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Original Issue

Sinking Fast

Tennessee, 13--3 last year, is all but done. How mental mistakes and the loss of a key player can scuttle a team

We hear so much about teams going from worst to first in the NFL that we forget about the flip side. To correct that omission, we present the 2009 Titans, who, one season after starting 10--0 and finishing a league-best 13--3, are casting about for explanations as to why they're winless. ¬∂ Since the NFL expanded to a 16-game regular season in 1978, 12 of the 47 teams that finished 13--3 or better had a losing record the next year. Only one of those clubs, the '02 Rams, got off to a start as bad as 0--5 Tennessee has this year. The Titans' first three losses were by a total of 13 points, and they could tell themselves that each game had been winnable—there were missed field goals, critical turnovers, dropped passes. Not so the past two weeks, against Jacksonville and Indianapolis, when Tennessee was essentially out of the games by halftime.

Despite grumblings about Kerry Collins, who already has matched his 2008 interception total of seven, the offense is not the main culprit. It is generating more yards per game (335.8) than last year (286.5), and the ground attack remains one of the NFL's best. It's the defense that's dropped off. Last year the Titans allowed one opponent to score as many as 24 points; this year they've given up at least that many in four straight games. A unit that sent two DBs to the Pro Bowl last season ranks 31st in the league against the pass.

Some of the blame can be assigned to injuries—cornerback Cortland Finnegan (hamstring) and nickelback Vincent Fuller (forearm) missed the past two games, and starting corner Nick Harper left during Sunday's 31--9 loss to Indy with a fractured right forearm. But much of it comes down to inexplicable mental errors—a corner passing off a receiver in expectation of safety help that doesn't come, or a DB leaving his mark to go after the passer. "You make a mistake up front, and it's a five-yard gain," says first-year coordinator Chuck Cecil. "You make one on the back end, and it's a touchdown."

Cecil hasn't changed schemes, but he is missing All-Pro defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, who left for Washington as a free agent. In his absence the line is generating less pressure and can't create the mismatches it did by, for instance, sliding Haynesworth to end and having him and Kyle Vanden Bosch rush from the same side.

Still, no one envisioned such a precipitous fall. "They're basically the same team minus Haynesworth," says Colts safety Antoine Bethea. "It goes to show how one year you can be hot and the next you're not."

The Titans insist one win would get their mojo back. This Sunday they head to New England to face the league's sixth-ranked passing offense. The following week is Tennessee's bye. Last year's best regular-season team could be winless entering November.

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Photograph by BOB ROSATO

GOING NOWHERE Mark Jones (84) and the 0--5 Titans were stopped cold on Sunday by division rival Indianapolis.