By Ron Wynn
NASHVILLE, TN — With the Titans on pace for their first double digit victory total and AFC South title since 2008, the toughest test among their final four games looms this week. The Green Bay Packers have already clinched the NFC Central, and look primed to challenge the Saints, Rams and possibly Seahawks for a Super Bowl berth, as well as get the first-round bye for best NFC record.
All the stories that ran early last season about tension between former Titans offensive coordinator and current Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur and star QB Aaron Rodgers have been forgotten, with LaFleur openly campaigning for Rodgers to win his third MVP award. “A guy of his caliber, who, without a doubt in my mind, should be the front runner for the MVP. I mean, he does it consistently every time we go out on that field. It gives you a lot of confidence that you’re going to come out with a victory,” LaFleur said recently. There’s little doubt that despite the heroics of Derrick Henry the MVP race is coming down to Rodgers and 2018 winner Patrick Mahomes, who despite a recent three-interception game, is the key reason the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs are in strong position for a first-round bye and AFC home field advantage.
But Rodgers is not the Packers’ only weapon. Devonta Freeman is having another spectacular season, and with the Titans perennial secondary problems, it will be interesting to see if they decide to put Malcolm Butler on Freeman, or give him double coverage. He’s also not their lone receiving threat. Receivers Allen Lazard and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and tight end Robert Tonyan, are also having solid seasons and part of the reason Rodgers is nearing career highs in touchdown passes and completion percentage.
Defensively, the Packers haven’t done as well, particularly against the run, which is something the Titans hope to exploit with Henry. He needs to average 156 yards over his final four games to reach the magic 2,000 mark, and he’s also bidding to become the league’s first repeat rushing champion in 13 years. Titans QB Ryan Tannehill has a great shot at a 4,000 yard season passing, while A.J. Brown and Corey Smith have a good chance to be one of the rare receiving duos to each surpass 1,000 yards in receptions for a season.
Still, much of the result will come down to defense. If the defense doesn’t get pressure on Rodgers, expecting the offense to match the Packers score for score on the road is a tough task. The Titans have split six games with teams that have winning records, so this will also be closely watched around the league as a barometer of whether Tennessee is truly a title contender or a pretender.
The fact it is a Sunday night game represents yet another indicator of how the NFL views it, as a clash of playoff and possible Super Bowl teams.