NASHVILLE - The Tennessee Titans, the team that seemingly blew its Super Bowl dreams with a dreadful 0-6 start, will play a game that matters tonight.
And it won't just matter for the San Diego Chargers.
Tennessee is among six AFC teams tied at 7-7 and mathematically alive in the playoff chase, just one game behind the last wild-card berth. The Titans already have made NFL history by clawing back to .500 after that 0-6 start. According to STATS, no NFL team has ever finished at .500 or better after starting 0-6.
Talk about a titanic turnaround.
"Anytime a team goes 0-6 and gets back to .500 and has a chance to get to the playoffs, you've accomplished something," Titans center Kevin Mawae said. "We can't rest on that. We've got to continue on. We've got a great team."
The Titans never lost the confidence gained from last season's 13-3 record, even after the sixth loss in a 59-0 rout at New England. Coach Jeff Fisher sent them home for their bye with permission to forget football, a welcome mental break. Owner Bud Adams ordered Vince Young off the bench and into the lineup, and their banged-up secondary healed up.
Since then, they've been nearly unstoppable, winning seven of eight. Only New Orleans has averaged more yards on offense (413.9 to 398) or points (30.6 to 29.5) than Tennessee. No pressure, only opportunity.
"It speaks volumes about Jeff and the coaching staff and the leaders on the team how we've been able to keep things homed in. There was never a sense of panic at 0-6," Mawae said. "It does speak to the character of our team that we'll be able to handle the short week and be prepared."
San Diego coach Norv Turner, whose Chargers (11-3) have won nine straight since starting 2-3, thinks the Titans' turnaround is the toughest thing to do in the NFL.
"No one wants to be in that position, and sometimes things happen that are out of your control. To keep a group together, it speaks volumes of the staff, but it also speaks about the players to trust and believe. We all know in this league there's a tendency when teams struggle, it goes the other way," Turner said.
The Titans, who needed overtime to down Miami, 27-24, last week, must win their sixth straight home game, then finish with a victory at Seattle on the final day of the season. They also need plenty of help to keep their faint playoff hopes alive.
It won't be easy against the Chargers, who have clinched their fourth straight AFC West title. San Diego, which beat Cincinnati by the same 27-24 score last week, wants the AFC's No. 2 seed and the first-round bye that comes with it.
The Chargers also want a 10th straight victory and an 18th consecutive December win dating back to 2006. Quarterback Philip Rivers, the AFC's leading passer and third in the NFL with a 102.8 rating, has been under center for each of those December wins.
He sees no reason to slow down on Christmas night.
"I don't think you really think about that streak, but . . . the fact that we've been able to win in December the last four years, it's helped us get going into January. So, the fact that this is the last one in December, it's not the forefront, but it'd be nice to be able to extend it to next season by going and getting this win," Rivers said.
"Obviously that's not at the top of the list, but it would be nice to keep that going."
Tennessee will be without two starting linebackers due to season-ending injuries to Keith Bulluck, the team's leading tackler, and David Thornton. San Diego has lost its second center, though Nick Hardwick might return after hurting his left ankle in the season opener.
The Titans will be challenged trying to slow down Rivers, who needs 109 yards passing to reach 4,000 for a second straight season, and tight end Antonio Gates without Bulluck and Thornton. Gates already has 1,071 yards receiving this season and is 31 yards short of a career high.
San Diego has to defend the dual threat of Young and Chris Johnson. Young threw for a career-high three touchdowns last week and has a 106.4 passer rating at home this season. Johnson is 270 yards shy of becoming the sixth player in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season and has nine straight 100-yard rushing games.
"Rivers is having an unbelievable season in December, like always," Young said. "Us, as an offense, we have to keep him off the field."
Fisher has never beaten San Diego, even seeing Ryan Leaf get a rare NFL win for the Chargers back in 1998. The Chargers have won six straight in this series, including two in the span of four weeks in 2007. The Titans blew a big lead in their last game here Dec. 9, 2007, losing in overtime, and had four players fined $32,500 total for late hits and horse-collar tackles.
"I already know going into it that it's one of those weeks that you prepare for a dogfight, because of the type of guys they have over there," San Diego linebacker Shaun Phillips said.
Fisher has been telling his Titans scenarios of what must happen for them to reach the postseason. Neither he nor the Titans are sharing those details from what he called his crystal ball.
"We don't win this game, we're out," Fisher said.