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VOL. 36 | NO. 47 | Friday, November 23, 2012

This Titan stretch run more about 2013

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When the Tennessee Titans reported back to Baptist Sports Park on Monday, they probably couldn’t help but take a glance at the AFC standings.

And what they saw was a jumbled mess, one that might even give them some strange sense of optimism over the final six weeks of the regular season.

But at 4-6, the Titans shouldn’t be entertaining any thoughts of the postseason in the mediocrity of the AFC right now, even though they still have a faint playoff pulse.

The leaders in every division are pretty much established with New England, Baltimore, Houston and Denver in control of their respective divisions.

After that, however, the battle for the two wild-card spots is where things get a bit dicey.

Both teams leading the fray for the two wild-card spots – Indianapolis and Pittsburgh – lost Sunday and fell to 6-4.

And both have their issues, the Steelers looking very mortal without Ben Roethlisberger, and Andrew Luck being humbled as a rookie quarterback by Patriots in a 59-24 loss. Behind those teams sit Cincinnati (5-5) and a pack of five teams at 4-6, including the Titans.

Realistically, I don’t think anyone who has watched the Titans play through the first 10 weeks of the season looked at this team and uttered the word “playoffs.”

This team has had more holes than Krispy Kreme for the better part of the season, and one convincing road victory against fellow straggler Miami doesn’t undo all the problems that have been revealed this season.

For that reason alone, the evaluation of the Titans over the final portion of the season – one that owner Bud Adams laid out after a trouncing by Chicago a couple of weeks ago – isn’t about the final won-loss record. And it certainly isn’t about the playoffs, even though Tennessee is mathematically alive.

What these final six games represent for the Titans is the opportunity to build something for the future. It’s about handing the reins to Jake Locker to see if the moxie he showed against the Dolphins can be a foundation upon which a contender can be built.

It’s about Locker getting familiar with the weapons he has on offense like Kendall Wright, Jared Cook and Kenny Britt. And it’s about him emerging as the on-field and locker room leader this team sorely needs.

It’s no secret that almost every good team nowadays has a quarterback who can put the team on his shoulders and will them to victory. The Titans need to see if Locker can learn to be that guy.

And what of the defense, which up until the Miami game had been horrific with weak tackling, blown assignments and just overall porous play? These final six weeks are audition time to see who wants to play.

There is little doubt personnel needs to be revamped in the off-season. The mandate of GM Ruston Webster, coach Mike Munchak and defensive coordinator Jerry Gray (if he survives), is to find out exactly what pieces need to be kept and built around, and what pieces need to be discarded.

The Titans are extremely young on defense at a number of positions, especially at linebacker, where there appears to at least be some potential for improvement. Colin McCarthy, Akeem Ayers and rookie Zach Brown should get better the more they play together.

McCarthy, who has been battling a high ankle sprain all season, said he believes the young group is coming together.

“I think it’s just playing together and getting a feel for each other and seeing what we can and can’t do together on the field,” he says. “We cover for each other if a guy makes a mistake.

“I think we’ll just get better from here. The more we play together, the more we jell, the better we’ll play together as a defense.”

Perhaps the rest of the defense should take a cue from McCarthy and the linebackers. Mistakes on this unit have not been limited to young players still learning the pro game. There have been plenty of veterans guilty of poor play.

Evaluation time begins now, and whether the Titans finish 10-6 or 6-10 in 2012, that has to be the primary goal of this organization.

The Titans have the final six weeks of this season to determine who fits into what role and how to construct a roster, coaching staff and front office that can soon enough become a legitimate playoff contender over the long haul.

Terry McCormick covers the Titans for TitanInsider.com and is the AFC blogger for National Football Post.