By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
---- — INDIANAPOLIS — The Buffalo Bills couldn't wait to get rid of Ryan Fitzpatrick during the offseason.
Now, the Tennessee Titans don't know where they'd be without him.
The Harvard graduate has been Plan B for the bulk of his NFL career. Even the Bills originally brought him in as an understudy for Trent Edwards in 2009. But he thrived in a cameo role and eventually stole away the starting job in 2011.
After a hot September, Buffalo forked over a six-year, $59 million contract extension and seemingly gave Fitzpatrick the keys to the franchise. The Bills won just three games the rest of the season, however, to finish at 6-10.
After another 6-10 season in 2012, Buffalo had seen enough and released Fitzpatrick in March. The Titans quickly grabbed him up to replace Matt Hasselbeck as Jake Locker's backup.
Locker was lost to a season-ending injury three weeks ago, and Fitzpatrick will make his fifth start of the season Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"As a backup, you're the least important guy in the building until they need you," he said earlier this week during a conference call at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center. "Then you're the most important guy in the building. So it's a very interesting job but one that I enjoy, for sure."
The Titans (5-6) are the proud owners of the AFC's sixth and final playoff seed after a come-from-behind 23-19 victory last week at Oakland. Fitzpatrick completed 30 of 42 passes for 320 yards and two touchdowns, with the final score coming on a 10-yard toss to wide receiver Kendall Wright with 10 seconds remaining.
The suddenly reeling Indianapolis Colts (7-4), meanwhile, were dropping a 40-11 decision at Arizona. That means Tennessee can pull within one game of the AFC South lead — and strengthen its playoff hopes — with a victory Sunday.
That's a surprising proposition for a team with five losses in its last seven games. In fact, the Titans were left for dead by many just two weeks ago after squandering a 14-point second-quarter lead in a 30-27 loss at home to the Colts.
"I think it shows you the league is so unpredictable," Tennessee head coach Mike Munchak said. "People say 'any given Sunday' type of things, and week-to-week the league changes dramatically. You start feeling sorry for yourself, and all of sudden you realize other teams are going through similar things. We all have the same problems."
Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano can relate. His team entered the bye week on Oct. 27 at 5-2 with wins against Super Bowl contenders San Francisco, Seattle and Denver. In four games since, the Colts have been blown out by St. Louis and Arizona and needed big comebacks to survive division rivals Houston and Tennessee.
A loss on Sunday would further cloud Indianapolis' future and add to the chaos of the AFC playoff chase. Six teams enter this weekend's games with identical 5-6 records, adding to the Titans' sense of urgency despite the fact they currently sit atop the heap.
"It's a weird year this year in terms of all the teams that are jumbled kind of with the same record," Fitzpatrick said. "But I think that's the way the NFL wants it. You've got a few teams, obviously, that have pulled ahead of the pack. But there's so much parity in the league, especially in the AFC, that it should make for an exciting December here."
Fitzpatrick's late heroics against the Raiders gave the Titans new life, but they understand they're running out of second chances.
A loss on Sunday would all-but clinch the division for Indianapolis and move Tennessee to back of the line the crowded wild-card race. So the team is hoping to follow its plucky quarterback's lead.
Fitzpatrick has made a career out of capitalizing on unexpected opportunities. He might not get a better chance than the one straight ahead.
"Last week against the Raiders, being down in the fourth quarter, we felt the season kind of slipping away a little bit," he said. "I think we all understand the importance of each game. And as we win games, if we continue to win, then the next game becomes even bigger. So it's one of those one-game playoff mentality mindsets for us right now."