Titans, Raiders fall a sign of the times

In recent years, the matchup between the Oakland Raiders and the Tennessee Titans has come either in the postseason or with some kind of playoff ramifications.

Their meeting in Oakland on Sunday, however, is not one of them. The two teams will meet for the fifth time since the 2001 season with the last such contest coming in the 2003 AFC championship game, which the Oakland Raiders won 41-24 on the way to reaching the Super Bowl. The two teams also met in the regular season and Oakland prevailed 52-25 in that game.

How far have the mighty fallen?

One week after beating the Titans in the AFC title game, Tampa Bay blew off Oakland's doors 48-21. The Raiders have not been the same since in going 4-12 in 2003 and 4-9 in 2004. The Tennessee Titans were a wild card team last season, beating Baltimore and losing to eventual Super Bowl champion New England. The Titans, like the Raiders, are 4-9. Don't tell Oakland defensive end Bobby Hamilton that there are no playoff implications.

"They still have guys out there competing," Hamilton said. "There's a lot of people banged up right now. It's going to be two competitive teams with a lot of pride that want to finish up strong."

Both teams have been a disappointment for different reasons. Oakland made wholesale changes in the offseason but perhaps many so-called experts overestimated the Raiders talent. In Tennessee's case, Indianapolis was favored to win the AFC South but as long as the Titans had quarterback Steve McNair the belief was that the team would be competitive. With McNair being hobbled, and pondering retirement, Tennessee has struggled.

Regardless of the reasons for such a heavy decline, it is simply a sign of the times in the NFL. Granted, New England, Indianapolis and Philadelphia have clinched their divisions and are repeat winners. Nonetheless, repeating as division champions, which the Raiders did for three straight seasons (2000-2002), is exceedingly difficult. Look no further than last season's champs, who have yet to clinch, and where they are now:

AFC North: Baltimore was last season's division champ but Pittsburgh clinched the division by beating the New York Jets 17-6 Sunday.

AFC West: Kansas City won the division last season but has slipped to 5-8. The red-hot San Diego Chargers are 10-3 and winners of seven in a row.

NFC North: Green Bay was last year's champ and leads Minnesota by one game with three remaining. REPEATING ODDS – Green Bay has the inside track but still has one more game left against Minnesota. Then again, given Minnesota's penchant for folding like a house of cards, one has to like Green Bay's chances.

NFC South: Carolina (6-7), last season's champ, deserves a lot of credit for winning five in a row despite a boatload of injuries but its slow start paved the way for Atlanta to clinch the division.

NFC West: St. Louis, last season's champ, is 6-7 and only trails Seattle by one game. REPEATING ODDS – In this pathetic division, the Rams still have a shot because they swept the season series with Seattle, which has shown a penchant for getting items caught in its throat.

Vince D'Adamo can be reached at vdad7@yahoo.com

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