The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION
Titans, Hasselbeck hope to stop Saints' 4-game winning streak and stay atop AFC
The last time the Saints lined up against Matt Hasselbeck, the veteran quarterback ended their season.
The stakes won't be quite as high on Sunday, when the surging New Orleans Saints (9-3) visit Hasselbeck's new team in Tennessee (7-5), but it will be a meaningful game nonetheless.
One season after Hasselbeck led Seattle to a playoff berth (albeit with a 7-9 record) and a first-round playoff upset of New Orleans, he has the Titans in contention for a wild card playoff berth in the AFC.
If Hasselbeck can torment Gregg Williams' heavy-pressure defence the way he did — twice — last season, the Saints will be hard-pressed to increase their winning streak beyond four games.
"He's a quick decision maker and I think a good leader and certainly a guy that you have to recognize can beat you with his arm," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "There are some valid points there of concern where you recognize he's a veteran player who has won football games."
During a 2010 regular season game in New Orleans, Hasselbeck completed 72.7 per cent of his passes for 366 yards and a TD, but fumbles and drives that ended in field goals prevented the Seahawks from keeping up with New Orleans that day.
In a rematch in the wild card round of the playoffs, the Saints had to travel to Seattle, where Hasselbeck, whose ability to throw on the run complicates matters for aggressive, blitzing defences, passed for 272 yards and four TDs to send the Saints packing.
"He's a guy that is experienced and understands the pressure packages of defences," Payton said. "It's going to be hard, and it typically is hard to fool a veteran quarterback like that where he just gets hit and doesn't realize he's unprotected. He has an ability to get the ball out. Even in the game at home last year that we won, he had a tempo and a rhythm."
The Titans, who have won three of their last four, likely will need another victory to keep pace in the AFC wild card race. Four other teams in the conference (New York, Cincinnati, Denver and Oakland) came into this weekend with 7-5 records. While either Denver or Oakland will likely win the AFC West, the rest of the teams with that record might all by vying for the final wild card spot.
Fortunately for Tennessee, star running back Chris Johnson has rounded into form.
Johnson joined the team late in camp after a contract holdout which ended in September, when he agreed to a four-year extension worth up to $53 million. He then got off to a slow and heavily scrutinized start, but that's history.
He gashed Tampa Bay for 190 yards rushing two weeks ago, then rushed for 153 yards and two touchdowns (including a 48-yard score) against Buffalo last weekend.
"The first four or five (games) weren't so good and that's what everyone was focusing on. They were expecting so much from him after the contract holdout," first-year Titans coach Mike Munchak said. "He's had an opportunity three of the last four games of getting over 20 carries a game. He's the kind of back if he gets those types of carries, he can do some big things and have some big runs."
Munchak, a former NFL offensive lineman, also noted that Tennessee has been blocking better lately and should only be helped by playing at home, where the crowd won't by trying to drown out Hasselbeck's calls at the line of scrimmage.
"We're thankful it's here in Nashville and we're not travelling for this game," Munchak said. "This is the kind of game you want to play in front of your fans and hopefully they'll be able to help us and make it a little bit harder for the Saints' offence to operate."
The Saints, who lead the NFC South by two games and could clinch the division with a win and an Atlanta loss, are 3-3 away from the Superdome. They have not played outdoors since losing at Tampa Bay on Oct. 16.
Payton said he wants his players to be mindful of the transition to playing in the elements and on grass, but won't "lose sleep" over his team's record away from the Big Easy.
"Some of our tough losses happened on the road this year, but I think our history shows that we can travel," he said.
In any event, the Titans' defence will need all the help from the crowd that it can get against the No. 1 offence in the NFL.
Drew Brees and the Saints are on pace to break NFL single-season records for yards passing and total offensive yards.
Brees is averaging 336 yards passing, while the offence averages about 449 yards. The running game is holding its own, ranked eighth in the league (123 ypg).
What has made the offence so good this year is the addition of versatile running back Darren Sproles and the emergence of second-year tight end Jimmy Graham. They have joined a cast that already included receivers Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson, and running back Pierre Thomas.
Any of them can have big games at any time, the latest example being Meachem, a former first-round draft choice out of Tennessee, who had three catches for 119 yards, including a 67-yard TD against Detroit last week. That came after he didn't have a single catch in two of his previous three games.
"We spread the ball around a lot," Brees said. "Our philosophy is you never know whose game it is going to be, you never know who is going to get the opportunities. Last week, it was Meachem. ... If it is not him, maybe it is Devery Henderson, maybe it is Marques Colston, maybe it is Lance Moore. You just never know.
"Those guys are very unselfish players. They all create for one another and they also understand that their opportunities will come, too."
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