By TERESA M. WALKER
AP Sports Writer
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - The Tennessee Titans know only too well the importance of starting the season on a winning note.
The Titans remember how their 1-4 start a year ago put them into a hole they never dug out from en route to a 6-10 record. The challenge is a schedule that has Tennessee opening on the road Sunday at Pittsburgh followed by a trip to Houston. They finally play at home Sept. 22 against San Diego.
Cornerback Alterraun Verner said the Titans can't afford to start 0-2, 0-3 or 0-4.
"This is a very big game," Verner said. "I almost want to say it's a must-win for the first game of the season. I think it's a must-win for us to take that step to try to compete and try to be contenders through the end of the year."
The Titans believe the difference will be an infusion of experience and talent with 20 new players, 13 of those free agents. They also know what it might mean for coach Mike Munchak in his third season if they don't win games early.
"Our backs are against the wall," safety Michael Griffin said Wednesday. "We keep saying over and over again, but you know when your head coach is under a one-year deal, it basically puts the whole team under a one-year deal no matter what your contract may say."
Owner Bud Adams allowed general manager Ruston Webster to spend more than $100 million this offseason signing a bunch of free agents. Now 20 new players are part of the biggest roster turnover for this franchise since being renamed the Titans before the 1999 season.
The new players include veterans like safety Bernard Pollard, who just won a Super Bowl with Baltimore, safety George Wilson and tight end Delanie Walker, who played in the last Super Bowl with San Francisco. They help drive home the attention to detail needed to win whether it's extra time spent studying opponents on film, more meetings or even dinners to build camaraderie.
"They've definitely been great helping me out so I know they've been beneficial to everybody on the team," Verner said.
The Titans have lost both season openers under Munchak, and he thinks he has a different team now.
"We all know how important it is to come out of here, and it's going to be a challenge," Munchak said. "These are two great teams we have to play back to back. We'll find out what we're all about before we come back home."
Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin certainly has seen enough of Pollard from the safety's time in Baltimore to know what the veteran is bringing to Tennessee.
"He plays with great passion," Tomlin said on a conference call. "I think it is something that teams are capable of feeding off of. I think he is an energy-bringer as opposed to an energy-drainer. That is a recipe for good defense. We have a lot of respect for him."
Pollard has been trying to make sure his new teammates understand what they face Sunday in Pittsburgh. A physical game, hostile crowd and the need to build to just the right moment at kickoff. He said now it's time for the Titans to show their fans and themselves that they can play good football.
"Nashville, the state of Tennessee has been yearning for a team to win, and I think this year is the time," Pollard said.
NOTES: LB Akeem Ayers, who hurt his right ankle in the second preseason, returned to practice Wednesday. He was limited, but Munchak said he took part in team drills. LT David Stewart, who broke his right leg Dec. 2, was limited by a sore right calf. Rookie LB Zaviar Gooden (ankle) did not practice.
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