The Tennessee Titans (#1 Seed) host the Cincinnati Bengals (#4 Seed) in a monstrous AFC Divisional round playoff matchup.
This is a showdown between two deserving fanbases and franchises who have both dealt with a ton of unfortunate times in years past. Cincinnati comes into the game with a high flying offensive attack while Tennessee is the big bad bully looking to punch you in the mouth on both sides of the ball.
There’s a ton of intriguing storylines leading up to game time on Saturday so let’s dive into which ones stand out the most.
How do the Titans Approach Derrick Henry’s first game back?
Running back Derrick Henry seems poised to make his return on Saturday afternoon when the Titans host the Bengals in a divisional playoff matchup.
Henry has been practicing with the team since Tennessee was preparing for their Week 18 game against Houston. However, this was the week that they truly ramped up the pace and physicality of Henry’s practice week in order to try and replicate what he will see during the games.
The Alabama product hasn’t played since he broke the fifth metatarsal of his foot back on Halloween. The average recovery time from an injury like that is often 8-10 weeks. The fact that Tennessee was able to secure the first-round bye was massive not only for the team but for their superstar running back as well.
Henry has had over 11 weeks to rest his foot at this point. It’s all but official that Tennessee will have No. 22 out there when the Titans take on the Bengals. The real question at this point is trying to figure out how much Henry will be utilized in his first game back.
The Titans’ running back is often described as a volume back who gets stronger as the game goes on while the defense begins to wear down.
That naturally leads to a few questions that unfortunately won’t be answered until game day: Will we see a typical King Henry workload in his first game back? Or does the former Heisman winner play more of a complementary role?
Also, as uncomfortable as the topic is, at what point does the team go back to D’Onta Foreman should Henry show more rust than expected in his first game back?
I personally wouldn’t expect a 30-carry game for the Titans’ franchise player or anything crazy like that. Although, if there’s one player who could be an exception to the rule, it’s definitely the King.
With that said, given the fact that it’s been nearly 12 weeks since his injury, I’d expect Henry to be a big part of the game-plan come Saturday. Foreman should get some occasional touches still, but if everything goes to plan, he likely resorts back to a complimentary role barring any Henry setbacks.
Can Mike Vrabel continue his dominance following an extended break?
Titans’ head coach, Mike Vrabel, is often considered one of the more cerebral coaches in the league. He knows the rule book as good as anyone and uses it to his advantage. The Ohio State legend also knows how to take advantage whenever he has extra time on his hands to prepare for an opponent.
Since Vrabel was hired back in 2018, the Titans are a perfect 8-0 when he has 8+ days in between games. In those eight games, the Titans have produced an average of 29.6 points per game (PPG), while holding opponents to just 10.9 PPG.
Will this type of efficient play coming off a bye continue in the playoffs? Only time will tell.
Will Tennessee’s front four continue their dominance in the postseason?
Arguably the biggest key to victory on Saturday depends on Tennessee’s destructive front-four. The Titans’ defensive line has been a strength of this team all year long. Jeffery Simmons, Denico Autry, Harold Landry, & Bud Dupree combined to account for 32.5 sacks between the four of them this season.
In fact, Tennessee is the only team in the league to have three players account for eight or more sacks.
What really separates this group from your average front-four is their ability to get after the quarterback without having to blitz. This allows the defense to drop more bodies into coverage.
Tennessee must be successful in accomplishing this on Saturday if they want to secure their second AFC Championship appearance in three years.
Bengals quarterback, Joe Burrow, excels when facing the blitz, and doing so is often asking for trouble. He’s not the type of quarterback that’s going to panic when he diagnoses a blitz.
Playing Cover 0 against a quarterback like him has more cons that far outweigh the benefits. Therefore, Tennessee must be able to get pressure when rushing 3-5 guys so that the rest of the defense can focus on clogging up throwing lanes and making Burrow be decisive with his throws.
There’s no doubt that the Bengals’ quarterback is going to have his moments. He’s too good not to. But the key is to limit those moments and make sure they are few and far between.
If Tennessee’s defense can accomplish this with the young superstar quarterback, their chances of winning on Saturday increase substantially.
Ryan Tannehill’s opportunity to end his playoff narrative
Anytime someone has the franchise quarterback debate about Ryan Tannehill, one of the first things that come up is his playoff performances.
The Titans’ quarterback is 2-2 in the playoffs since taking over back in 2019. In those two wins, Tannehill completed fewer than nine passes and didn’t top 90 passing yards on either day.
Instead, the team relied on their potent ground game and suffocating defense to carry them to the title game. In Tennessee’s two playoff losses, Tannehill was asked to carry more of the load on days when the ground game wasn’t exactly rolling. The Texas A&M product combined for 374 passing yards, three touchdowns, and one interception while completing over 67% of his passes in both playoff losses.
Statistically, Tannehill did pretty well when he was asked to do more. Unfortunately, playing well doesn’t win many playoff games against the elite quarterbacks you’re bound to face in this tournament.
The Titans are likely going to ride their running game and defense as far as it will take them. But at some point during the playoffs, Tannehill will likely have to make a statement of his own in order to get the team to their ultimate goal.
Fortunately for the Titans’ quarterback, he will have a full complement of weapons at his disposal for the first time in quite a while. Not a single offensive player was listed on an injury report that only listed three players.
This is undoubtedly the healthiest the Titans have been in quite some time. Tannehill has the opportunity to put a ton of narratives to bed by efficiently executing what he’s asked to do on a consistent basis.
No one is expecting Tannehill to individually outshine the other talented quarterbacks in the playoffs. All anyone wants out of the Tennessee QB is for him to help his team outshine the rest of the pack.
It would be pretty naive to think Tennessee can go on an entire Super Bowl run in this era without having a special moment from your quarterback. Sooner or later, they will need Tannehill to be great if they want to be the last team standing.
Whether it’s a game where the Titans QB needs to be the focal point or a situation where Tannehill needs to lead a game-winning drive, the Texas A&M legend will need to become a Titans legend in those moments to truly start quieting some of the naysayers.
As long as the offensive line can protect No. 17, Tannehill is more than capable of doing his part to ensure the Titans advance. How all this plays out remains to be seen. But one thing is for certain, there’s no more room for error.
Containing the Bengals’ high powered offense
The Bengals have built one of the most high-powered young offenses in the league. They are obviously led by Joe Burrow who has a stable of weapons at his disposal. He has one of the best young wide receivers in the game in Ja’Marr Chase, along with Tee Higgins & Tyler Boyd to make arguably the best triplets of wide receivers in the NFL.
Throw in the versatile TE C.J Uzomah & RB Joe Mixon and this offense has quickly evolved from a rebuilding unit to a Super Bowl contending one.
The Titans’ secondary will have their hands full in this one. Tennessee must be locked into their assignments because the Bengals are statistically the most explosive team in the league.
Cincinnati has accounted for eight 50+ yard touchdowns this season (most in NFL). Chase is responsible for five of those. The phenomenal rookie wideout himself had more 50+ yard touchdowns than 29 total teams.
Naturally, Kristian Fulton is the first name that comes to mind when thinking about who could be capable of slowing Chase down. The two were teammates at both the high school and collegiate levels. Fulton is a stud in his own right and he may know some of Chase’s tendencies better than most people do.
Fulton also has experience with Higgins due to their matchup in the CFB national title game between LSU & Clemson a few years back. Higgins ultimately finished with 3 catches for 52 yards when lined across from Fulton.
The Titans’ defense does have experience with containing high-powered offenses. Back in Week 9, they prevented Cooper Kupp and the Rams’ high-powered passing attack from wrecking the game.
The defense understood that Kupp was likely going to get his numbers but they made him work for everything he got which ultimately helped prevent the backbreaking plays he often produced all year.
Tennessee will need a similar approach with Chase and the Bengals’ offense on Saturday. I’ve already documented the importance of the pass rush earlier in this article, but on the backend, this secondary must keep these talented Bengals receivers in front of them. This defense will be in trouble if they allow either of their receivers to get behind the secondary. Very seldomly do the Bengals miss those opportunities when they are presented to them.
There’s no sugar coating it, Chase, Higgins, & Boyd are going to catch the football. Burrow is too good not to find them and they’re too good to be shut out all game. However, they can be contained if this defense swarms to the ball as a unit and allows minimal damage after any catch is made.
Slowing down this high-powered Bengals offense is going to have to be a group effort from all 11-guys. If this defense truly wants to prove they are Super Bowl-caliber, it starts on Saturday in front of a National audience against one of the hottest offenses in all of football.
Embracing the uncertainty
Whether you started your fandom sometime during the Titans tenure, or if you’re one of the OG Oilers fans who transformed into a Titans fan following the relocation, there’s one thing every fan of this organization has in common: None of us have ever seen a Super Bowl victory in our lifetime.
You don’t have to remind Tennessee fans that seasons like these don’t come very often. This is only the third time in Titans history that the team has earned the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
Earning that top seed allows the city of Nashville to finally show that they’re ready to fully embrace this Titans team the way they embraced the Predators during their Stanley Cup run.
At one point in time, the Adelphia Coliseum, now Nissan Stadium, was considered one of the most daunting environments in the NFL. Sadly, Tennessee eventually lost that type of atmosphere after several mediocre years on the field.
Needless to say, a mediocre product is hardly being fielded these days.
For those who will be in attendance this weekend, it’s time to do your part to be as loud and as raucous as you possibly can to get Nissan Stadium back to the feared environment it once was. This team deserves it, this fanbase deserves it, the entire state of Tennessee deserves this. The Titans have built a behemoth of a product on the field, it’s time for the fans to return the favor by becoming one in the stands as well.
If you’re going to either of the playoff games at Nissan Stadium during this run, be obnoxiously loud and proud. Understand that while only 69+ thousand are in attendance, those thousands represent the millions of Titans fans around the world who couldn’t be there. That goes for the fans that are at home watching and especially for those who have passed on and aren’t around for this moment.
Can you only imagine the content the legendary Matt Neely would be putting out right now? You don’t think he would be losing his mind this weekend?
If you are fortunate enough to have a ticket, as the legendary Kanye West once said: “go nuts, go apeshit”.
We owe it to Neely and to every single one of those fans who are no longer here to embrace every moment that happens during this run.
Most importantly, cherish these moments and embrace the uncertainty of it all. Seasons like these are the main reason why you become a diehard fan. Seasons like these are the reason you put up with all the BS that comes with a 2-14 season. It’s because you know that better days are bound to be around the corner in hopes that your team eventually places themselves in a position to go chase a ring.
Although we don’t know for certain how this will all end, we mustn’t forget to smell the roses along the way because this truly could be the moment we reflect on decades from now.
At this point, there are only two possible outcomes for how this season ends. This fanbase is either going to once again have their hearts completely shattered… or this is the year that we’ve all dreamed about since we each committed our individual fandom to the Titans/Oilers organization.
Embrace the beautiful uncertainty of it all and let’s loudly watch our Titans on this chase for the franchise’s first-ever Lombardi trophy.