Gridiron Grades: Titans win AFC South in craziest game of regular season

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

It was never in doubt, right? The Tennessee Titans survived one of the wildest games in team history to win the AFC South for the first time since 2008. This franchise has played some heart-stoppers over the past few years, and this may top the list. Of course, this one came down to a kicker that hadn’t even met all of his teammates yet. If that wasn’t enough drama, the kick hit the goalpost before breaking the uprights. Talk about storybook endings.

Let’s provide some details. Tennessee jumped out to a convincing 31-15 lead in the third quarter. It looked like it was set to to be a comfortable win when Houston scored 20 unanswered points and took a four-point lead early in the fourth.

The Titans fought back to put together a long 75-yard touchdown drive that saw Tennessee retake the lead by a score of 38-35 with 1:42 remaining. But it wasn’t over. The Texans put together a drive of their own and hit a 51-yard field goal to tie the game with 18 seconds remaining. An incredibly gutsy call by Mike Vrabel set up a Sam Sloman bankshot off the right upright to bring the Titans the division crown.

It earns them their first home playoff game in 12 years against the familiar Baltimore Ravens next weekend.

Quarterback: A

You’d be hard pressed to nitpick this performance. It didn’t fill up the stat sheet, but Ryan Tannehill was incredibly efficient and showed up when his team needed him most. Tannehill picked his spots while taking advantage of a bad Texans secondary, completing 18 of 27 attempts for 216 yards and a single touchdown pass. He added two rushing touchdowns on the ground.

Tannehill’s lone touchdown of the day through the air extended the team’s lead to 17-6 in the second quarter. Tannehill remained patient while buying time for his man to come open:

Tannehill would later score his first of two rushing TD’s on the day on this nifty little scramble:

Tannehill wasn’t done there. Things started to sputter for the Titans. The 31-15 lead was quickly erased by two sequences that featured a turnover and questionable decision to go for it on fourth-and-11 in plus territory. Trailing 35-31 with 1:47 to go, Tannehill would find the end zone with his legs for the second time. It was the the go-ahead score at that moment, on the classic read-option play with the entire defense following Derrick Henry that we’ve seen so many times this year. This play is undefeated:

It wasn’t enough. The Texans would go on to tie the game at 38 apiece, giving the Titans the ball back with 18 seconds remaining in regulation. That’s when Vrabel made arguably the biggest call of his career and Tannehill made the biggest throw he’s ever made. Instead of keeping things conservative, the Titans decided to go for the win right then and there. And what a decision it was.

What a call. What a throw. What a catch. It should go down as one of the best plays of the Titans season. It was Tannehill’s NFL-best sixth game-winning drive of the year.

From our own Mike Herndon: Tannehill’s 2020 stat line will finish with 3,819 yards (best in the Titans era of the franchise), 33 passing touchdowns (tied with Warren Moon for second all-time in franchise history), and 7 rushing touchdowns (tied for third all-time in franchise history). His 40 combined passing and rushing touchdowns is a single season franchise record.

More from our Winners and Losers: His performance also helped push Tennessee over the top for their fifth 40-plus point game of the 2020 season, the most of any team this season. The 2020 Titans are one of just 26 teams all-time to produce at least five 40-burgers in a single season. Tannehill’s insertion into the starting lineup, combined with Henry’s emergence, has elevated the Titans offense into the stratosphere of the all-time great scoring machines in NFL history.

Tannehill will look to keep it rolling in next week’s playoff showdown with the Ravens.

Running backs: A-plus

How dare I doubt him? Earlier in the week, I went on record saying that 2,000 yards would be tough for Henry to reach. I predicted that he wouldn’t get there. After all, he needed 223 yards to reach the prestigious milestone. By all accounts, it should have been difficult. Some may say unattainable. But nothing is impossible for The King. This fanbase makes a lot of what Henry has done to the Jaguars throughout his career, but let’s not forget what he’s done to this Texans franchise:

As he’s done so many times this year and in the past, Henry put the team on his back. He finished the game with an astounding 250 yards on 34 carries. The 7.4 yards per carry average is pretty ridiculous considering he topped 30 touches. It’s the type of performance we’ve come to expect from the best running back in the league.

The 2,000 yard mark felt within reach when Henry broke off a 52-yard TD on the first play of the second quarter:

Henry’s second TD of the day came in the third quarter and busted the lead open to 24-9. He won’t score an easier 7 in his life:

For as good a day as it was, it wasn’t perfect. Henry reminded everyone that he’s human when he fumbled the ball in Titans territory. Just when it felt he was about to hit 2,000 yards on that very rush, Texans LB Zach Cunningham made a great play to knock the football loose. It was a game-changer and the force play that began an unlikely Texans comeback.

Luckily, the team found a way to survive the rare error.

Henry finishes the regular season with 2,027 yards and 17 touchdowns. He’s the NFL’s 8th 2,000-yard rusher. He’s the best running back in the league. The franchise made one of the best decisions they’ve ever made when they decided to ignore the “Don’t pay RB’s” crowd in the offseason and brought their rushing champion back on a four-year deal.

The Titans will look to ride the Henry train all the way to the Super Bowl.

Wide receivers: A

Arthur Juan Brown is a superstar.

Brown has been battling through an ankle injury all season long. On the team’s first offensive play of the game, he made a big catch and came up hobbling after being tackled low. It’s been a familiar sight over the past few weeks. For a second, you certainly worried that playing through the injury finally caught up to him. It didn’t. Brown remained in the game and finished with 151 yards on 10 catches. Wow.

The performance saw Brown go over the 1,000 receiving yard mark.

You saw his biggest plays under the quarterback heading above. His TD catch was his 11th of the season. His final grab of the day was much bigger than that. It was an aggressive play call and an an incredible deep catch. It allowed the Titans to win the game in regulation instead of having to worry about overtime.

Brown is already the best wide receiver to ever don a Titans uniform.

Corey Davis didn’t have a great day. It was plagued by uncharacteristic drops, the first of which forced a long FG attempt by a new kicker. Luckily, he made it.

Davis shook off his three drops to make a huge play with just 3:30 to go. On a third-and-8, Davis caught a tight window ball and spun out of the tackle to keep the chains moving.

No other Titans receiver recorded a catch.

Tight ends: B

This group continues to be the unheralded heroes of the offense. They’re not producing much in the passing game, but they’re doing tremendous work in the run game.

Jonnu Smith caught just one pass for 8 yards. Anthony Firkser made two grabs. One of them came on a third-and-10 in Texans territory and helped keep the offense on the field. Firkser is an underrated chain mover.

MyCole Pruitt and Geoff Swaim weren’t targeted in the passing game. Both players are excellent run blockers and came up big in that area yesterday.

Offensive line: A-plus

You can’t go with anything less than a perfect score when you help power the team’s rushing attack to 288 yards and four TDs.

As has been the case, the starting five were terrific as run blockers. They continuously won the line of scrimmage and opened up gaping holes for Henry to run through. The Texans’ front seven never stood a chance.

Tannehill was sacked twice. Neither was the result of an offensive linemen clearly losing his rep.

We don’t have much to complain about here. Nate Davis was called for a false start on the team’s first possession. It turned a third-and-13 into third-and-18.

If there’s something to complain about, it’s the officials. Aaron Brewer was called for a phantom hold late in the fourth quarter on a play that saw Henry break free for what would have been the go-ahead TD. The NFL rarely calls holds anymore, and this one was a really bad call.

The referees weren’t done there. The officiating crew wiped out yet another late Titans TD when an illegal formation penalty on Marshall Newhouse took away a Tannehill TD.

It’s pretty incredible that the offense was able to overcome not one, but TWO phantom penalties, both on touchdown plays no less. Both occurred late in the game and absolutely could have cost the Titans the win and division title.

Rodger Saffold left the game hurt and didn’t return. He was replaced by Brewer at left guard. All attention now turns to his availability for the upcoming playoff game.

One final note here. It’s special to be apart of a group that helped its starting running back reach the 2K mark. Dennis Kelly noted as much in his postgame presser.

A playoff game with the Ravens is on the horizon. In the last two Titans victories over the Ravens, both of which came in the past 12 months, Henry ran for 328 yards on 58 carries. That’s good for more than 5.5 yards per carry. This offensive line obviously played a huge role in both of those games. They need to show up again on Sunday.

Defensive line: B-minus

This group had a decent day. They held David Johnson to 84 yards on 14 carries. Johnson’s 6.0 yards per carry average suggests he would have a big day if given more carries, but the Texans choose to attack the Titans’ defense through the air instead. As we all know, that’s always the right decision.

DaQuan Jones was his usual disruptive self in the run game.

Jack Crawford came up with what felt like the team’s biggest sack of the season — maybe the biggest since the Week 3 win at Minnesota — when he brought down Deshaun Watson with just 42 seconds left. The Texans converted on the next play and wound up tying the game. Still, it was great to see Crawford show up in a major way. He’s been a big player for this defensive line.

Matt Dickerson and Larrell Murchison were also active and played a bit. Teair Tart was ruled out this morning when he was placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. It’s unclear if he tested positive or was just deemed a close contact. His availability for Sunday’s playoff game is up in the air as of now.

Inside linebackers: B-minus

David Long Jr. continues to play at an extremely high level. He made his presence felt early when he recorded excellent tackles on back-to-back plays on Houston’s second possession. The second tackle was especially impressive as he knifed his way through the backfield to make the stop. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say Long has been this team’s best defender as of late.

We still remember Long’s coming out party. It came in the playoffs against the Ravens last year when he was forced into a starting role after a Jayon Brown injury. The same thing has happened this season. This defense will need Long’s athleticism and instincts next week if they hope to bottle up Lamar Jackson for the third time in a calendar year.

We’ve been tough on Rashaan Evans around these parts, but I thought he played a pretty good game. He made some plays in both the run game and on the quarterback.

Will Compton, Daren Bates and Nick Dzunbar received their usual workloads on special teams.

Outside linebackers: C-minus

This rating is a little better than usual because we actually saw some action this week. Harold Landry had a pressure and forced a throwaway on the second play of the game. He later recorded a sack. It was the Titans’ second sack in as many pass plays. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Brooks Reed had an embarrassing moment when a failed spin move ended up with him on the ground. It looked like he was playing in slow motion. To his credit, he recovered to record a nice sack just a few minutes later. He also made a nice play on on a screen attempt.

Other than those rare sacks and pressures, Watson had far too much time to navigate the pocket on a pretty consistent basis.

Wyatt Ray was active and received a fair bit of action. This group would be a bit better off if Derick Roberson could return next week.

The pass rush isn’t going to come to life. This is the best we could hope for. It was better than they’ve been most weeks.

Cornerbacks: D-minus

This group struggled. Watson finished the game with 365 passing yards and three touchdown passes. It was often the result of an anemic pass rush as receivers were afforded ample time to get free, but this group didn’t do a good enough job covering their guy.

Brandin Cooks roasted every member of this secondary en route to a 166 yard day on 11 catches. Cooks also found the end zone twice.

Adoree Jackson had an up and down day. He made a really nice shoestring tackle on Keke Coutee with 19 seconds left in the second quarter. Jackson was flagged for pass interference in the third quarter. He was also one of several Titans defenders that bit pretty hard on the flea flicker that resulted in a long TD pass to Cooks.

Jackson’s worst moment of the day came late. After a Crawford sack forced a third-and-13 in the dying moments, Jackson didn’t sink enough while in zone coverage and was at fault for giving up a big Texans passing play. It put Houston in field goal range. They’d go on to tie the game.

Malcolm Butler didn’t have a great day either. He was in coverage for Cooks’ second TD of the day.

Desmond King made a nice play on Watson in the backfield in the second quarter. It wasn’t immediately ruled a sack, but was recorded as such after a review of the play.

Kristian Fulton returned to the gameday roster and actually played a few reps on the outside.

This entire group needs to be way better next week.

Safeties: D

This group didn’t do much. They continue to be a pretty big liability in the passing game. Kevin Byard was one of the defenders that was fooled badly by the flea flicker TD.

Kenny Vaccaro played a ton of snaps. He did some good things near the line of scrimmage.

Amani Hooker recorded his fourth interception of the season early in the game. He did a great job here of reading the quarterback’s eyes and undercutting the route. He’s had a really nice sophomore year.

Joshua Kalu received his regular workload on special teams.

Special teams: A

It was tough to envision this group receiving such a good grade when Stephen Gostkowski went on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, but here we are.

Enter Sam Sloman, the unlikeliest of unlikely heroes. He was called up from the practice squad and forced to kick in a crucial game for a team that barely knows him.

I must admit, when Sloman lined up for his first attempt of the day, a 47-yarder, I had little faith that he would make it. But he did. It wasn’t convincing, but it counted. He was also a perfect 5-for-5 on extra points.

So when he lined up for the game winner, a 37-yard chip shot, where you still nervous? I’m sure you were. I know I was. In stunning fashion, Sloman doinked the kick off the goalpost before it made it through.

Think back to the kicking woes this team has suffered through over the last 18 months. They just won the division thanks to a kicker that’s been there for a only few days. It’s unbelievable.

Brett Kern punted just once. The offense is keeping him on the sidelines more often than not.

Darrynton Evans made an excellent tackle on special teams. It was really impressive to see him make a play like that. You don’t see many speedy running backs tackle that way.

The Titans will look to capture some postseason magic once again. It all starts with the Ravens this Sunday.

Author: Justin MeloSenior Writer, Interviewer and Podcaster for Broadway Sports covering the Tennessee Titans and NFL draft. For more than five years, Justin Melo has professionally covered all things NFL draft and Titans for The Draft Network, SB Nation and USA Today. Best known for his Interview Series with NFL draft prospects, Justin has interviewed more than 500 NFL players. Co-host of the Music City Audible podcast alongside Justin Graver (@titansfilmroom).


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