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Titans unleashed, Matt Ryan vs. the blitz, Norv Turner in Carolina

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  • By NFL.com
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With the Divisional Round of the playoffs upon us, NFL.com's network of reporters collects the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:

-- Julio Jones on Matt Ryan's knack for defeating the blitz.

-- Why Norv Turner appealed to the Panthers.

-- What Calais Campbell saw in the Jaguars.

But first, Steve Wyche taps into a team ready to go all out ...

NASHVILLE -- Fearlessness is a trait that all NFL players must possess if they want to have a lasting career in this brutal industry. Playing without fear is a different trait. It's playing with a liberty and a freedom, where the attitude is, whatever happens, happens, and you'd better be ready for anything and everything, because it's coming.

Playing without fear currently is part of the Tennessee Titans' DNA as they prepare to face the top-seeded New England Patriots in the AFC Divisional Round of the playoffs Saturday night in Foxborough.

"We've got nothing to lose," Titans linebacker Brian Orakpo told me. "We've already proved that we're resilient and tough. Win, lose or draw, you know you'll have played a physical game for 60 minutes."

Added safety Kevin Byard: "No one thought we'd be here. We're here."

As those two defenders were speaking, some of their teammates were playing cards nearby at a table in the locker room. The aura of swimming in house money was everywhere.

Even so, Tennessee (10-7) isn't just happy to be here. The Titans feel like they're more than capable of beating the Pats.

They have no fear.

"A lot of people are sleeping on us," Orakpo said. "We are out to prove people wrong. OK, we hit a tough patch -- an NFC West patch -- when we lost three games in December that seemed to put us out of contention. But we're like a cat with nine lives. We won our last game of the season (a 15-10 win over Jacksonville) to get into the playoffs, and then we did what we did last week against Kansas City."

This give no you-know-what approach has trickled down from head coach Mike Mularkey, Byard said.

"We play for each other; we don't quit on each other," Byard said. "Coach Mularkey has instilled that in us, and that's what we believe."

That philosophy was on display at its fullest in the 22-21 Wild Card Round victory over Kansas City, which at one point led that game 21-3. Before the contest, reports of Mularkey being fired if the Titans lost seeped into the locker room, causing a distraction -- but also providing a unifying cause players hung on to, especially when they fell behind by 18 points.

After the game, Mularkey questioned the lack of support from management and ownership. His players never questioned Mularkey, who was awarded the game ball by Orakpo.

"We try not to concern ourselves with outside noise, but dealing with that before a game? Hearing Coach Mike's job was in jeopardy?" Orakpo said. "We felt it was totally unfair. We've had back-to-back winning seasons. We made the playoffs. Coach Mularkey has done a great job."

Said Mularkey, who took over as Tennessee's interim head coach in Nov. 2015 and was promoted to full-time coach in 2016: "That meant a lot. This team and I have been through a lot. I was here. I wasn't a new coach coming in. I was here and I knew what the problems and the positives were, and we've addressed some of those. These guys trusted the process. They trusted the staff. They didn't have to trust, and they did, and now there is a great trust there."

That trust is why Mularkey and the Titans aren't in awe of the defending champions, who, by all accounts, should take Tennessee apart. The Patriots hold almost every strategic and schematic edge. And they have experience, home-field advantage and Tom Brady.

Still, the Titans feel like they have more than just a puncher's chance. They're fearless and have no fear -- and that combination could lead to something others should be scared of.

NOTES FROM AROUND THE REST OF THE LEAGUE

ATLANTA FALCONS: Jones credits Ryan for using his feet against the blitz. I asked Falcons receiver Julio Jones to explain quarterback Matt Ryan's success against the blitz. Interestingly, this is what he had to say:

"He's been doing a great job. I said it in an interview earlier: He's a dual quarterback now; he can scramble, he can run the ball, things like that. He's just extending the play with his feet and keeping his eyes downfield, and guys are getting open and making plays. Like he was saying, though, [against an] aggressive defense, you've got screens to slow them down; you can't be aggressive the whole time like that."

While Ryan did not hit the same statistical highs in 2017 that he reached en route to winning the MVP in 2016, he has played well against the blitz, compiling a passer rating of 102.0 and a TD-to-INT ratio of 9:2 when blitzed this season, according to Pro Football Focus (including the playoffs). Those numbers were actually worse when he wasn't facing the blitz (87.4 passer rating and 12:10 TD-to-INT ratio).

-- Tiffany Blackmon

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CAROLINA PANTHERS: The Norv Turner connection. A Panthers team source told me this about Norv Turner, who has agreed in principle to become the team's new offensive coordinator: Since former Carolina offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski learned his system from Turner, why not bring in the guy who started the system? (Chudzinski was on Turner's staff in 2009 and 2010, when Turner was head coach of the San Diego Chargers; Chudzinski then served as the Panthers' offensive coordinator in 2011 and '12.)

The source pointed out that Turner has successfully worked with quarterbacks like Troy Aikman, Philip Rivers and Teddy Bridgewater. But the bigger takeaway to me was Turner's history with running backs. The source highlighted Darren Sproles -- and how similar Sproles is to Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey.

In six seasons under Turner in San Diego, Sproles compiled 4,718 yards from scrimmage, including a career-high 1,313 yards from scrimmage and nine total touchdowns in 2011. McCaffrey, the eighth overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, finished his first pro season with 1,086 yards from scrimmage and seven total touchdowns. Sproles is 5-foot-6 and 190 pounds; McCaffrey is 5-11 and 205.

-- Tiffany Blackmon

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JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: Campbell saw this coming. Calais Campbell chose to sign with Jacksonville this offseason precisely because he could imagine the Jaguars being right where they are now: in the playoffs, with a roster full of young, disciplined talent that should be good for years to come. A football fan since childhood, he remembers when the Jaguars joined the league in 1995 and, with Tom Coughlin at the helm, had almost immediate success. And he knows that in his decade in the league, he has watched from a distance the highs and lows they have had recently. He thought the Jaguars had a chance to have another high.

"As soon as I started practicing with the guys, seeing how hard they work, what the coaches required from us, I knew we had a good opportunity," Campbell said. "I expected to be here."

Campbell contributed a career-high 14.5 sacks, earning first-team All-Pro honors for the first time in his 10-year career. In the Divisional Round of the playoffs, the Jaguars are facing the Steelers, whom the Jacksonville defense crushed with a five-interception 30-9 victory in October. Given the sputtering offense on display in the Jags' wild-card win over the Bills, the assumption is that the defense will again have to lead if they are to advance past Pittsburgh to reach the AFC Championship Game.

"We hope we can win in any circumstance," Campbell said. "But at the end of the day, in the playoffs, it doesn't have to be pretty. If we win 2-0, I'm happy. When the game is on the line in the fourth quarter, when they have a drive to beat us, that's what I dream about since I was a kid."

-- Judy Battista

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KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: How will the offense change under Bieniemy? The Kansas City Chiefs still have plenty of things to figure out now that Eric Bieniemy is their new offensive coordinator. There's a good chance head coach Andy Reid will go back to calling plays again -- he ceded that responsibility to Matt Nagy, who's now the head coach of the Chicago Bears, in the second half of this season -- and the team likely will be starting a new quarterback in Patrick Mahomes. Just as big a question is how the Chiefs will utilize running back Kareem Hunt. The rookie led the league in rushing, but also disappeared during key stretches, including a 22-21 AFC Wild Card Weekend loss to the Tennessee Titans that ended with Hunt gaining just 42 yards on 11 carries.

"We have had a great deal of success here," Bieniemy said. "What we have done, obviously we want to take it to the next level. But hey, we pass the ball, we run the ball. But, obviously, there is an attitude and a mindset you have to have going into any game. Every game, every play that you design is designed to go for a touchdown. We have to make sure, as coaches, we are putting our players in the best situation."

-- Jeffri Chadiha

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