Titans for real? Test with Chiefs will tell plenty

FILE - In this Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016 file photo, Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota warms up before an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos in Nashville, Tenn. The Tennessee Titans are making believers out of lots of folks. The idea that they could win the AFC South is very much alive after their victory over Denver. Should the Titans come out of Kansas City with another win on Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016, the question might become are they good enough to not only make the playoffs, but do damage there.(AP Photo/Mark Zaleski, File)
FILE - In this Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016 file photo, Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota warms up before an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos in Nashville, Tenn. The Tennessee Titans are making believers out of lots of folks. The idea that they could win the AFC South is very much alive after their victory over Denver. Should the Titans come out of Kansas City with another win on Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016, the question might become are they good enough to not only make the playoffs, but do damage there.(AP Photo/Mark Zaleski, File)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – The Tennessee Titans are making believers out of lots of folks.

The idea that they could win the AFC South is very much alive after their victory over Denver.

Should the Titans come out of Kansas City with another win on Sunday, the question might become are they good enough to not only make the playoffs, but do damage there?

With Marcus Mariota showing franchise-quarterback temperament and skills, DeMarco Murray leading a powerful running game behind an improving line, and a stingy run defense, Tennessee seems to be arriving a year early as a contender.

“We’ll continue to grow,” Mariota says. “There’s always areas to improve, but I think it’s fun to be around a group that’s growing and learning at the same time. You can see the confidence throughout the locker room.”

That confidence has led to a 7-6 record — Tennessee has won three of four — and a meaningful final month of the year.

“It’s a fun atmosphere to be a part of. This is what you work all year for is to have an opportunity in December to make a run at the playoffs,” Mariota adds.

Not only are the Chiefs (10-3) a factor in the AFC West, they could secure a playoff berth with a win and both Miami and Denver either losing or tying, or Denver and Baltimore or Pittsburgh losing.

Coach Andy Reid’s eyes are focused only on the Titans, who knocked off defending Super Bowl champion Denver last week.

“They’re hotter than a firecracker right now,” Reid says. “They play hard, they know what they’re doing. Their defense, Dick LeBeau is a Hall of Famer as a coach and a player. He’s very good at what he does, and the guys look like they believe in what they’re doing.”

Reid can tie Bill Parcells (183) for 10th on the NFL wins list.

The action began Thursday night with Russell Wilson throwing three touchdown passes and Seattle beating Los Angeles 24-3 to win the NFC West title.

Wilson was 19 of 26 for 229 yards, and Tyler Lockett had 130 yards receiving with a 57-yard scoring catch. Seattle (9-4-1) claimed its third NFC West title in four seasons, assuring itself of at least one home game in the playoffs.

A tumultuous few days for the Rams (4-10) after the firing of Jeff Fisher as head coach culminated in their fifth straight loss and first under interim coach John Fassel.

Miami (8-5) at New York Jets (4-9), Saturday night

The Dolphins have won seven of eight and look to clinch their first winning season since 2008, when they went 11-5 and won the AFC East. They’ll try to stay in the wild-card hunt with veteran backup quarterback Matt Moore after Ryan Tannehill damaged his knee. Center Mike Pouncey also is out, so Miami’s defense could be in the spotlight.

New York also is using a backup QB, second-year man Bryce Petty in his third start trying out for the position next season. He led the Jets to a nice comeback OT win at San Francisco to break a four-game slide.

Tampa Bay (8-5) at Dallas (11-2)

This game was flexed to prime time and with good reason. Yes, the Cowboys had their 11-game win streak snapped by the Giants, the only team to beat them in 2016, but they still have the NFC East and the overall top seed in the conference in sight.

The division belongs to Dallas if it wins and the Giants don’t, or it ties and the Giants lose. Home-field advantage comes if the Cowboys win and the Giants tie the Lions.

Tampa has won five straight; the previous time that happened, the Bucs won the NFL title in 2002. They have an NFL-high 10 interceptions in those five games. On offense, Jameis Winston to Mike Evans has been a top combination, and Doug Martin is averaging 102 yards from scrimmage in his past 13 road games.

Yes, the Bucs might have the players to match up with Dallas’ star rookies, RB Ezekiel Elliott, the NFL’s leading rusher, and QB Zak Prescott .

Detroit (9-4) at New York Giants (9-4)

Two more teams in the heart of the NFC chase, though the Lions are in a stronger spot. They lead the North and can secure a position if they win and the Packers don’t, or if they tie and both the Packers and Vikings lose.

A playoff berth is within a long reach for the Giants. They must win and have Washington lose, Minnesota and Green Bay both lose or tie. They still can grab the NFC East if they stay hot and Dallas slumps.

If this one is close, as it figures to be — both teams rarely have lopsided contests, with Detroit winning eight times despite trailing in the fourth period — watch out for Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. His game-breaking skills were on display in the 10-7 victory over Dallas last Sunday night.

Oakland (10-3) at San Diego (5-8)

OK, Raiders fans, here are some words you’ve been waiting to hear since Rich Gannon took you to the Super Bowl in 2002: Oakland makes the playoffs with a win.

Tied for the lead in the AFC West (Kansas City holds the tiebreaker), the Raiders also can get in without a win, but that requires lots of help.

San Diego is playing out the string, perhaps on the field for the penultimate time in Qualcomm Stadium. The Chargers soon must exercise their option to move to Los Angeles, and any stadium deals to remain in San Diego appear to be a long shot.

New England (11-2) at Denver (8-5)

As usual, the Patriots are pushing for the AFC’s best record. With a win they would become the first team in NFL history with eight consecutive division titles.

While they can’t clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs this weekend, they could grab the East simply by Miami not beating the Jets. A first-round bye comes with a Patriots win, too.

Denver has not been one of Tom Brady’s favorite places. The Broncos are the only team Brady has a losing record against: 6-9, 2-7 in Denver, including two losses last season, the second for the AFC championship. And the Broncos still have that strong defense.

But Denver’s offense has sputtered badly and can’t afford a shootout with New England.

For the Broncos to have a chance to repeat as champs, they must negotiate the toughest closing trio of opponents: New England, Kansas City and Oakland.

Green Bay (7-6) at Chicago (3-10)

Pro football’s longest rivalry could be deadlocked if Green Bay wins and keeps its playoff hopes breathing. Chicago leads 94-93-6, but the Packers have won six in a row at Soldier Field. Their defense has come alive in a three-game win streak that revitalized Cheeseheads everywhere.

Aaron Rodgers is 14-4 against the Bears, including postseason. He leads the NFL with 32 TD passes, but hurt his right calf last week and missed some practice time.

The Bears get back WR Alshon Jeffery from a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy against performance enhancers.

Indianapolis (6-7) at Minnesota (7-6)

After falling at home to Houston in a first-place matchup, the Colts stagger into Minnesota, where the Vikings are barely in contention as well.

Colts RB Frank Gore needs 77 yards from scrimmage to pass Tony Dorsett for 10th on the career list.

Adrian Peterson told Dash Radio on Friday that he plans to return to the Minnesota Vikings backfield after missing 11 games with a torn meniscus in his right knee. Peterson had targeted next week against Green Bay for his return.

Jacksonville (2-11) at Houston (7-6)

Houston is tied with Tennessee for the AFC South lead. Its defense has made the difference recently, which is impressive considering its star player, J.J. Watt, has been sidelined for months.

The Jaguars have lost eight straight, while Houston has won nine in a row in the division. Mismatch?

San Francisco (1-12) at Atlanta (8-5)

Doesn’t look as if we need the question mark after mismatch for this one.

The 49ers blew a big lead to the Jets, of all opponents, and haven’t won since their opener. Their defense is a sieve and now they take on Atlanta’s high-powered offense.

Sure, the 49ers have won the past three games in this series, but those were different teams, different times.

Falcons QB Matt Ryan is having his best season and Atlanta hopes to have back top receivers Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu.

Falcons linebacker Vic Beasley is tied for the NFL lead with 13½ sacks and leads with six forced fumbles.

Pittsburgh (8-5) at Cincinnati (5-7-1)

The Bengals advertised tickets available for this one, so look for thousands of Terrible Towels to wave at Paul Brown Stadium. The Steelers feel comfortable there anyway, having taken the past three and six of seven, including that 18-16 wild-card playoff last January when penalties on Bengals LB Vontaze Burfict and CB Adam “Pacman” Jones set up Pittsburgh’s winning field goal in the final seconds.

Pittsburgh’s offense is in gear behind RB Le’Veon Bell, who set a club record with 236 yards rushing last week at Buffalo. WR Antonio Brown needs seven catches for a fourth straight season with 100, while Ben Roethlisberger and Brown have combined for 49 TDs, tied with Terry Bradshaw and Lynn Swann for the most in team history.

Philadelphia (5-8) at Baltimore (7-6)

Baltimore can’t afford to stumble here and have a reasonable shot at the postseason. The Eagles are 1-6 on the road, with six losses in a row. Baltimore has the NFL’s best defense in home games, allowing an average of 250.6 yards and 13.1 points.

Perfection didn’t suit Ravens placekicker Justin Tucker, who had a field goal blocked in the loss to New England, his first miss of any kind this season.

Carolina (5-8) at Washington (7-5-1), Monday night

Cornerback Josh Norman’s chance to meet up with the team that franchise-tagged him, then removed it and allowed him to head to the nation’s capital.

Carolina has won four straight in the series. Washington struggles against tight ends, so watch for Panthers standout Greg Olsen.

Redskins LB Ryan Kerrigan has 11 sacks and presents a major threat to Cam Newton.

Cleveland (0-13) at Buffalo (6-7)

Ah, yes, the winless Browns. Only three teams have gone 0-14. Cleveland hasn’t tasted victory in a calendar year.

Not to be outdone in the grand scheme of failure the Bills have lost two straight and are in jeopardy of extending the NFL’s longest active playoff drought to 17 seasons — the worst since New Orleans ended a 20-year streak in 1987.

New Orleans (5-8) at Arizona (5-7-1)

Few teams have been more disappointing this season than the Cardinals, who played for the NFC title in January. They play out the string now, with only RB David Johnson’s accomplishments worth noting. He joined Edgerrin James as the only players to have at least 100 yards from scrimmage in the first 13 games of a season. No one has done it for the first 14.

New Orleans and Jacksonville are the only teams not to have a winning record at any point in the past three seasons. Not the company you want to keep.