As each club is eliminated from the postseason, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Today it’s the Tennessee Titans, whose magic ran out in the AFC championship game against the Chiefs.
What Went Right
The Titans weren’t supposed to be here. Tennessee entered Week 7 at 2-4, well outside the AFC playoff picture and coming off a loss to the lowly Broncos. Their would-be franchise quarterback Marcus Mariota had been benched the previous week after a string of mediocre performances, and his replacement, Dolphins castoff Ryan Tannehill, didn’t look much better in relief during that game. The Titans had finished 9-7 the previous three seasons; getting back there seemed to be a tall task, and the future of the team was murky at best.
So naturally, Tennessee made the AFC title game. Beginning with that Week 7 matchup with the Chargers, the Titans played like one of the league’s best teams, going 7-3 down the stretch and finishing fifth in Football Outsiders’ Weighted DVOA, which gives more credence to recent games. Tannehill—who was traded to Tennessee last March for a fourth-round pick—was a revelation in particular after getting the start: After years of failing to live up to his high draft position in Miami, the 31-year-old promptly broke out, completing 69.6 percent of his passes for 2,598 yards, 22 touchdowns, and just five picks in the next 10 games. In particular, he was devastating on play-action: 1,165 of his 2,742 yards on the season came on those plays—and he did that on only 86 attempts.
That play-action success doesn’t happen without Derrick Henry, who benefitted from Tannehill’s appearance under center more than anyone. In the bruising running back’s nine games after the QB switch, he ran for 1,124 yards on 5.92 YPA. He topped 150 yards on three separate occasions, including a 211-yard performance against Houston in Week 17 that helped the Titans clinch a postseason berth. Despite running for just 416 yards in the first six weeks of the season and playing just 15 games overall, he snagged the league rushing crown. (Rookie receiver A.J. Brown also benefited from having Tannehill under center, as he finished the season with more than 1,051 yards, 778 of which came from Week 7 onward.)
Of course, playoff history is littered with 9-7 teams that snuck into the postseason only to get crushed in their first game, and the Titans’ Round 1 opponents were the defending champion Patriots, playing on wild-card weekend for the first time in a decade. Facing off against the franchise that made him a legend while he was a player, head coach Mike Vrabel stared down his former boss Bill Belichick and not only hung tough, but outsmarted him. The Titans unleashed Henry against the fearsome Pats defense, as the running back gashed them for 182 yards and a touchdown on the ground. When the dust settled, Tennessee had beaten New England 20-13, potentially ending one of the greatest dynasties the sport has ever seen and possibly sending Tom Brady out of Foxborough on a pick-six.
The next week, the Titans faced a tougher task: a matchup with the 1-seeded Ravens, who were starting presumptive MVP Lamar Jackson at quarterback and graded out as one of the best teams of the past 35 years in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. The result was even more lopsided: Tennessee crushed Baltimore at M&T Bank Stadium 28-12 as Henry ran for 195 yards and threw for a touchdown. And while Tannehill failed to throw for 100 yards in either of the Titans’ first two playoff games, he had this iconic throw against the Ravens:
In knocking off the 2018 champs and the favorites for this year’s Super Bowl, the Titans had one of the more memorable playoff runs of the past decade, and with Vrabel in charge and the emergence of Tannehill and Henry—both whom are free agents—Tennessee seems to be set up for many more in the next decade.
What Went Wrong
The carriage turned into a pumpkin before midnight.
The Titans ran into a buzzsaw on Sunday as Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs beat the upstarts 35-24 in the AFC championship game. Tennessee largely contained Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce (three catches for 30 yards) but had few answers for Tyreek Hill (five catches for 67 yards and two touchdowns) and Sammy Watkins (seven catches for 114 yards and a score). Mahomes not only beat the Titans through the air, but also with his feet. One play late in the first half stands out as a turning point: With Tennessee up 17-14, the Titans appeared to have Mahomes stopped on second-and-10. Instead, the 2018 MVP darted upfield and juked half of the Titans defense into oblivion, rushing in for a 27-yard score. The Chiefs went up 21-17 and then added two more touchdowns before the Titans responded late in the fourth quarter.
Patrick Mahomes finds the end zone on a 27-yard scramble to give the @Chiefs a 21-17 lead going into halftime.@PatrickMahomes covered 64.0 yards of distance on the play, the most distance covered on a TD run by a quarterback this season.#TENvsKC | Powered by @awscloud pic.twitter.com/2tKfuCRoag— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 19, 2020
Expectations for the Titans will be high in 2020, but remember, they weren’t supposed to be here.
A year ago at this time, we thought that Tennessee’s big quarterback issue in March 2020 would be deciding whether to let 2015 no. 2 pick Marcus Mariota walk. Now, that seems like a foregone conclusion, as all reports seem to indicate that Tannehill is in line for a massive pay day. Mariota, meanwhile, will likely seek out a backup role with another team, hoping he can eventually step in for a starting QB and impress, the way Tannehill did in his place.
While those decisions seem pretty cut-and-dried, there’s no indication how contract talks with Henry will play out. Modern wisdom holds that running backs aren’t worth much and that teams often regret inking rushers to big, long-term deals—ask the Rams how they feel about Todd Gurley’s deal—but Henry is a unique talent. At 6-foot-3, 247 pounds, Henry is often faster and stronger than the players trying to tackle him, and his postseason run showed just what that can do for this offense. Spotrac puts his market value north of $13 million a year, third highest for a running back. Will Tennessee bite?
Beyond the signal-callers and star running back, the Titans must decide what to do with Logan Ryan, the slot-corner specialist who had four picks in 2019, and Jack Conklin, the no. 12 graded offensive tackle by Pro Football Focus, both of whom were crucial to the team’s stellar play down the stretch.
The Titans will have the no. 29 pick in April, and they’d be wise to use it on the defense, which finished 16th in Football Outsiders DVOA. Tennessee could look to add an edge defender opposite Harold Landry, the second-year outside linebacker who finished with nine sacks in 2019. Several mock drafts have them linked to pass rushers such as LSU’s K’Lavon Chaisson and Notre Dame’s Julian Okwara.
If Henry walks, the Titans could go with a running back in the first round, though none fit Henry’s gigantic profile. It’s slim pickings at the position, with only Georgia’s D’Andre Swift, Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins, and Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor projected to go in the first half of the draft, but there isn’t a plug-and-play option out there who can exactly replace what Henry brings to the offense.