Gridiron Grades: Titans survive Texans surge, clinch No. 1 seed in AFC

Gridiron Grades’ with Justin Melo is a recurring piece that will assign a letter grade to each position group following every Titans game.

The Tennessee Titans survived a second half surge by the Texans to hold onto a hard-fought victory and clinch the No. 1 seed in the AFC. The AFC playoffs will go through Nashville as long as the Titans remain in contention. They’ll be the only team in the conference to receive a bye next week, which should allow them to get healthier. It’s a huge competitive advantage.

It goes down as Tennessee’s first 12-win season since 2008, which is also the last time they held the No. 1 seed.

Let’s get into this.

Quarterbacks: A-plus

Ryan Tannehill played one of his best games as a Tennessee Titan, and put the team on his back when they needed him most. Tannehill finished 23-of-32 for 287 yards while matching a career-high four touchdown throws. It represents an important bounce back performance for Tannehill, who threw four interceptions in an inexplicable 22-13 Week 11 loss to these same Texans.

Tannehill did his best and most impressive work when extending the play and navigating the pocket. He did it time and time again and it routinely led to big plays in the passing game. Early in the game, he showed excellent movement in the pocket and found Julio Jones near the sideline. A few plays later, he showcased much-needed patience to find Nick Westbrook up the middle. The protection was notably excellent on the play. Tannehill made his biggest play of the day with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter. The Texans had cut Tennessee’s lead to 21-18. The Titans were facing a third-and-5 and looking to avoid their fourth consecutive three-and-out. Tannehill somehow escaped a Jacob Martin sack when he looked dead to rights, rolled out and found Westbrook for a 36-yard gain near the sideline. It was a massive, massive play.

It wasn’t all perfect, but it nearly was. Tannehill nearly threw an interception with 2:15 left in the second quarter. He targeted Jones in double coverage and got away with an extremely dangerous throw. Just plays after Houston got on the board and cut the deficit to 21-7, Tannehill was lucky to avoid a fumble deep in his own territory. He lost the handle on a scramble but the Titans recovered. It would have been ill-advised timing, as another Houston score would have made it a new ball game (which it eventually became anyway).

Tannehill was incredible throughout the day and we’re going with a perfect A-plus grade here due to his record-setting four-touchdown day paired with his penchant for extending the pocket and creating off script. It’s something Tannehill has largely struggled with throughout his career. It was excellent on Sunday.

Running backs: B

D’Onta Foreman once again served as Tennessee’s bellcow but struggled to find consistent room to operate throughout the day. He finished with just 69 yards on 21 carries (3.3 yards per carry). Foreman thought he had opened the scoring when he bulldozed into the end zone behind *checks notes*… noted fullback Jeffery Simmons, but Simmons failed to report as eligible and the score came back. I’m not sure the defensive tackle will find himself in that role again following his error. Foreman’s longest run of the day went for 16 yards in the second quarter. Foreman also recorded an impressive 15-yard reception that saw him leapfrog a Texans defender at the conclusion of the play. All in all, Foreman ran with the same physical and violent mindset we’ve come to expect from him.

Dontrell Hilliard was the more effective back, picking up 57 yards on just nine carries. Hilliard’s “biggest” play of the game went for just three yards. On a crucial third-and-2 with the clock winding down, an excellent effort by Hilliard kept himself up while the former undrafted free agent extended the ball past the sticks. Texans head coach David Culley challenged the spot, but the call rightfully stood. Just plays later, Hilliard iced the game with a nifty 11-yard carry. Hilliard wisely stayed in bounds and allowed Tennessee to get into victory formation. Players like Hilliard have been the story of Tennessee’s season so far.

Derrick Henry will be back for the playoffs, but we shouldn’t forget Foreman and Hilliard for getting the Titans this far. They’ll stick around for the playoff run, and something tells me they’ll make a big play or two.

Wide receivers: A

It took A.J. Brown a while to heat up but once he got hot, he got hot. Brown’s first target and catch of the day went for a 14-yard gain late in the second quarter. Just a few plays later, Brown recorded a 24-yard reception that propelled Tennessee’s offense into the red zone. Brown scored a touchdown on the very next play, putting a bow on an excellent nine-play, 85-yard scoring drive. Brown finished with four catches, 68 yards and a touchdown.

Welcome back to relevancy, Julio Jones. The Canton-bound receiver played his best game since his Week 2 showing against the Seattle Seahawks. Jones made his first notable play of the game by converting an early third down with a modest but important 13-yard gain. Late in the second quarter, Jones made another catch in traffic and showcased strong hands on the play. It was an important play that eventually led to another score. Tannehill unfortunately missed Jones deep on the first play of the third quarter. It had touchdown written all over it, as Jones had gained plenty of separation, but Tannehill overthrew it. Jones then scored his first touchdown in more than 14 months with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter to help extend Tennessee’s lead to 28-18. Houston would score another TD, but Julio’s TD felt like the moment the Titans iced the No. 1 seed. It felt somewhat poetic given the difficult year it’s been for Jones. He finished with a solid line of 5-58-1. We hope it’s a sign of things to come in the postseason.

Nick Westbrook had himself a day as well, as Tennessee’s top three receivers were all extremely effective. Westbrook made a truly unbelievable 29-yard catch on a third-and-6. Westbrook beautifully extended his body in traffic and made a tough grab around three Texans defenders.

Westbrook wasn’t done leaving his mark on this game there. The former undrafted free agent out of Indiana has carved out a role for himself. Following a late, deep second-quarter pass interference created by Racey McMath, Tannehill found Westbrook in the end zone to extend Tennessee’s lead to 21-0.

Westbrook wasn’t done there. As mentioned under the quarterback heading, he hauled in a magical 36-yard pass after Tannehill somehow escaped a sack. Westbrook is turning into a nice little player.

This is the type of play and production Tennessee needs from its receivers in the postseason.

Tight ends: B

Anthony Firkser followed up last weekend’s impressive performance with another great showing here. Early in the first quarter, Firkser converted a third down by picking up 17 yards up the middle. He then scored a touchdown on a crucial third-and-goal just plays after a Jeffery Simmons penalty wiped out a Foreman TD. It was looking like Tennessee were going to have to settle for a field goal, but Tannehill showed great patience on third-and-goal and eventually found Firkser in the end zone.

With eight minutes left in the fourth quarter, Firkser came up big on third down again as a 23-yard catch moved the chains. It would have been a difficult 48-yard field goal attempt had Firkser not made a big play. That’s three crucial third downs converted by Firkser on the day, including a score. He was huge.

Geoff Swaim made a single catch for two yards. He was called for a chop block penalty midway through the third quarter that put Tennessee way behind the sticks. Swaim spent most of his day as a blocker. We did not spot new tight end Ryan Izzo.

Offensive line: B-plus

This group played an excellent game in pass protection. Tannehill was sacked just once and routinely had AMPLE time in the pocket. The Starting 5 awarded Tannehill with plenty of time to find his receivers, and Tannehill showed great patience behind an offensive line that was executing in pass pro at a high level.

As mentioned under the running back heading, things were a little spottier in the run game. Taylor Lewan especially struggled as a run blocker and offensive coordinator Todd Downing rarely ran plays to the left as the game went on. You certainly saw a lot more runs called to the right side of the O-line, although the game-clinching toss to Hilliard went left.

This group was called for just one penalty all game long. It was a Ben Jones hold midway through the third quarter.

You’d certainly take a few more repeat performances in the postseason, with maybe a bit more room for King Henry to operate.

Defensive line: A

The defensive line was extremely energetic and physical. They swarmed to the football and didn’t give up an inch in the run game, which has felt like the case for several consecutive weeks now. David Johnson picked up 28 yards on five carries and Rex Burkhead picked up just 24 yards on 12 carries. Quarterback Davis Mills scrambled four times for 12 yards.

This group made a few plays that caught our eye live. Denico Autry batted down a pass early in the first quarter. Kyle Peko, who saw an increase in playing time due to injuries to Teair Tart and Naquan Jones, recorded his second sack of the season on the last play of the first quarter. Autry later made a quick tackle on a third-and-long screen that forced a punt. Autry was rushing the passer on the third-and-obvious-passing-situation, quickly read the screen and recovered to make the play. Autry is an excellent pro that reads the game at an extremely high level.

Jeffery Simmons joined the fun with a late third-quarter sack on Mills. Simmons collapsed the pocket with violence and physicality. It was Simmons’ 8.5 sack of the season, which easily represents a career-high.

What a year it’s been for Simmons, who was snubbed for the Pro Bowl and is playing the best football of his young career. Larrell Murchison got impressive backfield penetration on a first-and-goal play in the fourth quarter.

The Texans were held to just 64 rushing yards as a team.

Linebackers: B-plus

The Zach Cunningham revenge game LIVES. Cunningam was excellent in his return to NRG Stadium, having led the Titans with six tackles. He started his day by making a great tackle in the run game early in the first quarter. Cunningham made a highlight play (tackle for loss) after a Bud Dupree pressure forced Mills to quickly dump the ball off to his running back. Cunningham even made a great special teams tackle in the third quarter. He had a big day, and has been an excellent acquisition for the Titans.

Dupree had the aforementioned pressure and also got great penetration in the run game while hitting David Johnson in the backfield early in the first quarter. David Long made three tackles and is clearly the preferred starter next to Cunningham. Jayon Brown was inactive and Rashaan Evans played less than five snaps. Even Nick Dzubnar got a snap at linebacker. Harold Landry was credited with two solo tackles.

Secondary: C-minus

This group surprisingly struggled in the second half as Houston’s offensive coordinator Tim Kelly (Dennis Kelly’s brother) went to a pass-heavy approach. Jackrabbit Jenkins and Kevin Byard were badly fooled by the flea flicker for Houston’s first TD, a 28-yard score to Chris Moore.

What Danny Amendola did to this secondary is unexplainable. The 36-year-old Amendola recorded seven receptions for 112 yards and two touchdowns. He gave Titans rookie defensive back Elijah Molden FITS all day long, highlighted by a 37-yard gain late in the third quarter. Amendola beat Molden again for a two-point conversion to cut Tennessee’s lead to 21-18. Molden was injured a little later. On the very next play, Amendola smoked Molden’s replacement, Chris Jackson for his second touchdown of the day. Again, it’s unexplainable.

Young receiver Nico Collins had a nice day. He mossed Kristian Fulton for an impressive 25-yard gain midway through the third quarter. Fulton was later hurt on the field with 6:25 left to play. It appeared to be a shoulder injury, and Fulton walked off the field with the help of the trainers. We hope it’s not serious, as the Titans need Fulton in the playoffs.

Byard made a great tackle in the run game at the line of scrimmage on Burkhead late in the first quarter. Amani Hooker came on the blitz and made a great tackle for loss in the backfield midway through the second quarter. On the next play, Molden made his own tackle for loss on a quick pass to Brandin Cooks that lost two yards.

This group played their worst game overall in some time. Houston rookie quarterback Mills finished 23-of-33 for 301 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. Vrabel will have plenty to drill them about over the next two weeks.

Special teams: D-plus

Nick Dzubnar made a great tackle on the opening kickoff, forcing the Texans to begin their first possession on their own 18-yard line. Tennessee didn’t make many good plays on special teams after that one.

Chester Rogers muffed a line drive punt early in the first quarter. He was fortunate that no Texans were around him, and he comfortably recovered his own fumble. Jordan Wilkims, who inexplicably replaced Jeremy McNichols on the roster, played his first game and was called for a dumb, late hit penalty on Houston’s punt returner early in the first quarer. Wilkins has likely played his only game as a Titan. Chris Jackson was called for a block in the back that wiped out a decent Rogers punt return. Tennessee was forced to start the drive on their own six-yard line as a result.

Randy Bullock missed a 42-yard field goal late in the first quarter. He missed horribly. It wasn’t even close. Bullock didn’t attempt another field goal but went 4-of-4 on extra points. Brett Kern punted four times for 197 yards, a net average of 49.3 yards per punt. His longest punt of the day went for 53, and he placed 1-of-4 punts inside Houston’s 20.

The Titans finish the regular season 12-5 as the 1-seed and division champs. The road to Super Bowl LVI goes through Nissan Stadium. Enjoy this, Titans fans.

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