The Titans will play the winner of the Texans-Chiefs next Sunday at 3:05 p.m. ET in what will be Tennessee’s first appearance in an AFC Championship Game since 2003. Here’s what we learned from its win Saturday:
1. How do you upset a No. 1 seed with a seemingly unstoppable offense? You turn that offense over, score, stuff that offense and take a deep shot for another score. You play with visible intensity and take no punches without delivering one of your own (within the rules, of course). And then you finish the job by riding your literal Titan of a running back to a victory.
Derrick Henry was again the story of a Titans upset playoff win. The running back racked up 195 yards on 30 carries, powering the Titans in all areas. He ripped off long runs and barreled through defenders for key conversions, and he even used his arm when he channeled his inner 2007 Tim Tebow by tossing a jump pass to Corey Davis for a touchdown. Henry became the first player in NFL postseason history to rush for 175-plus yards in two playoff games, and the first to do so in consecutive playoff games. It’s another week, and another use of the same line: The Titans go as Henry goes — and they’re going to the AFC Championship Game.
2. Ryan Tannehill is already in the midst of a career year, and he now has two massive playoff wins under his belt. The craziest part: He’s not even doing that much. For the second straight week, Tannehill threw for less than 100 yards and won a playoff game. Unlike last week, Tannehill didn’t make a single significant mistake, avoiding interceptions while also tossing two touchdowns. Forty-five of his 88 passing yards came on one crucial completion to Khalif Raymond for a touchdown and a 14-point lead in what amounted to a teeth-rattling right hook. Tannehill is piloting this offense that’s powered by a massive engine in Henry, and he’s making all the right turns and adjustments in speed along the way, benefitting from well-timed play-action and using his own athleticism to nudge Tennessee a little farther. His touchdown run on the goal line capped this win, and slammed home the importance of offensive coordinator Arthur Smith’s play-calling. Those three factors combined to propel Tennessee to another stunning upset victory.
3. Watching Baltimore’s offense get stuffed twice on fourth down was jarring. Watching it struggle to get going was far too reminiscent of last season’s playoff loss, which had to be mystifying if not downright frustrating for those in attendance. Baltimore rescued itself from the raging waters of horribly timed ineptitude with enough time left to make a dent in Tennessee’s lead before the half, but stalled again early in the third and watched whatever momentum it had built dwindle away with each big Henry run. By the time Tannehill crossed the goal line, the
were struggling to find a way to stand up.
Lamar Jackson had a stellar night statistically, but he struggled early, helping the Ravens dig themselves a hole. Mark Ingram‘s status at less than 100 percent due to a calf injury was visible and hurt the Ravens, as did a hobbled Mark Andrews. The Ravens, who for so long this season were as explosive as could be, looked like a shell of themselves. Drops of wobbling Jackson passes only further emphasized how rust and the toll of a season can combine to make for an awful night against a hungry and vengeful opponent. Instead of capping their fantastic season with the gleam of a Lombardi secured in Miami, it’s ending with a bitter thud in Baltimore.
4. We’ve seen one, maybe two defenses execute the blueprint all season leading up to Saturday night. The Titans became the third, caging Jackson and forcing him to throw interceptions, and perhaps more importantly keeping Jackson from making the massive play. Tennessee’s rangy, young linebackers took excellent pursuit angles, preventing Jackson from hitting the running lanes he’s exploited for game-changing plays all season, and they consistently maintained contain against the option. At one point, Greg Roman went away from the run far too early, perhaps in a bit of a panic caused solely by the Titans‘ defenders. When Baltimore resorted to passing, Titans defensive backs closed on fluttering Jackson passes, batting them away upon arrival. Their defensive efforts allowed the Titans to build an early lead, and by the time Baltimore did find the end zone, it didn’t matter much.
Tennessee opened the season with a hunger to quiet the folks hyping up another AFC North team and did so in resounding fashion. This, though, is the Titans‘ signature win of the season to this point.
5. This result is stunning, no doubt, even after the Titans upset New England last week. These Ravens were supposed to be impervious to playoff pressure and almost every defensive approach crafted to combat Jackson. But we must not allow Saturday’s outcome to affect how we view Jackson’s season as a whole, which was historic, a treat to watch and a nightmare for many opponents. He even made history in a losing effort Saturday, becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 300-plus yards and rush for 100-plus yards in a playoff game. He broke 500 all-purpose yards, and likely would’ve had more had his receivers caught some of his passes instead of dropping them. That’s not to say he didn’t make his mistakes, because he did — two interceptions (including a bad one on a pass intended for Miles Boykin), a failed fourth-and-1 conversion attempt because he got too cute with the ball at the line of scrimmage — but that type of effort is what you want out of your franchise quarterback. Baltimore’s slow start and inability to convert in key situations just made it bittersweet instead of triumphant, and for the second straight season, the Ravens are headed home early with a playoff loss at M&T Bank Stadium. You won’t be able to see Big Truss at the bank again until the summer.
6. That does it for the AFC’s favorite. The road to Miami no longer runs through Baltimore. For the first time since 2011, a 14-win team didn’t earn a victory in its first playoff game, and the Ravens are the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 6 seed since the 2010 Patriots fell to the Jets. Believe it or not, we could get an all AFC South conference title showdown if Kansas City finds itself on the wrong end of tomorrow’s meeting with Houston. Either way, these Titans proved with this win that Wild Card Weekend was no fluke. They’re for real and will run Henry down your throat until you prove you can stop him. That type of play travels well and might just book them a trip to Miami.