BUFFALO, N.Y. – Mike Munchak's second season as a National Football League head coach appeared to be headed the wrong way in a hurry.
The Tennessee Titans have not yet stamped themselves as contenders, but their season has a much different outlook after beating the Pittsburgh Steelers, 26-23, then going on the road to pull out a 35-34 victory over the Buffalo Bills.
Tennessee pulled out a 44-41 win against Detroit but lost by more than 20 points four times in the first five games, including a 30-7 loss in Minnesota to open October.
When we lost that game in Minnesota, Munch kind of talked about his last year playing, his team was I think our same record, 1-4, stuff was against them and they went on a roll and won 11 in a row, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said after throwing a 15-yard touchdown pass to Nate Washington on fourth down with 1:03 left. He said then that it's not necessarily this team's history, it's that team's history.
But it's a great opportunity just to know that it can be done. We're off to a good start for it.
The playing days of Munchak, a Scranton Central and Penn State graduate, may have provided a blueprint, but they did not make a turnaround appear likely.
Hasselbeck helped get it started a week earlier by throwing for 290 yards and leading a drive to the game-winning field goal as time expired.
We've been moving the ball, Munchak said.
Chris Johnson, a 2,000-yard rusher in 2009 and a 1,000-yard rusher in each of his other three pro seasons, provided other positive signs by rushing for 91 yards against Pittsburgh.
Buffalo's defense was no match for Johnson, who had been held to fewer than 25 yards in four of the first five games.
Johnson raced to an 83-yard run in the first quarter on the way to a season-high 195 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries.
You're seeing his speed now; another 80-yarder, Munchak said. I think he has a record for 80-yard runs in the league. I think we picked up where we left off against Pittsburgh and kind of what we did in Houston.
We know how to win games like this; we have to be able to do that. We can't be one-dimensional like we've been in our losses.
Johnson's numbers are suddenly more in line with expectations – 496 yards rushing plus 110 more on 17 receptions.
If Johnson can be effective against defenses less porous than Buffalo's, Munchak can hold true to his roots as a Hall of Fame offensive lineman and build an attack that could continue lifting the Titans in the standings.
He's a great weapon, said Munchak, who guided the Titans to a 9-7 record but missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker in his head coaching debut last season. If we can continue to do that, we'll win more football games.
Two weeks earlier, that seemed like an impossible task.
If we execute, if they block well and I read well and be patient, I think it's showing us what we can do every Sunday, Johnson said.
A win today against Indianapolis would return the Titans to the .500 mark with games ahead against Chicago and in Miami before Tennessee takes a week off.
Guys obviously are in a position where we can start to feel more confident about our performance, and at the same time work to get better, Titans safety Jordan Babineaux said. We start putting these games back to back, we will get this season turned around in a hurry before the bye week.
Those may still be lofty aspirations, but without the past two weeks they would not have even been possible.