The Tennessee Titans are going to the AFC championship game. Read that sentence again. Hell, read it a few more times. Because I’m not sure how it’s real.
The Titans went into Baltimore on Saturday night and knocked off the best team in football, 28-12. These playoffs were supposed to be the culmination of a magical season for the Ravens, with soon-to-be MVP Lamar Jackson leading a red-hot group all the way to a title. So much for that. Tennessee followed the same formula it did in last weekend’s wild-card shocker against the Patriots: great defense, a whole lot of Derrick Henry, and the occasional big throw from Ryan Tannehill. The Titans quarterback has taken on a smaller role in these playoffs, but this team wouldn’t have sniffed the postseason without his regular-season contributions. And with Tennessee’s spot in the final four now secure, it’s safe to say the trade for Tannehill—and subsequent decision to start him over Marcus Mariota in Week 7—was the most important move of the entire year.
When Tennessee traded for Tannehill in March, the transaction didn’t make waves. The NFL.com headline about the deal paid just as much attention to the Titans’ decision to cut Blaine Gabbert. With a new regime taking over in Miami, the writing was on the wall for Tannehill’s future with the organization that took him eighth overall in the 2012 draft. Tannehill had his share of promising moments with the Dolphins, but injuries and inconsistency defined his tenure. The Titans pried the quarterback away for the low, low price of a fourth-round pick. Not only that: They convinced Miami to pay $5.25 million of Tannehill’s $7 million base salary in 2019.
In a world in which Jared Goff will make $36 million next season and the Colts handed Jacoby Brissett a two-year, $30 million contract extension, the Titans got Tannehill for essentially nothing. The move somehow saved their season, and now has flipped the script on what was supposed to be Baltimore’s coronation. It’s a trade that shines a light on just how slim the margins are between a forgotten season and a deep playoff run.
By making the trade, the Titans showed a level of self-awareness that teams often lack. With Mariota heading into the final year of his rookie deal facing questions about both his health and his effectiveness, general manager Jon Robinson knew he needed a contingency plan at quarterback. Mariota still entered this season as the starter, with the no. 2 pick in 2015 making about $21 million on his fifth-year option. But by acquiring Tannehill, the Titans took steps to ensure this season might not be a total loss if Mariota got hurt or struggled.
Mariota completed just 59 percent of his passes during Tennessee’s 2-4 start. He was benched in the third quarter of a 16-0 loss to Denver after throwing his second interception of the game. The upgrade was apparent immediately. While the Titans failed to score over the final quarter and a half against the Broncos, Tannehill finished 13-of-16 passing for 144 yards in mop-up duty. And over the next 10 games, the offense transformed.
A downfield passing game that had been largely absent under Mariota suddenly emerged. Rookie wide receiver A.J. Brown blossomed into one of the scariest playmakers in the league, going for at least 100 yards and a touchdown in four of Tennessee’s final six games. Ultra-athletic tight end Jonnu Smith caught 29 passes for 342 yards from Week 7 through Week 16, and Henry bulldozed opposing defenses to a degree rarely seen in the NFL. Over his first 56 regular-season games, Henry rushed for 100-plus yards five times; since Week 10, he’s now plowed past that mark in seven of the eight games in which he’s played.
And Tannehill, remarkably, began playing like one of the best quarterbacks in football. He completed nearly 70 percent of his passes and averaged 10.4 adjusted yards per attempt. His completion percentage came in 8.1 points higher than his expected completion rate—the largest gap in the league. With Tannehill at the controls, the Titans settled into a different version of their offense. Tannehill averaged 13.5 yards per attempt on play-action throws, tops in the NFL, as Tennessee rode Henry and a complementary passing game. With the offense finally clicking, the Titans went 7-3 down the stretch and won a Week 17 play-in game against Houston to snag the final spot in the AFC playoffs.
That brings us to the past two weeks. Tannehill has played a supporting role during the Titans’ two postseason wins, but made just enough key plays on Saturday. His 45-yard touchdown to Khalif Raymond in the second quarter is the type of play-action shot that the Titans consistently hit during the second half of the season. Much like he did in November and December, Tannehill also made several key plays with his legs, including running for a 1-yard touchdown in the third quarter to salt the game away. The same way they did against New England, the Titans leaned on Henry (who finished with 30 carries for 195 yards) to carry them, but that’s the beauty of the playoffs. If you get a spot in the tournament, each week is its own self-contained matchup, and all that matters is finding a way to advance. The Patriots have done that for years. And now, the Titans are one step from the damn Super Bowl.
RYAN TANNEHILL GOING DEEP.— NFL (@NFL) January 12, 2020
45-yard touchdown pass to put the @Titans up 14-0! #Titans #NFLPlayoffs
: #TENvsBAL on CBS
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Watch free on mobile: https://t.co/81PYwJcw9t pic.twitter.com/BMQPbYpIIL
If the Chiefs beat the Texans on Sunday, the Titans will likely be heavy underdogs at Arrowhead Stadium—just like they were on Saturday at Baltimore. It’s possible that Championship Sunday would represent the end of the road for Mike Vrabel’s team; winning three away games en route to the Super Bowl isn’t impossible in today’s NFL, but it’s pretty darn close. Still, it’s incredible that the Titans are even in this position at all.
Inertia tends to rule the NFL. When teams make significant commitments to players, they tend to ride them out, even if plenty of evidence points to another conclusion. Take the Blake Bortles debacle in Jacksonville from a few years back, or the situation now unfolding with Mitchell Trubisky in Chicago. Instead of sticking with Mariota just for the sake of doing it, though, Robinson decided that competition at quarterback was necessary. It didn’t matter that bringing an established name like Tannehill to Nashville might upset Mariota’s standing within the locker room. As the Titans have proven over the past 12 weeks, the rest of this roster was ready to compete now, and Robinson grasped that he needed to do something to keep Tennessee afloat if Mariota languished.
Tannehill hasn’t been forced to do much for the Titans over the past two weeks, but that’s beside the point. Finding the right quarterback is about more than upgrading a single position; it’s about making sure the rest of an immensely talented roster doesn’t go to waste. Robinson understood that, and it led him to make what goes down as the single most important move of the 2019 offseason. The Tannehill trade already saved the Titans’ season. Soon, it may get them to the Super Bowl.