The Tennessee Titans lost just their second game of the season with Ryan Tannehill starting, and it was enough to lose control of their playoff chances. The Titans fell 24-21 to the Houston Texans on Sunday, ceding the AFC South lead to the Texans with two weeks to go and one more game left against Houston in Week 17. If the Texans win against the Buccaneers next week (or Tennessee the week after), Houston wins the division and the Titans could miss the playoffs. Tennessee has been one of the league’s best teams over the past six weeks, but their margin for error is approaching zero.
Tannehill finished with 22 completions and two sacks on 38 dropbacks with two touchdowns and one interception on Sunday, but those numbers belie his performance. The interception was nearly a Titans touchdown: On Tennessee’s third drive, Tannehill took the snap on first-and-goal at the Houston 5-yard line. He rifled a pass to tight end Anthony Firkser, but Firkser was hit immediately by a defender and the ball popped straight into the arms of Texans outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, who returned the ball 86 yards.
Two plays later Deshaun Watson threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to receiver Kenny Stills that gave Houston a 7-0 lead. That was a 14-point swing. Combined with Ryan Succop’s blocked field goal earlier in the quarter, the Titans nearly scored 10 points in their first three possessions but still found themselves down 7-0. Watson found Stills for another touchdown to make it 14-0 at halftime; it strangely seemed like the Titans had outplayed Houston and had still been undone by mistakes.
Tennessee rectified those in the third quarter. The Titans’ first possession of the second half, which went 76 yards on 15 plays and lasted nine and a half minutes, ended with Tannehill taking a naked bootleg on fourth-and-goal at the inch line untouched into the end zone.
Ryan Tannehill: 4th Rush TD this season | He had 4 Rush TD over the 2013-18 seasons combined. #Titans— TURRON DAVENPORT (@TDavenport_NFL) December 15, 2019
The run was Tannehill’s fourth rushing score of the season, the same as he had from 2013 to 2018 combined. His rushing ability alters opponents’ defensive approaches even when he doesn’t leave the pocket. Later in the game he found A.J. Brown for a 5-yard touchdown pass. Tannehill had six full seconds of pass protection on the play in part because the Texans sent three rushers and kept a fourth player in as a quarterback spy. If defenses get coverage sacks, this play was a protection touchdown, and the three-man rush was out of respect for Tannehill as a rusher.
A.J. Brown’s been balling.@ryantannehill1 ➡️ @Brown1arthur and the @Titans even the score 14-14! #Titans #HOUvsTEN— NFL (@NFL) December 15, 2019
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Tannehill has been the biggest surprise of the season since taking over for Marcus Mariota in Week 7. Entering Week 15, Tannehill led all qualified passers in yards per attempt (9.8), adjusted yards per attempt (10.2), and passer rating (118.5). From Week 7 through Week 14 the Titans are third in points, fourth in point differential, and first in yards per play. Not bad for someone the Titans acquired for a fourth-rounder and late-round pick swap with Miami and whom Tennessee is paying just $2 million this year.
Of course, it helps to have a receiver who can’t be covered for six seconds like A.J. Brown. The rookie out of Ole Miss has established himself as Tennessee’s no. 1 receiver with a spectacular season, including 153 yards and two scores last week against Oakland. He was nearly as good on Sunday. Brown had eight catches for 114 yards and a touchdown in this game—the fourth 100-yard game of his season, which is the most for a rookie since Amari Cooper in 2015. His best play against the Texans was a 60-yard catch-and-run down the sideline early in the game, but the score tied the game at 14. Before the season, Brown was the other buff guy in all the offseason photos of DK Metcalf. Now he’s passed Metcalf for the most receiving yards by a rookie this season through 15 games with 893. He has the highest mark for yards per route run on Pro Football Focus for a rookie since Odell Beckham Jr. in 2014.
Tennessee’s other big contributor on Sunday was tight end Jonnu Smith, who—in addition to a touchdown-saving tackle on Mercilus’s interception—had five catches for 60 yards plus a 57-yard rush on a designed toss that Smith took seamlessly.
Jonnu Smith is a tight end.— NFL (@NFL) December 15, 2019
And he’s as fast as any RB out there. @Easymoney_81 #Titans #HOUvsTEN
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It’s the second week in a row that a tight end had a big rush; Travis Kelce scored a rushing touchdown last week. Positionless football! In between his run and the tackle attempt, Smith had two of the season’s five fastest times tracked by NFL’s Next Gen Stats in this game.
Jonnu Smith came from the first few yards of the end zone to keep this from being a pick-six. pic.twitter.com/KhENuPgyGk— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) December 15, 2019
The Titans offense got humming in the second half, but the Titans defense couldn’t get stops when it mattered. They stopped doubling DeAndre Hopkins late, and Hopkins had four catches for 98 yards in the fourth quarter alone.
"If teams don't know now in the fourth quarter -- s∗∗∗, Hop gettin' the ball."— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) December 15, 2019
An entertaining minute with #Texans star DeAndre Hopkins after retaking sole possession of the AFC South lead. @nflnetwork pic.twitter.com/RGfTn5E4hC
Deshaun Watson finished with 19 completions on 27 attempts for 243 yards, two touchdowns (both to Stills), and two interceptions, but the Titans were mostly done in on the ground. Watson scrambled seven times for 32 yards and three first downs, and running back Carlos Hyde had 26 carries for 104 yards and a touchdown, giving him his first 1,000-yard rushing season of his career.
The loss puts the Titans in a tough spot. They play the Saints next week and then travel to Houston in Week 17. Houston has Tampa Bay next week. If the Texans win either of their next two, they win the division. The Titans need to finish 2-0 and hope the Buccaneers beat the Texans next week. If they can’t win the division, they need the Steelers or Bills to faceplant down the stretch to snag a wild-card berth. Buffalo plays Pittsburgh on Sunday night. The Bills finish their season against the Patriots and Jets while the Steelers finish against the Jets and Ravens, albeit Pittsburgh may be playing Baltimore’s backups in Week 17.
Tannehill has been a revelation for this franchise, the rare quarterback find who has been a star overnight, but the next two games will be the biggest two of his career. Even if he’s fantastic, the defense may have a tougher time stopping Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara than it did Hopkins and Hyde this week.
Titans LB Rashaan Evans on the loss: "it's a bitter pill to swallow ... go back to the drawing board, have a different mindset going into this Saints game because this Saints team is a lot better than this Texans team for a fact."— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) December 15, 2019
lmao the pettiness is so real pic.twitter.com/ODeqHE1fSv
Tennessee will need some mistake-free football to keep its season alive—even if the Titans pull it out, a Houston win could render it all moot. Tannehill has been nearly perfect for this team, but his whole effort may still be too little, too late.