It's not over yet for the Titans, but Yogi Berra is certainly readying his list of clichés.
In an effort to keep teams from sandbagging late in the year, the NFL's front-office geniuses back-loaded the league schedule with divisional games. The Titans — already the NFL's parity example par excellence, seemingly foreordained for an annual 8-8 finish — have the Platonic ideal of that schedule: ending the season with three games against AFC South rivals.
The good news for the boys in baby blue is that even at 7-6 after Sunday's 22-17 loss to the Saints and their laser-tag offense, winning out against Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Houston gives the team a puncher's chance at the post-season. The even better news: The 2011 vintage of the AFC South is bathtub gin, replete with rat poison, cut-rate kerosene and just enough pure-grain alcohol to make it worth the trouble.
The team travels to Indianapolis Sunday, where the Colts are still hobbling along without Peyton Manning. "Hobbling," in fact, may be generous. Without Manning, the Colts are 0-13 and willing to put pretty much anybody at quarterback — Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter, Dan Orlovsky, perhaps the guy in Section 321, Row L, Seat 17 (if his shoulder's good).
After nine consecutive playoff runs, the Colts seem headed for the indignity of the 0-16 year.
Things are only marginally better in Jacksonville. The Jags are bad, too — just not historically bad like the Colts, which is tough luck for them. They tried to sign the guy in Section 321, Row L, Seat 17 themselves. Unfortunately, the Colts have higher waiver priority, so the Jags are stuck with rookie Blaine Gabbert, who would make a very passable NFL Europe quarterback. (Please note: NFL Europe no longer exists.)
The Titans cap the season with a trip to division-leading Houston. The Texans are clearly the class of the division, though "the best team in the AFC South" is a classic example of damning with faint praise.
By closing the season at Houston — which by that point should have the division locked up — the Titans may catch a bit of rare bit of fortuity. If the Texans are satisfied with whichever seed they've earned by then, the team may opt to protect its starters from injury and field a team of has-beens and won't-ever-bes.
Certainly, the Titans ought to beat Indy and Jacksonville with pretty much anybody at quarterback. Same for the Backup Texans, if Houston wisely takes that route in Week 17.
The opportunity has arrived for coach Mike Munchak to prove he is truly changing the nature of the team. His predecessor, Jeff Fisher — who is stroking his mustache as he decides which open coaching job he'll take next season — was a famous defender of veteran players, stubbornly unwilling to replace them with young players.
While Matt Hasselbeck has been a suitable — at times, even "great" — quarterback for the sinusoid Titans, he's not the long-term solution. Jake Locker is, and when he was forced into action when Hasselbeck's calf went wonky in the second quarter, he played well. Statistically, it lacked the arcade game eye-pop of fellow rookie Cam Newton. In fact, on paper, with a few interceptions, Locker's numbers would have been Vince Youngian: 13-for-29 for 282 and a touchdown, plus six carries for 36 yards (13 yards more than Chris Johnson) and a touchdown. But Locker's 13-for-29 passing line was skewed by drops, more than a few wise throwaways and throwing deep in an effort at catch-up.
Indeed, Locker certainly had a chance to beat the Saints, one of the NFL's best teams. An inexplicably bad play call in the game's last drive — the decision to run a draw play to a ho-hum Johnson on third down at midfield with no timeouts raises the question of whether offensive co-ordinator Chris Palmer was using a randomizer to call plays — ate up precious time. Some never-going-to-be-called-in-the-last-minute pass interference penalties went unflagged in the end zone.
Teams make their own luck, of course, just as coaches make their own reputations. Munchak has said Hasselbeck will keep the starting job as long as he's healthy — though he left his definition of "healthy" as broad as he could. If Hasselbeck is truly 100 percent, he should start, but playing a three-quarters-injury-free veteran over a promising rookie is a Fisher move — so what's Munchak got to lose by playing Locker down the stretch?
He'll shake off any remaining concerns he's just a clean-shaven Fisher. The Titans should beat the Colts and Jags no matter who's quarterbacking — even the guy in Section 321, Row L, Seat 17 or, perhaps, Rusty Smith — and the Texans are beatable if they allow themselves to be.
Locker is the future here. Let's see it now.