Surprise, Surprise, Surprise

Strong starts by Titans, Bills and Ravens could shake up balance of power in NFL

Ravens Weekend

October 03, 2008|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,ken.murray@baltsun.com

A new order of power might be emerging in the NFL after only four weeks. Who would have thought it would include the Tennessee Titans, the Buffalo Bills and perhaps even the Ravens?

Well, Jeff Fisher, Dick Jauron and John Harbaugh, that's who.

"I think every coach in the league believes they can win every game," Jauron, the Bills' coach, said during a national conference call this week. "You have got to believe. If you don't, I don't see how your guys can. Did I think we would start 4-0? I guess I would say yes."

One month into the season, the Titans and Bills are undefeated and the Ravens easily could have been after taking the Steelers to overtime in Pittsburgh.

The Titans-Ravens game Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium just missed being a battle of unbeatens. Even with the Ravens' loss Monday, it figures to be a showdown of elite defenses, if not a grudge match left over from a bitter rivalry when the teams played in the same division.

"You expect to get off to a good start," said Fisher, the Titans' coach. "And we've been fortunate that we've been protecting the football and have found ways to win. But we're not surprised. We're kind of all about that 'one week at a time' thing."

Still, no one would have expected the Titans (4-0) to lead the AFC South, ahead of the Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars, or the Bills to lead the AFC East, ahead of the New England Patriots, or the Ravens (2-1) to push the Steelers with a rookie quarterback.

Let's take a look at how the season's three biggest surprises got to this point.

Titans (4-0)

The fall: : Strapped by salary cap issues, Tennessee started dismantling its playoff roster after the 2003 season and won only nine of the next 28 games. Derrick Mason, Samari Rolle - both released - and eventually Steve McNair (traded) all made their way to Baltimore while the Titans crashed. After a 12-4 playoff season in 2003, they went 5-11 and 4-12 the next two years.

The changes: : Floyd Reese, fired as general manager after the 2006 season, started the turnaround that year when he drafted quarterback Vince Young, fullback LenDale White, linebacker Stephen Tulloch and cornerback Cortland Finnegan. All except Young will start Sunday. Reese added veteran leadership in free agency with center Kevin Mawae, linebacker David Thornton and safety Chris Hope.

Mike Reinfeldt, Reese's successor, made 17 draft picks the past two years, and 13 are on the roster. He took running back Chris Johnson (2008) and safety Michael Griffin (2007) in the first round.

The comeback: : Even though the Titans started the 2006 season 0-5, Fisher found a silver lining and the team a new chemistry.

"Probably more important than the improvement of the talent level was the personality of this team," Fisher said. "For some reason, they really liked each other and kind of developed that sense of commitment to one another. We dug out of that 0-5 start, [and] were a quarter away from making the playoffs."

Last year the Titans went 10-6 to gain a wild-card berth before losing to the San Diego Chargers.

Bills (4-0)

The fall: : It has been nine years since the Bills made the playoffs, 14 since they last graced a Super Bowl. Since the Marv Levy coaching era closed after the 1997 season, Buffalo has gone through four coaches (Wade Phillips, Gregg Williams, Mike Mularkey and Jauron) with only three winning seasons.

The changes: : Before stepping down as GM after the 2007 season, Levy put the Bills on the road back. Of his 16 draft picks in his two drafts (2006 and 2007), eight are starting and two more play key roles. Levy hit the jackpot in 2007 when he took running back Marshawn Lynch, linebacker Paul Posluszny and quarterback Trent Edwards in the first three rounds.

The Bills also helped themselves in free agency. Four of their five starters on the offensive line were signed as free agents, including Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, who was undrafted. Their biggest move this season was trading for defensive tackle Marcus Stroud.

The comeback: : Despite losing a franchise-record 17 players to injured reserve, and with Edwards starting nine of the final 13 games, the Bills finished a respectable 7-9 last season. This year, behind Edwards, they have come from behind in the fourth quarter to win the past three weeks.

Edwards' ability to deliver the comeback - and the confidence gained from doing it - has elevated the Bills to playoff contender. Said Ravens safety Jim Leonhard, who spent the previous three years in Buffalo: "We couldn't quite figure out how to win those close games last year, like a lot of NFL teams. It seems like they've figured it out now."

Ravens (2-1)

The fall: : After a 13-3 playoff season in 2006, the Ravens stumbled to 5-11 a year ago. They were limited by injuries, haunted by penalties (just five teams had more than their 107) and undermined by turnovers (their 40 giveaways were most in the NFL).

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