On Fridays during each week of the NFL season, Tiebreaker.com will take a look at what we believe to be the five most interesting storylines for that weekend’s games.
It could be about a player, a team, maybe a trend that’s developed over time that might impact a matchup. In other words, we’ll be fluid, reacting to what has happened in the league and what might be coming next.
Tannehill has led Titans renaissance
The Tennessee Titans have a chance to take the lead in the AFC South when they host the Houston Texans on Sunday. And that itself is headline news.
The Titans have won six of seven and are now tied with the Texans at 8-5 for first place. Being in that position likely was the last thing on their minds seven weeks ago when their offense was struggling under quarterback Marcus Mariota, the former Heisman Trophy winner.
But now if the Titans win Sunday and again when they face the Texans in the regular season finale, they would win the division title and host a wild-card game. Even if they don’t win the division, they’re in the hunt for at least the second wild card.
If you want a reason why the Titans have been able to turn things around, look no further than quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Cast aside by the Dolphins, signed by the Titans to be Mariota’s backup, his stellar play has been the difference.
Since Tannehill replaced Mariota, they are averaging 31.4 points. In fact, he is the reigning AFC Offensive Player of the Week following the Titans’ 42-21 win over the Raiders last weekend when he completed 21 of 27 passes for 391 yards with three touchdowns and an interception.
NFL.com tells us that he and Russell Wilson are the only two QBs in NFL history to have four straight games with at least two passing touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 125 or higher.
Tannehill has soared to the top of the league in yards per attempt (9.9) and passer rating (121.7). And he’s in the top five in completion rate (73 percent), touchdown rate (eight percent) and first-down rate (45 percent).
There’s more: According to the Washington Post, while Mariota was the starter, the Titans scored 1.3 points per drive (30th) and converted 53 percent of red-zone opportunities (tied for 18th). With Tannehill, that has improved to 2.5 points per drive (fifth) and 86 percent in the red zone (first).
The Titans are also averaging 15.4 points in the second half, trailing only the 49ers in this critical category. The Titans are 7-0 when winning or tied at halftime.
“That’s a goal for us every week, you know, come in and wear down a team,” Titans tackle Jack Conklin told The Athletic.
Mayfield interested in proving something
If it seems as if Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield has a large chip on his shoulder, you are correct. Apparently, there were many obstacles put in his way to becoming a Heisman Trophy winner and the first overall selection in the 2018 NFL Draft.
On Sunday, Mayfield will reunite with a coach who once upon time didn’t think he was good enough to play in his program – Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury.
Kingsbury’s lack of trust in Mayfield is what caused him to transfer from Texas Tech to Oklahoma, where his star rose over the horizon.
“We’ve talked since, played against him a few times since and it’s exactly that,” Mayfield said of Kingsbury. “We’re in a good place, obviously he’s trying to beat me this week, I’m trying to beat him, and on top of that, (former Oklahoma teammate and Cardinals QB Kyler Murray) being involved, it makes a fun one for us.”
Kingsbury put Mayfield into the position of needing to earn his job a second time after recovering from an injury. That’s what bothered Mayfield and caused him to leave the program.
“I would have liked to have that gone differently, handled that differently, but you live and you learn,” Kingsbury said Wednesday.
Patriots hope to rebound, wait on Goodell
Coming off a two-game losing streak, still hoping to overtake the Ravens for home field in the AFC, the Patriots are in Cincinnati on Sunday to play the 1-12 Bengals.
During any other week, this game would merit a yawn; the Patriots should be in command from the start. But there was this little problem with a video crew in Cleveland last week that has the Bengals and NFL searching for answers about the Patriots.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said earlier this week the league will take its time looking into whether New England broke any rules by filming the Bengals sideline during last week’s game against the Browns.
You’ll recall New England has admitted a three-member video crew representing the team was there filming an episode for its website and didn’t alert the Browns or the Bengals about it. And the Bengals were not happy about it.
“The sole purpose of the filming was to provide an illustration of an advance scout at work on the road,” the Patriots said in a statement. “There was no intention of using footage for any other purpose.”
The Patriots also said the production crew was a part of their organization. It was an independent video company hired by the marketing/communications staff.
“One of the things I’ve learned is you don’t draw conclusions until you have all the information,” Goodell said. “Once we have all the information, then we draw conclusions. We’re not going to draw conclusions along the way.”
Hand it to them
Hand injuries have limited the productiveness of quarterbacks Pat Mahomes and Jameis Winston this week. And they may have an impact on their performances.
Mahomes hurt his hand in last week’s over the Patriots. Chiefs coach Andy Reid said he was forced to alter his play-calling as a result.
“It’s bruised up pretty good, but there’s no break,” Reid said on the Chiefs official team website.
Reid added Mahomes was having trouble gripping the ball. Because of it, Reid admitted he took some of the deep throws out of the playbook and settled for more crossing patterns when the team was not focused on the ground game. As a result, the Chiefs netted just 28 yards and two first downs on their final four drives.
Mahomes did participate in a full practice on Wednesday. The Chiefs play Denver on Sunday.
“Today was the first day I was really able to get a grip on [the ball],” Mahomes told ESPN “I was able to kind of flick it around yesterday, but today was the first day I was able to really grip the ball, throw it and drive it down the field a little bit.
“It’s doing better. A lot of the swelling went down these last two days, so I was able to throw the football around today. … Definitely was a little scary after the game when it was a little bit bruised and the swelling and stuff like that. We’ve done more and more treatment since the swelling went away, so I was able to throw the football and everything.”
Meanwhile, Winston has been limited to throwing tennis balls in practice, which he was doing again as late as Thursday. He suffered during the Buccaneers win over the Colts last week. It did not prevent him from playing in the second half of a game during which he had four TD passes. But he was listed as day-to-day prior to Sunday’s game in Detroit.
Passing a legend
Tom Brady and Drew Brees each get their shot at breaking Peyton Manning’s league record for career touchdown passes this weekend.
Manning threw 539 in his career. Brady has 536 coming into the Patriots game Sunday at Cincinnati. Brees has 537 entering the Saints game Monday in New Orleans against the Colts.
Since 1950, eight players have taken turns holding the record: Sammy Baugh (187), Bobby Layne (196), Y.A. Tittle (212), Johnny Unitas (290), Fran Tarkenton (342), Dan Marino (420), Brett Favre (508) and Manning.
Brees threw five TD passes on last week’s loss to the 49ers. He has 11 career game with at least five, the most in league history.
If Brady has at least one TD pass on Sunday, he’ll surpass Manning (16) for the most seasons with at least 20 TD passes. If Brees gets three, he’ll tie Manning.