Perhaps the clearest confirmation of the Tennessee Titans’ status as a legitimate Super Bowl contender came on Tuesday night in Nashville against the previously unbeaten Buffalo Bills.
The Titans not only looked sharp in their first game since Sept. 27, with a COVID-19 outbreak putting their season on pause following their Week 3 road victory over the Minnesota Vikings, Tennessee played with remarkable precision in all three phases, appearing in no manner disrupted by an unexpected suspension and reconfiguration of its regular season schedule.
On Sunday, the Titans (4-0) will host the Houston Texans (1-3) at Nissan Stadium, poised to maintain their early season momentum and positioned to secure a four-game lead on their primary AFC South rivals. The Texans have claimed four of the previous five division titles.
Tennessee will have to overcome the hurdle of a short preparation week while continuing to settle in on the heels of an emotional roller coaster of exacting coronavirus tests and protocols.
“I think that’s what we have to do,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. “You get back to work, win or lose, and still try to find ways to improve. I think that’s something that we’ve always talked about. I think that the players understand that and appreciate that if you don’t continue to improve and find ways to get better each and every week, you’re not going to be where you want to be at the end of the season.”
The Titans, who finished 6 for 6 in the red zone while committing zero turnovers and allowing no sacks against Buffalo, are hamstrung by the number of players on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. Receivers Corey Davis and Adam Humphries, fullback Khari Blasingame, tight end MyCole Pruitt and defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons remained on that inactive list on Wednesday.
Tennessee did activate cornerback Kristian Fulton from the Reserve/COVID-19 list on Tuesday but he was among the inactives after not practicing in advance of the contest against the Bills.
“We are hopeful that some of those players would return that are on the COVID list here in the next few days,” Vrabel said.
The Titans’ impressive showing against the Bills was not lost on their upcoming opponent. Given the topsy-turvy nature of a league playing under pandemic protocols, the effort resonated.
“It was a good performance by them considering what they’ve gone through,” Texans interim coach Romeo Crennel said. “They looked fresh. The time off, I think they were really excited about being back on the field. I think that that gave them a lift, finally playing a game after having one moved and one pushed back, and now we’re finally on the field. So, I think that they enjoyed it and appreciated being out there.”
The Texans got a jolt of adversity following their first victory Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars, losing linebacker Benardrick McKinney to season-ending shoulder surgery. McKinney, a sixth-year veteran out of Mississippi State, had 37 tackles through four games this season.
McKinney, 27, amassed 330 tackles while missing only two games over the previous four seasons.
“B-Mac’s obviously an energetic guy,” Texans defensive end J.J. Watt said. “A hard hitter. A guy who’s been in the middle for us for a long time. So, it’s definitely a tough loss to lose a guy like B-Mac. We’re fortunate to have T.A. (Tyrell Adams) step in and play the way he did this past week (against Jacksonville) and we hope he continues to play at that level and obviously give us that energy he had all game long and continue to move forward.
“When you lose a guy like B-Mac, who’s a captain, who’s a guy everyone kind of looks to and respects, it’s always difficult for you.”