The Tennessee Titans (10-5) get set to host the Miami Dolphins (8-7) in a crucial AFC showdown between two playoff hopeful teams.
The Titans have the chance to officially clinch the AFC South with a victory on Sunday and could possibly end the weekend as the 1-Seed with a little help from the Cincinnati Bengals if they’re able to beat the Kansas City Chiefs.
Should the Titans and Bengals both win this weekend, Tennessee will only be one victory over the Houston Texans away from having a first-round bye and home field advantage throughout the entire playoffs.
The Dolphins on the other hand started their season 1-7 and have now won seven straight games. Miami has clawed their way into the current 7-Seed and are not looking to give one of these playoff spots back without a fight.
There’s several intriguing storylines surrounding this one, so, let’s dive into the five storylines that stood out most between this crucial AFC matchup between two playoff hopefuls.
Ryan Tannehill revenge game
Ever since the schedule came out back in May this game stood out for several reasons. Rarely do you get an individual storyline that is as big as the game storyline but that’s exactly what we have here.
For the first time in his career, Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is playing against the team that drafted him eighth overall back in the 2012 NFL Draft. The Texas A&M product was traded from the Miami Dolphins during the 2019 offseason for essentially pennies on the dollar.
Despite a ton of false narratives, Tannehill enjoyed a ton of early success given his circumstances during his time in Miami. So much so that the Dolphins gave their first-round quarterback a $95 million contract extension before the 2015 season.
As a Dolphin, Tannehill was one of three quarterbacks in NFL history to throw for over 15,000 yards in his first four years. Eventually, he finished his Dolphins career with over 20,000 passing yards, all while consistently helping one of his top receivers eclipse over 100-catches four seasons in a row.
Tannehill also had three consecutive seasons with over 3,900 passing yards and threw for at least 24 touchdowns during those three years before the injuries that eventually derailed his career in Miami — injuries that occurred in large part because he never had an offensive line rank better than 25th.
That ultimately led to him being sacked a whopping 248 times in a little over five seasons as a healthy starter, approximately an average of 45 sacks per year.
Eventually, the amounts of hits Tannehill was annually taking began to add up. His career started to rapidly decline following the 2016 campaign, a season in which he had the Dolphins in position to make the playoffs following an impressive 8-5 start.
The former Dolphins quarterback, unfortunately, suffered a partially torn ACL that ended his promising season during Miami’s crucial Week 14 victory over the Cardinals. He then re-tore the ACL completely prior to the 2017 season, causing him to miss the entire year. Tannehill returned to the field in 2018 but didn’t look as physically or mentally sharp as he did pre-injury.
To make matters worse, Tannehill then suffered a severe shoulder injury that cost him another five games in 2018.
The combination of injuries and inconsistencies eventually led Miami to move on, which ultimately helped pave the way for the former No. 8 overall pick to fall right into Tennessee’s lap following a cheap exchange of mid-round picks that essentially equated to a slap in the face to Miami’s once former franchise quarterback.
Many of the personnel that the Texas A&M product knew during his time in Miami may be gone at this point, but there’s no doubt that Tannehill likely had this game circled the second it came out. He was the obvious scapegoat for much deeper organizational issues and was essentially labeled a bust due to his previous team’s incompetency.
Being traded from Miami for essentially nothing was undoubtedly one of the lowest points in Tannehill’s professional career. Fortunately for him, that low point ultimately became the biggest blessing in disguise.
Since then, he’s gone on to play with two of the most exciting skill players in the NFL (A.J. Brown & Derrick Henry), he plays for a head coach who believes in him, and he plays under a GM who does everything he can to try and surround him with necessary help.
This Sunday, the Big Spring native will have the chance to help the Titans clinch their second straight division championship and third straight playoff appearance in as many years in front of the team that essentially quit on him. Not to mention a victory over the Dolphins would end Miami’s magical 7-game winning streak while also putting their playoff hopes on life support.
Seems like the perfect opportunity for Tannehill to finally stick it to the team that tried to pretend like he was the reason why the Adam Gase-led Dolphins had a limited ceiling.
Tannehill has helped the Titans win a ton of games since he’s been in Tennessee (29-14) but this one will likely mean just a little bit more from a personal level if the Titans do in fact leave Nissan Stadium with a W. You combine that with the fact that Tennessee has the chance to propel to an 11-5 record while also securing their second straight division championship, we could have one special afternoon on Sunday.
COVID outbreak taking a toll on the roster
Like the rest of the league, the Titans are undergoing a COVID outbreak of their own that is causing them to lose several key players.
As of right now, the Titans have 10 total players on the COVID list:
RG Nate Davis
OL Kendall Lamm
WR Julio Jones
CB Buster Skrine
OLB Bud Dupree
WR Nick Westbrook-Ikhine
CB Caleb Farley (I.R.)
LB Jayon Brown
DL Denico Autry
WR Cody Hollister (P.S.)
New protocols are in place so many, if not all of them, could possibly return by Sunday given the isolation period has dropped down from 10 days to five following the CDC’s recommendations.
However, any new cases that should come up from here on out will likely be at risk so be on the lookout throughout the week on who has been added or taken off the list.
Can A.J. Brown replicate his dominant performance?
Last week, A.J. Brown reminded everybody just how irreplaceable and important he truly is to the success of this offense. Brown caught 11 passes on 16 targets for 145 yards and one touchdown.
For most of the night, Brown was borderline unstoppable. After missing the previous 3.5 games, the Ole Miss product finally settled in by the third quarter and began to look like A.J. Brown again.
One of the more glaring things that stood out was his career-high 16 targets. This has been something a lot of fans (myself included) have been yearning for. This Titans offense completely reaches a different level of explosiveness when they find a way to get Brown double-digit targets.
As criminal as it sounds, A.J. Brown has only seen 10 or more targets in five regular-season games throughout his first three years in the league. In those five games, the Titans receiver accumulated 44 receptions (8.8 catches per game) 617 receiving yards (123.4 YPG), and four touchdowns.
Tennessee has a special and rare talent in Brown and it’s time they began to utilize him as such. The absence of Henry has allowed them to test this out more frequently. In 3/5 games where Brown has seen double-digit targets have occurred since Henry has been hobbled with his foot injury.
It would be wise for Tennessee to continue on this trend and begin using Brown much more frequently even when Henry returns from his injury.
Containing Jaylen Waddle
One of the best rookies out of the 2021 NFL Draft class has undoubtedly been Dolphins wide receiver, Jaylen Waddle. The former Alabama wide receiver has seemingly fully recovered from the ankle injury that robbed him of most of his final year in college.
Waddle has caught 96 passes for 941 yards, and five touchdowns. The Dolphins rookie is only six catches shy of breaking Anquan Boldin’s rookie record (101 receptions) for most catches by a rookie in a single season.
The Alabama product is a dynamic athlete who is capable of hurting you in a multitude of ways. Last week, Deebo Samuel carved the Titans up for 191 total yards on 14 touches.
Waddle has a similar skill set to Samuel therefore they may try to replicate some of the things that the 49ers had success with last Thursday.
Tennessee will have to play smart, disciplined, & swarming defense when defending Waddle otherwise they could be in for another long afternoon. Look for the Titans to use Kristian Fulton a ton since they have familiarity against each other from their SEC days.
Putting pressure on Tua Tagovailoa
Tua Tagovailoa has played just well enough over the Dolphins’ seven-game winning streak to keep their growing playoff chances alive with each passing week.
His numbers won’t blow you away but he’s been much more efficient and decisive than last year.
The Dolphins quarterback has thrown for 2,339 yards, 15 touchdowns, & nine interceptions. Tua also possesses a QBR of 54.6 at the moment which is the ninth highest QBR in the league, according to ESPN.
One area where the former Heisman nominee has struggled has been anytime he’s forced to his right. Tua Excels anytime he’s allowed to roll and/or throw to his left due to that being his dominant hand. However, the consistency tends to drop off anytime he’s forced to constantly throw to his right for whatever reason.
The Titans would be wise to try to take advantage of this deficiency by forcing him to prove that he can make these ‘uncomfortable’ throws to the far end of the field.
Unfortunately, as of right now the Titans are down two of their dominant pass rushers after Bud Dupree, & Denico Autry were placed on the COVID list.
Tennessee possibly could get their front four back in time based on the new COVID protocols. If so, look for Dupree, Autry, Jeffery Simmons, & Harold Landry among others to make their presence felt early and often against a young and struggling Miami offensive line.