My favorite sports story so far in this turbulent new decade? That’s easy. It’s the Tennessee Titans—football anarchists, lobbing stink bombs into all the expected story lines of these NFL playoffs.
How delightfully disruptive it’s been, watching this underestimated road dog of a team, once widely considered lucky just to be here, mow through the dreaded Patriots in Foxborough, and now the top-seeded Ravens on a warm and gloomy night in Baltimore.
What is going on here? Didn’t the Titans finish 9-7? Aren’t they playing with a promoted backup quarterback?
Aren’t they, you know, the Tennessee Titans?
This is like watching a random wedding guest show up, give a 20-minute toast to the bride and groom and sing 10 songs with the band. And then march off with the entire cake.
Now the Titans get the Chiefs in Kansas City next Sunday for a shot at the Super Bowl.
Are the Chiefs scared? I know they can score four million points in, like, 45 seconds, like they proved Sunday in a daffy comeback win over the Houston Texans.
If the Chiefs are not scared, they should at least be nervous. The Titans are not to be ignored.
The grizzly football smashmouthers are giddy, because the Titans play the old way, which is to say, largely on the ground, straight up the gut, without much sizzle or clever scheme work. They have a running back, Derrick Henry, who looks and plays like two running backs fused together—at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds or so, Henry is about twice the size of the current fashion. He’s on a historic romp, racking up 195 yards versus Baltimore after 182 yards against New England and, oh yeah, he put up 211 on the Texans in Tennessee’s regular-season finale. (Although I am starting to feel I could score 48 points on the Texans.)
Derrick Henry throws a touchdown pass to Corey Davis against the Ravens.
Todd Olszewski/Getty Images
Henry even threw a touchdown pass in Saturday’s AFC divisional round win. (I guess you’d call that clever schemework.) More important, and alarmingly for opponents, he’s got that look, you know, that look great players get when the game is slowing down for them, and they feel they are not just on target, but on a mission, and they are starting to really, truly believe in all that corny Team of Destiny stuff.
Are the Chiefs scared of Henry? How can you not be? Tackling him is like trying to tackle an Amtrak.
And yet these Titans are more than Henry. Good defense, good special teams, the Best Damn Punter in Football, Brett Kern. As an outfit, they’re playing with a collective, almost blasé fearlessness—a swagger embodied by head coach Mike Vrabel, a former Patriots and Chiefs hulk who looks like he still wants to play 20 snaps a game. Vrabel seems entirely unimpressed with any vaunted opponent’s aura or snarky pregame chit-chat.
He knows you didn’t expect his club to be here—he doesn’t care.
Titans coach Mike Vrabel celebrates on the sideline with his players.
Rob Carr/Getty Images
Last week the Titans marched into Gillette Stadium and poured cold water on any suggestion of a sentimental playoff run for the defending champions, and throwing all of New England into an existential crisis about the possible end of the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era.
Then the Titans dissected the Ravens in Baltimore, which was far more impressive. Tennessee’s defense was stellar, and that former back-up quarterback—Ryan Tannehill, a recovering Dolphin who took over in October for Tennessee’s struggling Marcus Mariota—played admirably unfazed, throwing two early TD passes as the Titans shushed a presumptuous Maryland crowd that had been googling Super Bowl hotel rooms on South Beach.
There’s a bad hangover in Baltimore—that Ravens club went 14-2 and appeared to be a legit title contenders—and there’s been some second-guessing about the team’s extended post-clinch layoff and Lamar Jackson’s continued postseason wobbles, as if to suggest the Titans didn’t really win, but the Ravens bungled it and forked it over.
Fact check: UNTRUE.
The Titans took advantage of some of Baltimore’s mistakes, but they pretty much throttled the Ravens. When Andy Reid and his associates look at the tape, that’s what they’re going to see. Tennessee’s not playing lucky—they’re peaking at the right time, reminiscent of late blooming road warrior champs like the 2005 Steelers, 2007 Giants and 2010 Packers.
And this is the part of the story where I point out that the Titans have actually been one of the best teams in football over the back half of the season—now 9-3 since Tannehill took over a skulking 2-4 club.
Still, there are going to be some narrow-minded doofuses out there who will call this “bad” for the NFL, that it isn’t good to have a regional concern like the Titans wipe out glamour franchises like the Patriots and the Ravens—and now, potentially, the Patrick Mahomes-led Chiefs—because big stars and brand names are what moves the needle in the sport, keeps interest high and sucks in the casual fan for Super Bowl Sunday.
To which I just give a Mike Vrabel Who Cares Smirk. Seriously. Who cares.
Ryan Tannehill took over the starting quarterback job in Tennessee in October.
Will Newton/Getty Images
I will throw a completely opposite theory at you: What’s happening with the Titans right now is what keeps football interesting, because it really does matter what happens on the field, and there’s no such thing as an invincible opponent, and everyone—even Tom Brady and Lamar Jackson—is mortal and beatable. Who cares if we weren’t expecting this. It’s very important for any sport to defy its audience every now and then.
What’s happening with the Titans right now is keeping football honest, and that’s a good thing, and it should warm the hearts of fans in any football city accustomed to being overlooked for all the same old NFL stories from all the same old NFL towns.
I could say these things, but I’m pretty sure the Titans don’t care. And they shouldn’t.
Now it is Kansas City’s turn to see it. As crazy as it seems, be afraid.
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Write to Jason Gay at Jason.Gay@wsj.com
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