The Tennessee Titans clinched a playoff spot in a 35-14 win against the Houston Texans on Sunday night. They now face off against New England in the AFC Wild Card game this Saturday after reaching their fourth straight year of a 9-7 record.
The Titans reaching the Wild Card game feels fitting. A wild card is to be unpredictable; you never know what you’re going to get. Tennessee has oscillated between rank 20 all the way to rank 11 in Dan Hanzus’ 2019 power rankings. They’re an enigma in the NFL that evade early season rankings, making them one of the harder teams to prepare for.
Up and down season
At the start of the season, Tennessee Titans fans and NFL apparatchiks had little hope that the team could make an impact. There were glimmers of promise in the Week 1 43-13 defeat of a much hyped Cleveland team. Yet it was downhill from there.
Tennessee began with two divisional losses to the Colts and Jaguars in Week 2 and 3. These teams were not difficult opponents, especially since both match ups were against inexperienced quarterbacks. These games highlighted the team’s weaknesses in defense, as well as the bigger issue in the quarterback position.
Week 6 became a poignant moment. This season’s early narrative was whether quarterback Marcus Mariota was Tennessee’s long term franchise quarterback. The future of MM8 was decided in Week 6 after he was benched following a shut out to the Denver Broncos. His 2-4 record was unacceptable to Head Coach Mike Vrabel knowing they had a viable second stringer. Mariota’s flaw lay within his inconsistency. On any given week, he could throw a 50 yard touchdown in tight coverage but muff a handoff to a running back. His Quarterback Rating sat 31.6 for the games he played, putting him below 1-12 quarterback Andy Dalton.
Coach Vrabel making the decision to bench him was the best thing that could have happened to the team.
Enter Tannehill and Brown
Moving quarterback Ryan Tannehill to a starting position was a real turning point for the team, leading the Titans to a 7-4 record. Tannehill has been his own PR agent, transitioning from a Dolphins reject to an explosive quarterback with the ability to make passes in tight . He’s effective, too. Tannehill is the first quarterback since legend Joe Montana to complete 70% of his passes averaging over 10 yards per attempt.
Tannehill isn’t the only part of the offense stepping up. Rookie receiver AJ Brown found his stride, with 1111 all purpose yards, 20 yards per reception and 9 touchdowns. His performance on the field set him up for Offensive Rookie of the Year contention, and as a WR1 in the future. His explosivity on the field makes him impossible to prepare for, as he’s able to find a way to catch in the tightest of coverage.
Other outstanding players include receiver Tajae Sharpe and tight end Jonnu Smith. Sharpe was named the Tennessee Titans biggest offseason surprise this year, and it’s easy to see why. He has been with Tennessee since 2016 and has increased his catch percentage from 49% to over 70% this season. He had 8 touchdowns and played a pivotal role in Tennessee’s late season success.
Third year Jonnu Smith became a starter after stalwart TE Delanie Walker was placed on injured reserve in week 7 after suffering an ankle injury. His 6 foot 3, 248lb frame always found space to catch Tannehill’s dimes with over 70% catch rate and averaging 12.9 yards per reception. Given Walker is now 35 years old, Smith’s career high year performance shows a rosy future for Tennessee at the position.
Continuing defensive consistency
The Tennessee Titans defense hasn’t been up to previous season form with cornerback and pass rush issues. According to Football Outsiders, Tennessee’s pash rush ranks 16th behind non playoff teams Cleveland, Jacksonville and Washington.
However, the pass rush isn’t indicative of the wider defense. Rookie tackle Jeffrey Simmons became a sensation in the 9 games he played with his two sacks and combined 32 tackles. Safety Kevin Byard continues to dominate on interceptions, ending the regular season with 5 and totalling 17 since the 2017 season – the most in the league. Cornerback Logan Ryan demonstrated efficiency and his agility with 115 tackles, 4.5 sacks and 8 QB hits on the year. These young, agile defensive players have made it challenging for coaches to scheme effective offenses.
Perpetual wild cards?
While pulling these notable players out to highlight their achievements, it obscures a wider story of the 2019 Tennessee team. The Titans coaching staff and players are a team working harmoniously together in a way they hadn’t before.
No example demonstrates this more than tackle Taylor Lewan pacing the sidelines in the fourth quarter, demanding the team to do everything the can to allow running back Derrick Henry to gain the yardage he needed to become the number one rusher for the regular season. Coach Vrabel was even on board, giving Henry a workload you wouldn’t want to put on your leading offensive player before a playoff game. Everyone worked together to get Henry the yardage, and the record, because it was important to him to have it. The synergy and support offered by the whole team makes what they have right now extra special.
The Titans are a 9-7 team right now, but they’re playing above their record. They are especially different the 9-7 team in 2017 that lost the divisional game to New England. This time, they go into the wild card game against a weaker-than-normal New England team as a real contender.
Gone are the days of the defensive slogs, shut-outs and being the butt of everyone’s jokes. Tennessee finally have all the elements to be competitive: a future proof roster, dynamic coaching and a real team. None of us expected that.
Feature image: Donald Page