Winning makes everything better.
Erik Ainge continues to be impressive, making some Heath Shuler "I will throw this ball in that millisecond hole between two defenders" plays, still yet to throw an interception, still yet to take a sack since the first drive at Cal (thank you offensive line), and still putting some serious distance between himself and the 2005 model. And while Arian Foster may not have breakaway speed, and all the fans think putting LaMarcus Coker in the game is going to mean an instant touchdown - the same guy who messed up on consecutive plays when he finally got in - and even when Phillip Fulmer used the words "Lennon Creer" and "Chuck Webb" in the same sentence in the postgame with Bob Kesling...I like Arian Foster. You forgot what it was like to have a running back that consistently falls forward and gets 4 yard carries where others get 2, because no one has really done that in Knoxville since Travis Henry. Foster should get the chance to carry the load on Saturday. But we'll talk more about that later.
Insane stat of the week: the last time two Tennessee receivers both had 100 yard games? Robert Meachem and Jayson Swain in 06? Donte' Stallworth and Kelley Washington in 01? Peerless Price and Cedrick Wilson in 98? How about Peerless and Marcus Nash in the 1997 SEC Championship Game. What Lucas Taylor (5 for 118) and Austin Rogers (7 for 112) did on Saturday night hasn't been done in 10 years by any UT WR duo, and again to Ainge's credit, hasn't been done by any UT quarterback since Manning.
You still don't have a gamebreaking wide receiver. But what you do have is two guys who are now proven commodities instead of liabilities - I've already heard the phrase "Austin Rogers would've caught that" - and if these guys are now B+ receivers, Josh Briscoe has a chance to get there too. And the young guys are only going to get better, you'd think. Whenever Kenny O'Neal actually gets in the game, they always try and get him the ball. Denarious Moore is now the #4 option. And you've still got Chris Brown, who is a weapon. And you've got an offensive line that's allowed one sack on a busted protection from a running back. And you've got Erik Ainge. So even without a Robert Meachem, even if it's not perfect, so far it's been good. And it has a chance to get better.
The questions, of course, still reside on defense, especially now that Daniel Lincoln is 4 for 4 (and listening to him on the postgame show, he's got the right amount of arrogance you want from your kicker). So while there was second half improvement on Saturday, this Saturday is the time for boys to become men. All the defensive linemen, players in the secondary who've already been baptized by fire once, and now need to play better. There will be no excuse for the Vols to play as poorly defensively against Florida as they did against Cal. With Antonio Gaines out, opportunities arise for others to step up. The Vols, of course, won't be asked to shut out Florida. But the defense needs to play well enough to give the offense a chance to win it. We'll see.
Titans 13 - Jaguars 10
Vince Young and the Titans have picked up exactly where they left off. Now I can't see it up here in Virginia, so I'm going off of Mike Keith's voice and the few highlights I've seen. But once more, it's not that the Titans are the best team in the NFL, nor that they were the most talented team on the field on Sunday. But they were unquestionably tougher.
Everyone who started Chris Brown on their fantasy team this week, raise your hand. I think the standard was fantasy owners rushing to the free agent list around 4:00 PM. LenDale White got an additional 18 carries and 66 tough yards. And while all those rushing yards were very, very impressive, the things you really liked to see were the ways the Titans made all the money plays. And sure, they were lucky that Marcedes Lewis kicked the ball out of Maurice Jones-Drew's hands at the 8 yard line in the 4th quarter. And sure, Vince Young has had better days. But VY continues to be enough of a difference maker that, in 2007, you're not even worried about him getting us beat.
So it gets easier right away - the Colts in Nashville this week, the Saints in New Orleans two weeks from tonight. But especially in the AFC, every single win will be precious, and getting one up on your divisional rival was huge. And the Titans could've gone 2-0 against Indy last year. So you never know...in fact, what you do know is that no matter the opponent, right now the Titans have more than a fighting chance.
Down the stretch with the Braves
Atlanta missed a chance to sweep the Nationals yesterday, but have taken series wins against the Phillies and the Nats since being swept by the Mets last week. So while Atlanta is all but mathematically eliminated from the NL East race (8.5 back with 19 to play, as the Mets have won 8 of 10), they're still alive in the Wild Card at 4.5 back. The field, of course is crowded:
NL Wild Card Standings - September 10
1. San Diego
2. Philadelphia (-2)
3. LA Dodgers (-2.5)
4. Colorado (-3)
5. Atlanta (-4.5)
6. CHI Cubs (-5)
7. St. Louis (-7)
The Braves don't do themselves any favors right now in the schedule, as they head to Shea Stadium for three. Atlanta does get to start both Hudson and Smoltz again in this series, but the bats have to wake up this time around. But after that, the Braves do have a reasonably favorable schedule:
Braves Schedule - September 10-30 (end of regular season)
3 at NY Mets
3 at Washington
3 vs Florida
4 vs Milwaukee
3 at Philadelphia
3 at Houston
Obviously, Atlanta needs to start winning and keep doing so. But at least we're still relevant this time around in the second week of September. Even if they don't catch the Mets, Atlanta has a chance to reclaim some of their dignity and respect in these three at Shea if they can win the series. But, as the saying goes, we're just trying to play them one at a time, and the Good Lord willing, things will work out.
It's that time of year...