NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Two teams headed in opposite directions. One on the rise, filled with optimism. The other sinking fast, frustrated, facing imminent doom.
That describes the Week 9 matchup between the Titans and Bengals, with Tennessee (5-3) on a three-game winning streak and tied for first place in the AFC South, and Cincinnati (3-5) facing probable if not mathematical elimination from the playoff picture.
Really, it's win or forget it.
"We can't afford any more losses at this point of the season. It's here, it's now," said Bengals running back Jeremy Hill, injured and out for the year as of Saturday.
The Bengals started 3-5 in 2012 and got a wild card berth by going 7-1 in the second half. So far, though, this team has shown nothing to suggest it's capable of the same.
You only needed to see A.J. Green's explosion on the field last week to know that this is a team coming apart at the seams.
A team that went to the playoffs five years in a row up to last year and still has many of its core players is down and pretty much out of it, coming off one of the worst offensive performances in franchise history. They generated only 29 yards rushing, eight first downs and 148 total yards during a 23-7 loss to the Jaguars. In the second half, they had only seven plays that gained yards. Cincinnati's offense ranks last in the league in yards gained.
The Bengals have already fired one offensive coordinator and lost three top offensive linemen from last season - two to free agency and one to a medical condition - so there's nothing else they can do to turn things around if they can't find the will and skill to do it themselves.
On the bright side, another loss Sunday might at least put suffering but still hopeful Bengals fans out of their misery.
With the Bengals in danger of spiraling into a free fall, the Titans are just the opposite. Following 2-14 and 3-15 seasons, they improved to 9-7 last year and could be on the verge, with the 5-3 Jaguars, of becoming the new force to be reckoned with in the AFC South.
Tennessee has won seven of its past eight home games — tied with the Eagles for best such stretch in the NFL — and is back to seeing near-capacity crowds filling the empty seats from 2014-15.
"We're trying to get our fans back," coach Mike Mularkey said. "We've been trying to do that for a while now. I think it's been loud, and it's definitely louder and louder each game that we're playing. It's been fun to have them back. That's been a big emphasis these home games."
The Titans pulled off a 23-20 home win over Baltimore last Sunday that represented a big step in several ways. Marcus Mariota threw a pair of touchdown passes, including an 11-yarder to Eric Decker with less than 4 minutes to go. Their 5-3 mark is their best at the midpoint of a season since 2010, when they also were 5-3.
Beating the Bengals would give them their first four-game winning streak since 2009. The one asterisk: None of the four teams has a winning record. They've beaten the Colts (3-6), Browns (0-8) and Ravens (4-5).
"Doesn't matter to us," Mariota said. "We've just got to focus on the next one and make sure we're ready to go and try to continue to pile these wins together."
Some things to watch:
CLOSE ONES: The Titans have back-to-back three-point wins — 12-9 in overtime at Cleveland, 23-20 over the Ravens. They're 6-0 since the start of last season in games decided by three points or fewer. The Bengals have been blown out in their past two losses, with their offense doing next-to-nothing in the second half. The Titans would appreciate a game with less drama at the end.
"Yeah, it would be nice to do that," Mariota said.
WATCH OUT, ANDY: Titans safety Kevin Byard already has a piece of NFL history with five interceptions in his past two games, the fifth player to do that since the league merger in 1970. No other player in Houston Oilers-Tennessee Titans history has picked off five passes in two games. Six is the most interceptions in a three-game span since the merger. The second-year pro leads the NFL with six interceptions overall.
CINCY'S IMPLOSION: After Green's attack on Jacksonville's Jalen Ramsey last week, it will be interesting to see how the Titans play him and if Green can move past the latest display of frustration in a Bengals' season that's fast slipping away.
RUNNING IN PLACE: The Bengals' running game hasn't done anything all season despite the addition of rookie Joe Mixon. He carried 13 times for 31 yards at Jacksonville. He's their leading rusher with 284 yards and an average of only 2.9 yards per carry. Giovani Bernard has a total of 103 yards. Hill's badly sprained ankle sidelined him for the Jacksonville game.
O-LINE WOES: Right tackle Jake Fisher went on the season-ending illness list with what coach Marvin Lewis called an irregular heartbeat, and the Bengals brought back Eric Winston. The line is the main problem with the offense, unable to open holes for running backs or protect Andy Dalton, who has been sacked 24 times.
"I don't have a magic potion to give them that all of a sudden it's going to turn it into something," Winston said.