For the second straight season, the Titans failed to exorcise their playoff demons

After last season’s heartbreaking, season ending loss to the Baltimore Ravens, the Tennessee Titans wanted to make sure that feeling of regret and disappointment never crossed their paths again.

Derrick Henry said the loss “would sting”, Ryan Tannehill called the loss “a disappointment”. The team didn’t want to feel that feeling again, they didn’t want to take the long walk back to the locker room wondering what could’ve been. They didn’t want to have to come back to the team facility days later, while being forced to clean out their lockers in January instead of February.

No, this team, this franchise never wanted to feel and experience those things again.

But here we are, in the middle of a chilly southern January, with the Titans being forced to relive their worst fears all over again.

This season was supposed to be different

After a series of off-season moves — some of which were a contrast to the Titans’ low profile nature when it comes to transactional work — the thought around the team was that this season wasn’t supposed to end like their 2020 year.

Julio Jones was going to come in and become an upgrade opposite A.J. Brown. Denico Autry and Bud Dupree were going to elevate this Titans pass rush, and prevent it from becoming the dormant unit it had been last year. Jackrabbit Jenkins was going to bring stability and a veteran presence to a secondary that had struggled the year before. Kristian Fulton was going to be a young, yet talented defensive back that would shape the secondary’s future for years to come.

And Ryan Tannehill, he was going to rebound from his lackluster effort in the playoffs, and shed the notion that he’s a liability for his own team.

However, while some of those things occurred — specifically the revival of the pass rush, Jenkins becoming a reliable presence in the back end, and Fulton becoming a key building block in the secondary — the end result remained the same.

An early exit in January, courtesy of the Cincinnati Bengals.

“It’s disappointing,” Mike Vrabel said after the game.

And disappointing it was. You see, with the way the Titans played, they shouldn’t have had to stand at the podium and answer questions regarding how their season came to an end.

Nine sacks — tied for the most in a playoff game in NFL history — 140 total yards on the ground, and a 142 yard receiving performance should be enough to seal a team’s ticket to the next round, let alone a win during the regular season.

Unfortunately for the Titans, turnovers and inefficient offensive play — both of which can be detrimental towards a team’s ambitions for a Super Bowl — soured any positivity the Titans acquired today, and in turn rotted the rest of the team’s chances to return to the place — the AFC championship game — that initially started this united dream.

Ryan Tannehill fails the test

Although Tannehill dealt with personnel shortages, the injury bug ravaging through the offense, and a coordinator that never really got a handle on what to do with the talent at his disposal, there was optimism that Tannehill could rebound and play like the quarterback the Titans know he can be.

It’s hard to blame the team either, especially after Tannehill’s starred in a role that was key in the Titans’ offense finishing with historic numbers last season.

But instead of Tannehill rising to the occasion and playing like a key cog on the offensive side of the ball, he caved and put in one of his worst performances as a Tennessee Titan.

Missed throws down the field, bad misses on key downs, and three costly interceptions later, all memories about his previous success were lost. Instead, calls for his removal and a high amount of criticism, slammed smack dab into Tannehill’s reputation, and damaged the chain of trust he has with the city, organization, and even the fan base.

“It was a frustrating day,” Ryan Tannehill said. “This hurts, it hurts bad.”

The three interceptions Tannehill threw were all different in nature, but each one hurt the same in terms of consequence. The first one was on the first play of the game, a play action pass to Julio Jones that was plucked out of the air by Jessie Bates. The second was a batted pass on a screen play, this coming after D’Onta Foreman’s long run to put the Titans in the red zone. The third one hurt the most, a tipped pass off the hands of Nick Westbrook Ikhine, one that fell into the hands of Logan Wilson, which set up the Bengals’ eventual game winning field goal.

It was a performance that wasn’t expected, not only because Tannehill had the majority of his weapons back and ready to go, but because Tannehill has never really be a turnover prone quarterback ever since he became the Titans’ starter in 2019.

Well, at least before this season came and went.

Despite Tannehill’s disaster of a game, Mike Vrabel wasn’t ready to pin the blame all on his veteran signal caller.

“It’s never going to be about one person, not as long as I’m the head coach [of this team],” Vrabel said after the game. “Which will be a while.”

Although Vrabel wants to take the heat off his starting signal caller, he has to at least accept the fact that Tannehill’s play today — and his play during previous postseason encounters — have shown that it’s at least reasonable to question Tannehill’s playoff potential.

It’s an uncomfortable topic to discuss, but it’s one that has to be confronted moving forward.

Where do you go from here?

After two straight early playoff exits, the Titans are now left with more questions than answers.

You know you have a good roster with talent all across the board. You don’t have too many contractural obligations this off-season — aside from the obvious extension possibilities with A.J. Brown and Jeffery Simmons — and there’s reason to believe that with a clean bill of health, this team could contend with the best of the best the AFC has to offer next season.

But what do you do about Todd Downing? An offensive coordinator that struggled too often, regardless of personnel availabilities. What do you do, if you can do anything, about Ryan Tannehill? A quarterback that’s embraced this city, this team’s style of play, and has found success after a turbulent experience in Miami, but has failed to deliver in three straight playoff runs and has looked underwhelming in each one?

We just don’t know the answers right now.

For now, it’ll be a long few weeks of reflecting and planning, before flipping the switch and looking ahead to the next NFL season.

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