It was not the absolute best of the Tennessee Titans.
In a way, though, Saturday’s 20-13 victory over the New England Patriots in a wild-card matchup at Gillette Stadium was the best representation of what these Titans are as a whole.
A team that relied too much on its defense early in the regular season and then rode a high-scoring offense into the playoffs late in the year got quality contributions from every aspect of the roster as it earned a spot in the divisional round. They were outgained but not outgunned. They gave up some plays but not a lot of points. And they made the most of the moments that mattered most.
As a result, Tennessee will play at Baltimore next Saturday with a spot in the conference championship on the line. The victory ended the championship reign of the Patriots, who won Super Bowl LIII last season and had gotten at least as far as the AFC Championship game each of the last eight years.
“We didn’t hand them anything,” coach Mike Vrabel said. “That was the one thing … they feast on bad football. We didn’t hand them anything and I don’t think our guys spent too much time staring up at those banners.”
There was some good from the offense. In particular, there was Derrick Henry and the line. The NFL’s leading rusher maintained his momentum from the regular season and rolled to a franchise playoff record 182 rushing yards on 34 attempts, which was more than enough to offset a surprisingly pedestrian performance in the passing game.
There was some good from the defense. In particular, there was a second-quarter goal-line stand that forced the Patriots to settle for their second field goal of the opening half. It was the second time in three red-zone possessions that quarterback Tom Brady and New England’s offense failed to score a touchdown, and that ability to dig in close to the goal line offset the fact that the Patriots produced 10 plays of more than 10 yards on their first four possessions.
“This team believes in each other,” quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. “We believed in each other all year, and it’s come through trial. We’ve been in situations like this – tough games, tight games – and found a way to make a play and win. … We were able to do that (Saturday) night.”
The goal-line sequence, three attempts to run it in from the 2-yard line or closer (linebacker Rashaan Evans made two tackles and defensive lineman DaQuan Jones made one), was the turning point.
Up until then – with 2:16 to play in the first half – the Patriots had scored on three of their first four offensive possessions, compiled 199 total yards and led 13-7. After that, seven possessions netted just 108 total yards and only one crossed midfield (New England got as far as the Tennessee 47). The Patriots’ final play on offense was an interception that cornerback Logan Ryan returned nine yards for a touchdown with nine seconds remaining.
“They made some key plays in critical situations,” New England coach Bill Belichick said of Tennessee’s defense. “In the red area on third down, ultimately those plays were probably the difference in the game.”
It was also after the goal-line stand that the Titans turned to Henry in earnest. They put together a seven-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that gave them the lead at halftime. Those seven plays were six Henry runs for 53 yards and one Henry reception for 22 yards.
There was little else for offensive coordinator Arthur Smith to do given that Tannehill and the passing game – particularly the wide receivers – fell well short of the standard they established over the preceding 10 contests. Tannehill completed just eight of 15 passes for 72 yards, and his leading targets were backup tight ends Anthony Firkser (two receptions, 23 yards) and MyCole Pruitt (two receptions, four yards).
Firkser contributions were particularly notable given that his first catch went for 12 yards and a touchdown that put Tennessee ahead 7-3 in the first quarter. His second was an 11-yard gain on third-and-8 with 2:54 to play, which allowed the Titans to run precious time off the clock.
“We knew it was going to be a tough game,” Henry said. “We knew it was going to be muddy. We just had the mindset to never keep up [and] keep playing together in all three phases.”