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NFL Preview - Arizona (7-3) at Tennessee (4-6)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Vince Young is enjoying a career renaissance, and his insertion as the Tennessee Titans' starting quarterback has given the team renewed hope in what looked to be a lost season.
Kurt Warner knows a thing or two about personal redemption as well, and the seasoned signal-caller is expected to lead the Arizona Cardinals into Nashville's LP Field this Sunday for an intriguing interconference clash between a pair of red-hot clubs.
The defending AFC South champion Titans had been left for dead after starting this campaign with six consecutive losses, capped by a humiliating 59-0 defeat at New England in mid-October. In dire need of a spark, head coach Jeff Fisher turned to Young, the fallen franchise face who had barely seen the playing field since being supplanted by veteran Kerry Collins immediately following the 2008 season opener.
The change has worked wonders for Tennessee, which has ripped off four consecutive wins with Young under center to maintain a fighting chance at a third straight playoff berth. The Titans still have an uphill climb, however, as they enter the Week 12 slate still a pair of games behind a three-team grouping leading the race for the AFC's two Wild Card spots.
Young has been noticeably efficient during the Titans' surge, with the former University of Texas star completing 66.7 percent of his passes and turning the ball over just twice over the course of those four wins. And although he wasn't at his best in Monday's key bout with division-rival Houston, Tennessee got plenty of difference-making contributions from a number of other players in coming through with a hard-fought 20-17 decision over the determined Texans.
Running back Chris Johnson continued his assault on the NFL record books by amassing 151 yards on 29 carries, while kicker Rob Bironas knocked down two long field goals, including a 53-yarder with 47 seconds left that accounted for the winning margin. The defense stood its ground as well, limiting the high-powered Texans to only three points after halftime.
Johnson's latest superlative performance gives the lightning-fast back a total of 1,242 rushing yards on the season, and he'll be bidding to join Hall of Famers Earl Campbell and Eric Dickerson as the only players in NFL history with six straight games of over 125 yards on the ground this weekend.
Arizona is on quite a roll of its own, especially when competing on the road. Last Sunday's 21-13 triumph at St. Louis was the Cardinals' third victory in a row and sixth win in their last seven games, and improved the reigning NFC Super Bowl representatives to 5-0 as the visitor this season. It's the organization's best such start since 1948, when the Chicago-based Cardinals prevailed in all six of their regular-season road tests en route to an appearance in that year's NFL Championship Game.
Warner threw for 203 yards and two scores on a sharp 15-of-19 passing against the Rams before being removed late in the first half for what was termed a mild concussion. Although the Cardinals will proceed with discretion in regards to the injury, early indications are that the two-time league MVP will be starting on Sunday.
Arizona can afford to be cautious with its valued field general, since the team currently sports a three-game lead over second-place San Francisco in the NFC West standings with six left to play.
The Cardinals lead the all-time series with the Titans, 5-3, including a 20-10 home victory when the teams last met, during the 2005 season. Tennessee won the previous matchup, a 41-14 decision in the desert in 1997. Arizona was a 30-12 winner when it last played a road game in the series, in Houston in 1994, and its last road loss in the series was to the Oilers in 1988. On Sunday, the Cardinals franchise will be playing a meaningful game in Tennessee for the first time.
Fisher is 1-2 against Arizona in his career, while the Cardinals' Ken Whisenhunt will be meeting both Fisher and Tennessee for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
Warner (2718 passing yards, 20 TD, 11 INT) continues to defy both the experts and Father Time, as the 38-year-old stands near the league lead in touchdown passes and completion percentage (67.5) as the architect of Arizona's fourth- ranked aerial attack (270.0 ypg). And like his team, the wily old pro has done his best work on the road, having produced an excellent 12-to-2 touchdown-to- interception ratio in the Cardinals' five away wins. Warner's certainly been aided by a sensational receiving corps headed by Larry Fitzgerald (71 receptions, 792 yards) and Anquan Boldin (51 receptions, 612 yards, 2 TD), both of whom have been to a combined six Pro Bowls. Fitzgerald presently tops the NFL with nine touchdown catches this year, while Boldin has put forth back-to-back 100-yard efforts following a one-game hiatus to rest a sprained ankle. While the offense would suffer if Warner is unable to go this week, the blow would be softened if a suddenly-resurgent running game continues to perform at the level it has over the Cards' last three wins. The team has averaged an impressive 162.3 yards per game via the ground during that stretch, with both rookie Beanie Wells (469 rushing yards, 4 TD, 8 receptions) and second-year man Tim Hightower (430 rushing yards, 5 TD, 47 receptions) having made a recent impact. Hightower, who leads all NFC backs in receptions, recorded a season-best 110 rushing yards against St. Louis, while the extremely-talented Wells is averaging a healthy 5.5 yards per pop through the last four weeks.
A Titans defense that has surrendered an NFL-worst 25 touchdown passes and nearly 250 yards per game through the air (31st overall) may prove to be easy pickings for Warner and Arizona's dangerous receivers, provided the limitedly- mobile quarterback gets ample time to throw. Tennessee sacked Houston's Matt Schaub four times in Monday's win and has compiled a respectable 25 takedowns of enemy passers this year, and its pass-rushing contingent could get a further boost if second-year tackle Jason Jones (15 tackles, 4 sacks) is able to make it back from a shoulder injury that forced him to sit out the last game. Interior lineman Tony Brown (26 tackles, 4 sacks) got to Schaub twice this past week and is tied with Jones and emerging end William Hayes (31 tackles, 4 sacks) for the team lead in sacks. The Titans did hold the Texans to a harmless 57 rushing yards on 17 attempts and have been pretty stout against the run for most of this season, with stalwart weakside linebacker Keith Bulluck (81 tackles, 1 INT) and middle man Stephen Tulloch (78 tackles, 2 INT) anchoring a group that ranks ninth in that category (104.1 ypg).
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
As the lone NFL team that's generated more rushing (168.4 ypg) than passing (164.8 ypg) yards this season and boasts arguably the game's premier running back in Johnson (1242 rushing yards, 30 receptions, 9 total TD), it isn't hard to figure out what the Titans' offensive plan will be come Sunday. Stopping it is another matter altogether. Johnson is averaging better than 160 rushing yards over the past four weeks and a whopping 6.2 yards per carry on the season, and his breakaway ability has certainly made life easier on Young (623 passing yards, 3 TD, 2 INT), who hasn't had to attempt more than 25 passes since reclaiming his starting job. Tennessee doesn't offer much for opposing defenses to fret about in the receiving department, especially with veteran wideout Justin Gage (22 receptions, 1 TD) likely to sit out a third straight game with a fracture in his lower back. 2009 first-round pick Kenny Britt (26 receptions, 1 TD) has shown flashes of greatness during his rookie year, however, and tight end Bo Scaife (24 receptions) is a dependable safety valve. The Cardinals will need to account for Young's considerable skills as a runner, a trait he showed off by scrambling 11 times for 73 yards in Monday's victory.
Arizona has allowed an individual 100-yard rusher in three of the last four weeks and will need to shore up a defense that's permitted an average of 156.8 yards per game on the ground over that stretch in order to keep its perfect road record intact. Inside linebackers Karlos Dansby (74 tackles, 1 sack) and Gerald Hayes (43 tackles), along with standout strong safety Adrian Wilson (45 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 3 INT), will be called upon to try to keep the electrifying Johnson somewhat in check, as well as preventing Young from making an impact with his feet. Although the Cardinals are 27th in the league in passing yards allowed (247.2 ypg), they're tops in third-down defense (32.6 percent) and have held opposing quarterbacks to just a 56.3 percent completion rate. A solid pass rush keyed by disruptive lineman Darnell Dockett (34 tackles, 4 tackles) and outside linebackers Clark Haggans (42 tackles, 4 sacks) and Chike Okeafor (25 tackles, 3.5 sacks) has helped bring about those strong numbers. Okeafor has missed the club's last two tests with a sore back, but appears in line to return this week.
There hasn't been a better player for fantasy purposes this season than Johnson, and the dynamic second-year back is a absolute must-use against a defense that's struggled versus the run in recent weeks. He's the only Titan who owns that distinction, however, although Bironas is a good choice at the kicker position. Young's value usually isn't reflected in his stat total, while the Tennessee receivers are an average bunch that lacks a true go-to guy. Warner owners need to keep an eye on the injury report this week, but if he's listed as probable come Friday, give the ageless quarterback a thumbs-up versus a shaky Titans secondary. Fitzgerald and Boldin are as consistent as they come at the wide receiver spot, while both Wells and Hightower have shown enough to be worthy of flex plays. The former has scored three touchdowns over Arizona's last two games, while the latter can pick up points due to his strong receiving skills.
Johnson's remarkable production combined with Young's steady guidance of the offense have clearly made the Titans a tough out once again, but the surging club does face a very tough draw in an Arizona squad that's finally been able to achieve balance on the offensive end and is hardly a pushover on the road. Assuming Warner gets the green light, he and his stellar group of receivers should be able to light up a Tennessee defense that's extremely vulnerable to the pass, and it remains to be seen whether Young is equipped to win what's shapes up to be a shootout. Johnson will likely run wild once again, but the Cardinals look to be the more well-rounded of these two teams and have proven to have what it takes to come out on top in a difficult matchup such as this one.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cardinals 31, Titans 27
11/25 17:23:35 ET