By John Glennon
In the darkness following the Titans’ lopsided Thursday-night loss to Indianapolis earlier this month, the path to the playoffs appeared to be a dim one.
The Titans had lost two straight games, three of their last four and had been convincingly thumped – at home – by the Colts, their greatest AFC South rival.
Gone was the momentum of a 5-0 start, replaced with the creeping anxiety that – in this year of so many competitive AFC teams – a postseason berth might be fast slipping away. The fact that the Titans’ next two games were on the road – against a Baltimore team bent on revenge and that same Indianapolis squad – did not lend itself to great confidence either.
So hand it to the Titans, who, just 17 days after falling flat on national television, have turned their season completely back around, earning upset victories in both Baltimore and Indianapolis. How do you like them now? In dropping a combined 75 points on two of the best defenses in the NFL – though the Colts were hampered mightily by the loss of DeForest Buckner and Denico Autry – the Titans have done more than just right the ship.
They’ve seized control of their playoff destiny, to the extent that the forecasting website fivethirtyeight.com gives them an 87 percent chance of winning the AFC South, and a 97 percent chance of making the postseason.
With five weeks left in the regular season, the Titans have their playoff destiny in their own hands – the ability to host a playoff game for the first time since 2008 a very real possibility. They not only hold a one-game lead over the Colts (7-4) in the AFC South, but hold a decided edge in the divisional-record tiebreaker, with a 3-1 record compared to Indianapolis’ 1-2 mark.
“It’s always tough to win on the road,” Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown said of the back-to-back victories. “It definitely says a lot, though, but we know that’s not what we are trying to do. We still have a long road ahead.”
Added Titans coach Mike Vrabel: “We beat the Ravens and Colts on the road back-to-back weeks, so I think that’s a step in the right direction. We have to continue to build on that, come back home and prepare for a new opponent, a very good opponent with a lot of weapons.”
Here are nine other takeaways from the game:
The next five games — So what do the schedules look like for the Titans and the Colts as they head into the final five contests of the season?
The Titans host Cleveland, travel to Jacksonville, host Detroit, travel to Green Bay and travel to Houston. The Colts travel to Houston, travel to Las Vegas, host Houston, travel to Pittsburgh and host Jacksonville.
So at first glance, I’d guess the Titans will be favored in four of their final contests – every game except at the Packers – and the Colts will be favored in each of their games except for Pittsburgh. Las Vegas might be a toss-up since it will be a road game for the Colts, but the Raiders laid a huge egg on Sunday and appear to be melting down as the season continues.
The Texans are a team that could obviously play a huge role in which team wins the AFC South, as they have one game left against the Titans and two against the Colts. Houston has won two straight games and three of its last four after starting the season 1-6.
And remember, the Titans needed overtime to defeat the Texans at Nissan Stadium earlier this season.
Another monster YAC sighting — The kind of play Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown made late in the first quarter – catching a medium-range pass over the middle and turning it into a long-range touchdown – is almost becoming commonplace for the second-year wide receiver.
It wasn’t so long ago he did the exact same thing against Pittsburgh, turning a simple crossing route into a 73-yard touchdown pass.
Per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, 60 of Brown’s 69 yards on the touchdown catch against Indianapolis came after the catch – which was 42 yards above what was expected on the play. Brown is now averaging 7.8 yards after the catch per reception, which is tied for first in the NFL.
If you want to take the numbers to the next level, Brown is averaging an NFL-high 4.1 yards after the catch greater than expected this season.
“He’s making it look extremely easy,” Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill said of Brown. “Obviously, it’s a difficult thing to do, but coach Vrabel says it all the time, ‘Pros make the hard look easy.’ And that’s what A.J. does.
“We had pressure there off the right side. I was hot, (guard Nate Davis) did a good job of slowing the rushers down just enough for me to be able to get that pass off. I got it to A.J. and he obviously did the rest. We know what kind of weapon A.J. is any time he has the ball in his hands and he showed it again today.”
We’re not sure what to term Brown’s second touchdown – which was a 42-yard return of the Colts’ onside-kick attempt near the end of the game – when it comes to yards after the catch. But Brown said afterward he’d joked about scoring on the play before the kick.
King of the Road — One thing the Titans have learned they can count on in virtually every road contest: a strong performance by running back Derrick Henry.
Not that Henry’s a slouch at home, of course. But he’s been especially overpowering on the road over the past couple of seasons. His 27 carries for 178 yards and three touchdowns against the Colts marked the eighth straight contest in which Henry ran for more than 100 yards.
The streak began last year in Indy, when Henry carried 26 times for 149 yards. Since then, Henry’s posted: 18 carries for 103 yards at Oakland, 32 carries for 211 yards at Houston, 31 carries for 116 yards at Denver, 26 carries for 119 yards at Minnesota, 18 carries for 112 yards at Cincinnati, and Sunday’s 178-yard total against the Colts.
How nice is that to have as a foundation for the offense?
“Well, it’s huge,” Tannehill said. “Obviously, everyone kind of knows the way we like to play. We like to establish the run game wherever we’re at – home or away, and Derrick is consistent. He does his thing no matter where we’re at. He’s a football player and a really good one at that. It’s important to us and we want to keep it rolling.”
Henry simply trampled the Colts’ depleted defensive line in the first half, carrying 17 times for 140 yards and three touchdowns.
“It was rough in the first half,” Colts coach Frank Reich said. “They obviously – we’ve talked about it, they have the best rushing attack in the NFL, the best back in the NFL. We knew it would be a challenge. I thought we handled it better in the second half, but we have to play better team defense for 60 minutes.”
Feeling the heat — In the earlier meeting between the Colts and Titans, Indianapolis quarterback Philip Rivers carved up Tennessee’s defense, going 29-for-39 for 308 yards and one touchdown. The Titans did little to bother Rivers, as he was hit just twice and sacked only once.
It was a different story on Sunday, as the Titans found ways to make Rivers uncomfortable – after he led two touchdown drives on the Colts’ first two drives, that is. The Titans’ defense sacked Rivers twice but hit him six times – four more than the previous contest. In addition, Titans defenders knocked away five passes.
“I think they did ramp up the pressure and pressured a heck of a lot more than in the first outing,” said Rivers, who completed 24-of-42 passes for 295 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
Added Titans safety Kenny Vaccaro: “(We were) just challenging (the receivers), being up in their face, not giving the easy-access throws, taking away his first read – that way he has to get to his second and third read. Guys did a good job of assaulting the pocket where he can’t step up and make the throws, and all the throws he made had to be off his back foot or off timing or off rhythm.
“I know they want to be on time with their offense, so those guys up front did a hell of a job getting pressure on him. The DBs (and) corners did a good job of challenging down in and down out, regardless of what the situation was.”
Getting aggressive — It would be hard to find a bigger play in Sunday’s contest than the Titans’ fourth-down conversion near the end of the first half.
Sure, the Titans were already up 28-14, but Indianapolis certainly wouldn’t have been out of the game had the Colts gone into the locker room trailing by two touchdowns. Remember, Indy had outscored the Titans 21-0 in the second half of the game earlier this month. In addition, the Colts had history on their side, as they’d beaten the Titans in 15 of the teams’ previous 18 meetings – and 10 of the last 12 in Indianapolis.
The Titans at first appeared ready to punt on fourth-and-four at the Colts’ 38-yard line. But after calling time-out, Vrabel re-thought the decision and sent the offense back on the field. The Titans made the move pay off, as Tannehill connected with Corey Davis deep over the middle – Davis making an excellent sliding catch for a 37-yard gain to the Colts’ 1-yard line. One play later, Tannehill scored on a keeper and the Titans carried a 35-14 lead into the locker room.
“It just shows what type of confidence (Vrabel) has in us,” Brown said. He has an aggressive mindset. He tells us all the time that we need to be aggressive, so we were cool with the call.”
Said Vrabel: “I felt like it was an opportunity to continue the drive. They didn’t have any time-outs. I thought the way our defense was playing, and also just the confidence I had in our offense … just wanted to make sure we were all on the same page.
“We kept a clean pocket and we complete a lot of passes when there’s a clean pocket. Again, Corey’s continuing to build confidence and playing well. I’m happy for him.”
What a roll — In rallying from 11 points down to beat Baltimore the previous week, the Titans scored on their final four possessions – aside from taking a knee on the final play of regulation. So when the Titans opened the first half against the Colts by producing five touchdowns on six drives, it meant Tennessee had scored on nine of its last 10 possessions – again not including taking the knee.
Included in those nine scoring drives were seven that produced touchdowns. The scoring drives weren’t gimmes by any means either, as only one of them was less than 50 yards. The nine scoring drives broken down: eight plays, 53 yards; 12 plays, 81 yards; 10 plays, 90 yards, six plays, 73 yards; 10 plays, 75 yards; four plays, 80 yards; 8 plays, 50 yards, nine plays, 81 yards; and five plays, 44 yards.
Feel the Kern — The Titans welcomed back Pro Bowl punter Brett Kern, who played for the first time since suffering a left hand injury against Cincinnati on Nov. 1.
Kern’s statistics weren’t necessarily mind-blowing, as he punted four times for a net average of 40 yards.
But look a little harder to see the huge impact of his boots.
All four of Kern’s punts landed inside the Indianapolis 20-yard line. Two landed out of bounds and two forced fair catches. In other words, the Colts weren’t able to gain a single return yard on the four punts. Kern consistently pinned the Colts deep in their own end during the second half, as he forced Indianapolis to start drives from their eight-yard line, 13-yard line and six-yard line. Only one of those Colts possessions led to a score.
A special start — It would be hard to find a better story than that of David Quessenberry, the Titans’ third-string left tackle, who made his first career NFL start on Sunday.
Quessenberry’s relationship with Vrabel dates back to 2014 in Houston when Quessenberry befriended Vrabel’s son, Carter, who is now a starting tackle at Boston College. But Quessenberry was also diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins lymphoma that year, missing the next three seasons as he battled cancer.
Quessenberry spent much of last season and this season on the Titans’ practice squad but has now stepped to the front of the line at left tackle – following injuries to Taylor Lewan and Ty Sambrailo. Against Indianapolis, Quessenberry was part of an offense that produced 449 yards – 229 on the ground – and allowed just one sack.
“You know, I’m grateful, I’m grateful for the type of man he is, for his belief in me, giving me the nod this week,” Quessenberry said of Vrabel. “He’s a really, really special coach and I’m just proud to be able to play for him and play with these guys and it really does mean a lot to me. It’s been a long time coming and finally got the opportunity, the nod and I want to make him proud and my teammates proud. I knew that I could do it if he gave me that opportunity and it felt good today.”
The good Gostkowski — There was something fitting about the performance of Titans kicker Stephen Gostkowski against Indianapolis.
With the Titans ahead 35-14 late in the third quarter and looking to put another nail in the Indy coffin, Tennessee chose to kick a field goal on fourth-and-one at the Colts’ 26-yard line. Gostkowski actually missed his initial 44-yard attempt, but the play had been whistled dead due to Dennis Kelly’s false start. Moved back five yards – closer to Gostkowski’s magically successful 50-yard range – the veteran kicker then connected from 49 yards to put the Titans ahead 38-14.
Gostkowski has been about as streaky as can be this season. He went zero-for-three to start the year, followed that by going nine-for-nine, fell into a two-for-seven slump, and now has made his last four in a row. He does continue to show a powerful leg, as Gostkowski produced six touchbacks on eight kick-offs.