AFC Championship Breakdown

Can Oakland be the first No.1 seed to come out of the AFC playoff field unscathed since Denver made it to the Super Bowl back in 1999? Past history suggests that the answer is no considering that since 1994 only two No.1 seeds, Pittsburgh in 1995 and Denver in 98', made it to the Super Bowl as expected.

Earning home-field advantage throughout the AFC has been a death trap to everyone else it seems. Wildcard teams like San Diego, Denver, Tennessee and Baltimore made it to the big dance within the past 10 years, while Denver and Baltimore were able to capture championships.


However, the argument against picking the Titans to upset the mighty Raiders, a veteran laden team that has been arguably the most consistent squad in the AFC all season, is that the Raiders offense is tough to crack. Led by MVP Rich Gannon, the Raiders passing attack has left defenses spinning all season, averaging a gaudy total of 280 yards through the air.


The Titans though, have a tough, hard nosed defense that has improved its play since limping to a 1-4 record at the beginning of the season. The secondary has come together, as safeties Lance Schulters and Tanks Williams have gelled within Jim Schwartz' complex, hybrid scheme which uses a myriad of different fronts and coverage schemes to confuse quarterbacks. The corners, Samari Rolle and Andre Dyson, have been playing better press coverage, allowing the Titans' to blitz more often.


Whoever wins the matchups within this matchup, will go on to San Diego. Here's how the game breaks down.


Titans pass offense versus Raiders pass defense: This is not the Titans of 1999 and 2000. This Titans' offense is led by the passing attack of quarterback Steve McNair. When he's on top of his game, the Titans can run the ball well out of their spread front.


If he's inaccurate and missing his throws in the intermediate area, the Titans usually struggle to stay committed to running the ball.


The key will be whether the Tennessee tight ends can make plays over the middle of the field, where the Raiders' secondary has been burned at times this season. The Titans will look to control this game first by chunking up field much like Oakland likes to do, and they know that the Raider corners, Woodson and James, are terrific in man to man coverage.


McNair is a solid intermediate passer and if he's forced to move on the run, unlike Chad Pennington, he'll help buy enough time for his receivers to get themselves open down the field.  


Meanwhile, Oakland will likely let the Titans attack them horizontally because safeties Rod Woodson and Anthony Dorsett can cover the tracks of Woodson and James in case they get burned.  Don't look for the Titans to hit on too many vertical passes as they had against Pittsburgh. Tennessee will have to stay patient and put together some long sustaining drives, which seemingly plays into Oakland's opportunistic hands.


Advantage: Titans


Titans rush offense versus Raiders rush defense: The Titans still maintain a solid, yet unspectacular running game to help balance out their offensive attack. It's just that they don't completely rely on the ground attack to bail them out as they did in years past.


However, if they are given the opportunity, the Titans will pound the ball at defenses no matter how good/bad the average yards per carry are. It's all about the attempts for Coach Jeff Fisher, who will likely give tailbacks Eddie George and Robert Holcombe 35 carries combined to help control the clock and to keep the Raiders guessing.


Over the second half of the season, the Oakland run defense has become quite dominant. Defensive tackles Sam Adams and John Parrella eat up blockers to allow linebackers Napoleon Harris, Bill Romanowski and Eric Barton to flow to the ball carrier.


For the Titans to gain substantial yardage, they will have to be able to pass the ball well first and run the ball through their spread formation. The Titans won't be able to run the ball up the middle though, where Adams and Parrella can stack blockers better than any tandem in the league, forcing tailbacks to cut back often.


Tennessee will have to attack the edges, using counter and misdirection runs to keep the line moving laterally.  


The Raiders' front seven will also have to contend with Steve McNair's ability to get outside of the pocket. McNair is hard to take down by one tackler, so if he's out in space, the Raiders will have to swarm to him and bring him down before he can gain yards after contact.


Advantage: Raiders


Raiders pass rush versus Titans pass protection: Primarily, Oakland will look to their front four to bring most of the heat on McNair. Over the past few weeks, the Raiders have received solid play out of Roderick Coleman, a light defensive tackle who's the league's best insider pass rusher. Coleman is quick and usually beats guards because he earns man to man matchups inside. Off the edge, DeLawrence Grant has emerged into a dominant edge pass rusher, who can turn the corner with ease.


The Titans' line has improved in protecting McNair as the season has progressed. Tackles Brad Hopkins and Fred Miller are solid, and cover a lot of ground out on their islands. Guards Benji Olsen and Zach Piller have picked up the blitz well all season and rarely get pushed backwards.


Also, McNair's ability to evade a rush will play a key role on how successful Oakland's pass rush performs.


Advantage: Even


Raiders pass offense versus Titans pass defense: The Raiders live to pass the ball on offense. With the best pass protecting line in football, two hall-of fame receivers, a slot receiver who could start on a number of teams, a tight end who has the speed to stretch defenses, a tailback who is among the best pass catchers in the NFL and a QB who is in complete control of his offense, why shouldn't Coach Bill Callahan just pass, pass, pass?


And the fact is; there haven't been many secondaries that have contained the Raiders fleet of receivers unless Gannon was forced out of his comfort zone.


Defensive coach Jim Schwartz will likely use a number of different coverage schemes to keep Gannon guessing. You can't just stay in any one coverage scheme because the Raiders will eventually crack it open.

However, if Schwartz stays with any coverage consistently, it will be bump and run, where corners Samari Rolle and Andre Dyson have matched up against opposing wideouts pretty well during
Tennessee's 10-1 stretch.


Of course, if the Titans somehow take Rice and Brown out of the game, Gannon can lean on outlet back Charlie Garner to make plays coming out of the flat and slot receiver Jerry Porter to stretch the seams and challenge the Titan safeties.


Advantage: Raiders


Raiders rush offense versus Titans rush defense: While the Raiders pass the ball with high proficiency, they could run the ball just as well if they wanted to.


Oakland has a stable of backs which includes Garner, the elusive runner who can hit a homerun on any carry, Wheatley, who can pound the ball in between the tackles and Crockett, who is the best short-yardage back in the game.


Still, the Raiders won't look to run the ball initially. Offensive coordinator Marc Trestman will look to gain an early lead by passing the ball, and then he'll lean on his mammoth line to wear out the Titans' defensive line in the second half.


Also, the Titans have the No.2 ranked run defense in the league, primarily because Schwartz stacks the box with eight players, bringing his safeties up at the line of scrimmage.


Since the Titans inserted Haynesworth into the lineup, teams have had to run the ball off the perimeter more often and that plays into the Titans' hands because their linebackers run sideline to sideline extremely well.


Advantage: Titans


Titans pass rush versus Raiders pass protection: The Titans' front seven is one of the most aggressive in all of football. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz uses a wide array of blitz packages and defensive fronts to confuse offensive lineman, and to create gaps for his blitzers to crash through.


The Titans can also get a solid pass rush by only using their front four to get after the quarterback. Defensive ends Jevon Kearse and Carlos Hall has the explosiveness and speed to blow past OTs, while defensive end Kevin Carter uses a bevy of moves and power rushes to collapse the right side of the line.

However, the Titans' pass rush will meet its match against an
Oakland front five that's the best in all of football.


The Raiders' front is gigantic, quick and agile. Players like Frank Middleton, Mo Collins and Barret Robbins occupy the interior, and they simply cannot be overpowered by opposing defensive tackles.


Tackles Lincoln Kennedy and Barry Sims seal off the edges well, as Sims uses solid technique to keep ends at bay and Kennedy uses brute strength and solid footwork to redirect his man on almost every snap.


Advantage: Raiders


Pick: The trend continues for Oakland, as they lose another championship game in the Black Hole. Quarterback Rich Gannon will face a fierce pass rush against the Titans, one that won't let up without bringing everything but the kitchen sink to get him moving out of the pocket. While the Raiders will move the ball well up and down the field, they will stagger inside the red zone because the Titans' run defense will tighten up, forcing the Raiders to pass the ball in crowded space.


The Titans remember their embarrassing performance against Oakland early in the season and this time, they'll take it to Oakland physically on both sides of the ball.


Titans- 24

Raiders- 21

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