Jags are a mess, and I love to bet against a bad team coming off a somewhat lucky win, because there is a risk of complacency and a lower chance of the favorite blowing them off and suffering a trap game. Thus, the psychology of both sides suggests a larger margin of victory than is reflected by the line.


It's the Titans' injuries, particularly in the secondary, that primarily worry me about this bet. They have little depth, which makes Finnegan's and Fuller's injuries that much more damaging. Could Torry Holt and emerging fantasy player Mike Sims-Walker have big days? It's possible. But the Titans have a lot of talent elsewhere on defense, and as I said earlier, the Jags are illsuited to exploit this weakness. I also have faith in Jeff Fisher; he has not lost his locker room, and I expect him to scheme to compensate for his injuries in this game. The Jags are not the type of multidimensional explosive team that worries me in this situation.

Finally, this game opened as a pick em, rapidly moving to Titans -3, as a lot of smart money came in on the Titans. I certainly would feel more confident as a pick 'em, as Tennessee is not a team like the Saints that is generally more likely to blow teams out. But the early shift in the line confirms my feelings that the Titans are a good bet to win this game, and since the game is still only at -3, with a FG victory at least pushing, I think it still represents great value.

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