NFL Preview - Tennessee (7-8) at Seattle (5-10)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - During his two-year NFL career, Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson has developed a reputation as a player who does not shy away from the spotlight.
That trait should come in handy on Sunday afternoon at Qwest Field, because when Johnson and company take to the playing surface to face the homestanding Seattle Seahawks, Johnson will essentially be the entire show.
The extra focus on Johnson has much to do with his pursuit of history, as he attempts to become the sixth player in NFL history to reach 2,000 yards, and the first since the Baltimore Ravens' Jamal Lewis rushed for 2,066 yards in 2003. Johnson enters Week 17 with 1,872 rushing yards, leaving him 128 shy of the plateau, and a difficult-but-not-impossible to attain 233 yards behind the NFL record of 2,105 yards set by the Los Angeles Rams' Eric Dickerson in 1984. In addition to Lewis and Dickerson, the Lions' Barry Sanders (2,053 yards in 1997), Broncos' Terrell Davis (2,008 in 1998), and Bills' O.J. Simpson (2,003 in just 14 games during the 1973 season) are the other men to reach 2,000 in a year.
Johnson, who also needs just 75 yards from scrimmage to better the single- season NFL record of 2,429, set by the Rams' Marshall Faulk in 1999, comes into Sunday having rushed for 100-plus yards in 10 consecutive games, including six times of over the magic number of 128 during that span.
The Seahawks team trying to prevent Johnson from reaching the pinnacle enters the season's final week ranked a middle-of-the-pack 14th in the league against the run (109.5 yards per game), and has allowed over 100 rushing yards in seven of their last nine games. Johnson's chances to reach 2,000 look good in that context, though his ability to challenge Dickerson's mark would seem far- fetched against a group that last surrendered 200-plus on the ground in Week 2, when the 49ers' Frank Gore rushed for 207 yards as part of a 256-yard day.
All of the concentration on individual accolades is also a by-product of the fact that the Titans and Seahawks have little to play for as teams.
Tennessee was officially eliminated from the playoff race with a 42-17 home shellacking at the hands of the San Diego Chargers on Christmas night, just the club's second loss in a span of nine games after starting the season 0-6.
The best Jeff Fisher's team can do on Sunday is to avoid its first losing season since 2005, when the Titans finished 4-12.
The Seahawks have even less to play for, except perhaps a slight restoration of their pride entering the offseason. Seattle has lost its last two games by a combined score of 72-17, showing little heed of head coach Jim Mora's pre- Week 15 edict that his players would be working for their jobs over the final three games. One week after falling at home to the then-one-win Tampa Bay Buccaneers (24-7), Seattle went to Green Bay and was hammered by a 48-10 count last Sunday.
The loss clinched the Seahawks' first back-to-back double-digit loss seasons since 1993-94, when the team finished 6-10 in consecutive campaigns.
Seattle leads the all-time series with Tennessee, 9-4, and has won the last five meetings between the clubs. The Seahawks were 28-24 road winners when the teams last met, in 2005, and also won regular season games in the series in 1996, 1997, and 1998 at home, and on the road against the then-Houston Oilers in 1994. The Hawks' last loss in the series came in 1993, when they went to Houston and were defeated by the Oilers, 24-14. The Titans/Oilers franchise is 0-6 in Seattle since notching its only win there in 1977.
In addition to the regular season series, the franchises have met once in the postseason, a 23-20 overtime win for the then-Houston Oilers in a 1987 AFC First-Round Playoff.
Fisher is 0-5 in his career against Seattle, including 0-3 in road games. The Seahawks' Mora will be meeting both Fisher and the Titans for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
Johnson will clearly be option number one for the Titans offense on Sunday, but his life will be easier if Vince Young (1708 passing yards, 10 TD, 6 INT) and the Tennessee passing game can do something to complement him. Young comes off his worst game of the 2009 season, an 8-of-21, 89-yard, two interception showing against the Chargers that yielded him a microscopic 11.9 passer rating for the night. The former-first rounder has posted a passer rating of better than 90.0 in six of 10 starts this year. Though Johnson is the Tennessee leader in receptions, wideouts Nate Washington (41 receptions, 6 TD), Kenny Britt (41 receptions, 3 TD) and tight end Bo Scaife (43 receptions, 1 TD) have had their moments as well. A solid Tennessee offensive line has allowed just 15 sacks all year.
The principles at the heart of the Seattle front seven group trying to stop or at least slow Johnson include tackles Brandon Mebane (48 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and Colin Cole (45 tackles) at the point of attack, and a linebacking crew including David Hawthorne (108 tackles, 4 sacks, 3 INT) in the middle and Will Herring (39 tackles) and LeRoy Hill (42 tackles, 1 sack) on the flanks. Herring, subbing for the injured Aaron Curry (shoulder/hip) last week, had a team-high eight tackles but the Seahawks allowed Green Bay to rush for 153 yards and five touchdowns on the ground. Mebane and Cole were a major part of those numbers, despite combining for 11 tackles in the loss. Strong safety Lawyer Milloy (32 tackles) should also be a factor in the run-stopping effort on Sunday. The Seahawks are 30th in the league against the pass (250.4 yards per game), as cornerbacks Josh Wilson (45 tackles, 2 INT, 1 sack) and Marcus Trufant (43 tackles, 2 INT) have struggled and ends Patrick Kerney (32 tackles, 5 sacks) and Lawrence Jackson (30 tackles, 4.5 sacks) have not provided consistent pressure.
WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL
Sunday's contest could be a referendum concerning the future of Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (2854 passing yards, 16 TD, 16 INT), who has started 13 games this season after an injury-plagued 2008, but has not often looked like the same player who led the organization to multiple playoff berths during the earlier part of the decade. The 34-year-old has two touchdown passes to eight interceptions in his last two games combined, and has led the offense to just 24 points over the past three games. Part of the problem has been pressure against a makeshift Seattle o-line that has allowed 38 sacks on the year, and another is the work of a running game that ranks just 28th in the league (95.1 yards per game) and has not been a complementary piece of the attack. Justin Forsett (545 rushing yards, 39 receptions, 5 TD), who rushed 14 times for 70 yards in Green Bay, could get the bulk of the carries this week due to rib and ankle problems that have limited Julius Jones (602 rushing yards, 34 receptions, 4 TD) in practice. Among Hasselbeck's most reliable targets, wideouts T.J. Houshmandzadeh (76 receptions, 3 TD), Deion Branch (41 receptions, 2 TD), and tight end John Carlson (49 receptions, 6 TD) have all had their share of big plays this year.
Hasselbeck could be in line for a better day against a Tennessee defense that ranks 31st in the league against the pass (264.7 yards per game), better than only the Lions, and comes off a week in which it allowed the Chargers' Philip Rivers to throw for 264 yards and two touchdowns on a crisp 21-of-27 passing. Cornerbacks Cortland Finnegan (60 tackles, 5 INT) and Nick Harper (81 tackles, 1 INT) should have primary responsibility against Houshmandzadeh and Branch, with safeties Chris Hope (76 tackles, 3 INT, 1 sack) and Michael Griffin (68 tackles, 1 INT) among those helping out over the top. A deficient pass rush that has generated a disappointing 29 sacks on the year, led by end Jacob Ford's 5.5, should be able to pressure Hasselbeck and the thin Seahawks o- line. Injuries have depleted the Tennessee run-stopping group, as the anonymous likes of linebackers Gerald McRath (41 tackles) and Colin Allred (16 tackles), as well as tackle Kevin Vickerson (25 tackles), are now playing key roles. Middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch (112 tackles, 2 sacks) has been the team's most consistent run-stopper this year.
Most fantasy leagues have already played their championship, but for many managers that still have something riding on Week 17, Johnson's pursuit of 2,000 and beyond will be a quest worth watching. Otherwise, not a whole lot of worthwhile fantasy options on either side, though Forsett might be an OK flex play based on his probable number of touches and kickers Olindo Mare (Seattle) and Rob Bironas (Tennessee) have both been accurate and figure to contribute something here.
There shouldn't be a lot of mystery on the minds of the Seahawks defense about what Tennessee will try to do here, as the Titans attempt to get the ball to Johnson and get him to 2,000. If Seattle does anything other than stack the box on just about every play, it will be amazing, and if the Seahawks still can't stop Johnson, it will be a big-time indictment of their defensive group. Chances are, Johnson will get his 128 but will also have a lot of short and negative runs with Seattle honing in on him. That situation should help Hasselbeck and company get some short fields, and the Hawks should be able to cash in on enough of those to score a quality win that is too little, too late.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Seahawks 26, Titans 23
12/30 22:37:26 ET