I have a soft spot for the Tennessee Titans. Now, I know everyone will be saying that as they head into the AFC Championship game next weekend against the Kansas City Chiefs. I wrote about the AFC South during the 2018/19 season and grew to respect and admire the 9-7 Titans – as they could legitimately change their name to since 9-7 has been their regular season record for the last 4 years. A good, solid, competitive franchise which had enjoyed relative success with GM Jon Robinson guiding the way. However, they were a team which could challenge but was never thought of as a true Super Bowl contender. Until now.
In the lead up to the NFL’s 100th season there was a big question mark over the Quarterback position in Tennessee. The team had nurtured strength in the offensive line and running game, and had a defense which was aggressive and competitive. But, in order to be a true contender then needed another trick, another wrinkle to the offense, through the air.
For 4 straight seasons Marcus Mariota had flattered to deceive, unable to consistently impose himself on games, usually coming up short when the game was on him. There was some mitigation including an inability to draft or acquire offensive weapons for Mariota to target. Then in the 2019 offseason the Titans acquired reinforcements. At the wide receiver position Adam Humphries arrived in free agency from Tampa Bay, and then in the 2019 Draft the Titans selected AJ Brown from Ole Miss. No one could have foreseen just how good a pick that would become. This season was always going to be make-or-break for Mariota with the Titans needing to make a decision whether to enter into another contract with him, or to move on from the former 1st round draft pick.
They made one more change on offense which would prove crucial, bringing Ryan Tannehill in from the Miami Dolphins. Somewhat similar to Mariota, Tannehill, himself a 1st a round draft pick, had never set the world alight with the Dolphins mired in a relatively poor run during the last decade. He would, however, provide a capable backup if needed – although this again pointed to a season of perhaps a small incremental improvement, not a run deep into the playoffs. The start to the season bore this prediction out. After week 6’s defeat to the Denver Broncos, where the Titans were scoreless, their record sat at 2-4. They were at a crossroads. If they fell behind, Mariota could not bring them back, not even close. During that week 6 defeat a decision was taken which changed their season. In the 3rd quarter Ryan Tannehill came in for Mariota. He could not alter that result but he showed enough spark to take the starting job from week 7 onwards.
Since that date, October 20th, the Tennessee Titans went 7-3. Ryan Tannehill finished the 2019 regular season with a league high QB rating of 117.5, off the back of a 70% completion rate, 22TDs and only 6 INT. By no means was the improvement in the team’s record all on him but he had become an ultra reliable cog in the machine. He quickly developed a knack of finding AJ Brown who has gone over 1,000 yards receiving and the passing game now acts as a complimentary part of the attack assisting the all powerful running game led by the juggernaut himself, Derrick Henry (over 1,500 yards rushing). There is now balance, with defenses having to at least acknowledge the threat Tannehill poses. He has been the definition of efficient and very effective as a drive-manager on the field, vastly improving the Titans efficiency in the redzone.
So the Titans now find themselves one game away from the Super Bowl with only the Chiefs standing in their way. This will be their first AFC Championship game since 2002 and they come into the game after dispensing with 2 of the pre-playoff AFC favourites: the Patriots and Ravens. In both games the plan has been broadly the same – lean on Derrick Henry, use that focus to pull out the odd trick play, and seek to capitalise on the mistakes of others (very Patriots like). Against the Ravens the Titans scored 21 points off the back of turnovers.
Can they go all the way? Of course, they can, but the AFC Championship game may present the most difficult opponents left for the Titans to play. The Titans defense has been ordinary against the pass this season (ranked 21st by DVOA). Now they must face Pat Mahomes’ Chiefs, fresh from their 50-burger against the Texans, after giving Houston a generous 24 points head start. However, the Chiefs defense ranks 29th against the run (again by DVOA), suggesting Derrick Henry will again have a field day. Both teams should be able to put points on the board – and the (albeit simplistic) task will be – stop Mahomes and stop Henry, or at least slow both of them down. In the midst of this battle don’t be surprised if at a crucial point the Titans go play-action and trust Tannehill to deliver another downfield surprise on the Chiefs.
In a way Tannehill reminds me of Nick Foles and his Super Bowl run with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2017. Yes, the Eagles perhaps relied more on Foles than the Titans do on Tannehill but Philly also had a strong running game (twin-headed by LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi) and in both cases the QB now at the helm had started the season as a backup, unsure they would receive any great opportunity. And look what happened in 2017. The Titans may be the Cinderella team left in the playoffs but fairy tales do happen. What odds a ‘Tennessee special’ in this year’s Super Bowl?
Other thoughts on the divisional round
I’ve been surprised (sort of) to see the reaction to some of the losing teams from the divisional round (and from the wildcard round before that) and how quickly we lost sight that these were the 12 best teams in the NFL this year, so they must be doing something right.
There have been calls that the Vikings and Texans (and the Saints and Patriots before that) are going to need to rip it up and start again. Issues in relation to the salary cap and/or lack of draft picks have been cited, as have the futures of QBs (Brees, Brady and even Cousins – one week after he was revered for the demolition of the Saints). Whilst there is some credence to this (e.g. the Vikings and Saints are up against the cap, the Texans have frittered away their draft picks, and who knows where Brady ends up) these are well run and well coached franchises who have appeared in the playoffs time and again in recent years. I think all the 2019 playoff teams will be competitive again next year.
AFC – Tennessee Titans @ Kansas City Chiefs – love what the Titans have been able to achieve this year and they have beaten two of the toughest opponents possible. But can Derrick Henry keep carrying 30 times a game in this level of intensity. And how do you live with the high octane madness of the Chiefs offense when they hit stride? Kansas just has too much for Tennessee.
Tennessee Titans 24 – 34 Kansas City Chiefs
NFC – Green Bay Packers @ San Francisco 49ers – the 49ers looked so good last weekend. The bye week had helped to rest and recuperate their key players. Their defence stopped Dalvin Cook and they can stop Aaron Jones this time around. I love the Smiths on Green Bay’s defense (Za’Darius and Preston) and I think they could seek to take the middle of the field away from Jimmy G. Then there is Aaron Rodgers. He must know he does not have too many more shots at this given the competitive nature of the league. Rodgers will be a thorn in the 49ers side but San Francisco are simply too good across the roster in the end. Could be a classic though!
Green Bay Packers 23 – 26 San Francisco 49ers
Same time next week when we will have our Super Bowl match up!