It’s been a long time since the NFL had a wild-card team make a deep playoff run. From 1992 to 2010, a wild-card team made the Super Bowl at least once every five seasons, but no wild-card squad has appeared in the NFL’s championship game since the 2010 playoffs, when Aaron Rodgers won his Lombardi Trophy. For nearly a decade, the NFL has been dominated by the top seeds.
We may finally have a team that is ready to break that mold.
The Titans didn’t just beat the Ravens on Saturday night. They destroyed them. The final score was 28-12, but that included a late touchdown by the Ravens when the game was already mostly out of hand. The fourth quarter began with Tennessee up 28-6, and Lamar Jackson, the league’s presumptive MVP, had been held out of the end zone to that point.
Like the Titans’ upset over the Patriots, this one began with Derrick Henry. Tennessee’s fourth-year back is the biggest, strongest, and often the fastest player on any field he’s on, and his ability to run around or through just about any defender almost defies analytics. Henry carried the rock 30 times in this game for 195 yards (for 6.5 per tote) and caught two more passes for 7 yards. His 66-yard run in the third quarter broke the game open for the Titans—and the Ravens should have had him dead to rights in the backfield:
Henry is damn near impossible to tackle. He is the first player to ever rush for more than 180 yards in three consecutive games (going back to Week 17), and broke the record for the most rushing yards in the first two rounds of the postseason. And if all that weren’t enough, Henry threw a touchdown pass:
The former Alabama back and Heisman winner is doing things we’ve never seen before; these are Derrick Henry’s playoffs. If there is any running back who can carry a team to the Super Bowl, Henry looks like the one to do it.
But don’t get the idea that Henry will have to drag Tennessee kicking and screaming. The Titans are a legitimately good team—and no one will doubt that now. While they only just sneaked into the playoffs as the no. 6 seed in the AFC, all of their underlying numbers pointed toward a team that should be much better: They were 10th in the NFL in points scored, 12th in points allowed, and ninth in DVOA (and fifth in weighted DVOA, which emphasizes recent games). It wasn’t a shock when they beat the Patriots—but Saturday it wasn’t the Patriots, it was the Ravens.
Baltimore entered this game as 10-point favorites, and that’s not because Tennessee was overlooked. The Ravens were one of the best teams in NFL history, with the seventh-best DVOA ever recorded (since 1985). They were first in points scored and third in points allowed and had ripped off 12 straight wins to enter the postseason with the best record in the league. In other words, they were a true powerhouse—and now will leave the playoffs as one of the most bitterly disappointing top seeds in recent memory.
Henry provided the engine for that upset, but this Titans team has the potential for even more. Back in Week 7, the Titans were desperate. They were 2-4 and looking for a spark to save their season. No one was even thinking playoffs at that point, but they turned to Ryan Tannehill, and the results have been incredible. Normally, midseason quarterback changes don’t turn a team around—but Tannehill went 7-3 down the stretch, got the team into the playoffs, and ended the season tied for first in Pro Football Focus’s grading, eighth in QBR, and first in adjusted net yards per attempt.
Tannehill threw for just 88 yards in this game, but the team barely needed him—he attempted only 14 passes. He still got two passing touchdowns, including this bomb to Kalif Raymond in the first quarter, set up by a play-action fake to Henry that nearly every Ravens defender bit on:
And while he’s no Lamar Jackson, Tannehill offers enough mobility (185 yards and four scores on the ground in the regular season) to allow the Titans to get creative on offense. He scored on this option play late in the third quarter to help Tennessee pull away:
Rookie receiver A.J. Brown has been a late-season revelation as well, yet he had just 9 yards in this game after a similar dud performance last week against the Patriots. Tight end Jonnu Smith picked up the slack in this game with a circus catch in the end zone:
But no player had more than 45 yards receiving in this game, and no one had more than 22 yards against the Pats. That’s not great, but it is also tantalizing in the potential growth it represents: The Titans haven’t even used all the tools available to them yet.
Defensively, the Titans were middle-of-the-road, with a 16th-place finish in DVOA. And against the Ravens, the defense allowed a whopping 530 yards and 29 first downs—but it held in the most crucial moments:
Ravens had drives that ended at the:— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) January 12, 2020
And finished with 12 points.
The Titans held on two different critical fourth-and-1s, on which the Ravens had been 8-for-8 in the regular season. They also intercepted Jackson twice, when he’d been picked off only six times total in the regular season.
The Titans’ biggest weakness may be that the team can’t make a field goal. Tennessee went 8-of-18 in the regular season and has made just one (!) field goal since Week 8. It’s a true Achilles’ heel, but the thing about Achilles is that he is still a demigod, just like the Titans are one of the best teams in these playoffs. They have one of the league’s most efficient quarterbacks, a serviceable defense, a number of promising receivers, and, of course, the best running back. The Titans weren’t supposed to be here—but they just showed that they belong.