In their two victories the Tennessee Titans exhibited traits of a great thoroughbred. They went right to the wire and ended up with a nose in front.
More often, though, they have been left in the dust.
“I think it’s a great thing that we’ve been able to win the close ones,” quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said. “That’s kind of been the story for us this year. We either come out and we’re in the game and then the other team blows it open and we lose by a lot or we’re in a fourth quarter situation — situational football, two-minute drives, special teams, all those things come into play — and we come out with close wins.”
Typically, the ability to win close games is the sign of a good team.
Last season, for example, the Titans were 5-4 in contests decided by seven points or less, finished 9-7 overall and remained in playoff contention all the way to the end of the regular season. The last time they earned a spot in the postseason, 2008, they were 4-1 in such games and had the NFL’s best regular season record (13-3).
Over the past 10 seasons every time Tennessee had a winning record in close games (seven points or fewer) it finished 8-8 or better. When it has come up short in the close ones it had finished below .500.
So even though the Titans are 2-4 as they point toward Sunday’s game at Buffalo (noon, CBS), they see the fact that they have won their only two close contests as reason for optimism. Dating back to last year their last six victories all have been by six points or fewer.
“I think it just encourages you hopefully to hang close, because we’ll find a way to win,” coach Mike Munchak said. “You’re hoping that that’s the kind of team we are.”
This season they won in overtime against Detroit and on a last-second field goal against Pittsburgh. They overcame a defensive lapse in the final minute of regulation against the Lions and ended that contest with a fourth-down stop in the extra period. They beat the Steelers with a field goal as time expired.
“It doesn’t really matter how you get them,” Hasselbeck said. “But to capitalize on opportunities like we did in the Detroit game and the Pittsburgh game was really important.”
The key is to create those opportunities.
All four losses have been by 21 points or more. Each time the opponent grabbed an early lead and built on it with a sustained surge. New England scored 21 straight first-half points. San Diego scored the first 17 points and 24 of the first 27. Houston scored 24 straight points fueled by a pair of defensive touchdowns, and Minnesota led 23-0 after the first three quarters.
Buffalo (3-3) is in a similar situation in that each of its defeats have been by 20 points or more. It has been in just one close game and it won, 19-16 in overtime last Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals.
“It is a big game for both teams,” Buffalo coach Chan Gailey said. “Both are coming in off of big wins so it is important for both of us.”
The most important thing is make sure the score does not get out of hand early because both sides have reason to believe they can win if the score is close in the final minutes — or beyond.
“Well I hope that we are encouraged by that as a team,” Munchak said. “That we’ve won in overtime, we almost had to do overtime again … we made plays, we didn’t panic when the game was close. We handled those situations well — two-for-two.”
Usually it’s a sign of a good team.