BALTIMORE — The victorious Titans came running—skipping, really—through the tunnel of M&T Bank Stadium and into Mike Vrabel’s arms.
“Three turnovers, four fourth-down stops, let’s f---ing go, baby!” the second-year head coach yelled as he embraced and high-fived his team. He was sweaty, and Derrick Henry’s eyeblack was smeared all over his right cheek and neck from a recent hug. “I used to wear eye black and I didn’t get enough [tonight],” joked Vrabel, who played in the league for 14 years before he began coaching.
On their way into the locker room, players yelled back at him: “They didn’t believe us!” “Easy work, baby!” Easy work might be a stretch, but the No. 6-seed Titans certainly didn’t have a hard time putting away the Ravens 28-12 in the divisional round. Baltimore was heavily favored; the 14-win No. 1-seed hadn’t lost a game since Week 4, way back on September 29. Tennessee started the season 2–4 and benched QB Marcus Mariota on October 16, and was given hardly any odds to stop NFL MVP favorite Lamar Jackson, who has lit up opposing teams with his electric style of play and insane statistics all year.
But the Ravens weren’t used to playing from behind—and that’s exactly what the Titans forced them to do all game.
Tennessee got on the board first after safety Kevin Byard intercepted Jackson in Baltimore’s opening drive; the Titans’ ensuing drive was capped off with a beautiful, leaping touchdown catch by Jonnu Smith that went on to bend space and time.
The key to the Titans’ success on Saturday night? The seemingly unstoppable Derrick Henry, who rushed for 195 yards on 30 carries and even threw a touchdown pass. The Tennessee defense had no chance against the human equivalent of a brick wall who grew legs and learned to run 40-yards in 4.54 seconds.
The Ravens’ game plan focused on getting the ball to Jackson, but unlike the Titans, who were able to execute to support Henry’s runs and QB Ryan Tannehill’s passing plays, Baltimore couldn’t get it together. The team failed to convert two fourth-and-ones. They abandoned the run as soon as they fell behind. Mark Ingram and Willie Sneed, two of Jackson’s most reliable targets, dropped routine plays.
The raucous energy pulsing through the stadium became more of a flickering lightbulb as the game wore on. Once Tannehill threw a 45-yard bomb to Kalif Raymond in the second quarter, the lights were out. Ravens fans looked like wedding guests sitting through a drunk best man’s cringeworthy speech, and the “this isn’t supposed to be happening” vibe continued for the rest of the game. By the time the Titans scored their fourth touchdown of the game in the third quarter, putting the team up by 22 points, many fans put their coats on, hugged their friends goodbye and left the stadium. One man waved at the field as he left as though shoeing away a child asking for a third piece of cake.
Perhaps Baltimore should’ve sensed trouble in Tennessee’s gritty determination when Vrabel performed a workout with his assistant coaches on the sidelines three hours before kickoff. It was the same routine they did before beating the Patriots at Foxboro in the wild card game, a rotation of pushups, planks, and squats for twenty minutes.
“The plank is part of the dad bod club,” Vrabel explained. “I used to love to run, but unfortunately I think my Achilles’ [tendon] is going to explode and snap off the back of my leg if I keep running. So we’ve transitioned to more of a less impactful workout. You know the dad bod is in style these days right? I’m 44. It’s dad bod style.”
Or maybe Baltimore should’ve felt slightly rattled when the Titans entered the stadium with a quiet, unsettling, dangerous confidence. It seemed as though all the players knew something everybody else didn’t as they warmed up, calmly and deliberately. When no one expects you to be there in the first place, living up to expectations isn’t an issue. This year’s Titans have shades of the Eagles’ Super Bowl run in 2017-18. Philly embraced its underdog status so much that they wore dog masks during the playoffs.
“Underdogs, that’s who we are,” Vrabel said on Friday before the game by phone. “We’re the hillbillies from Tennessee. I wouldn’t want it any other way. I love our players. They aren’t front runners, when things get tough they keep competing.”
By the time late December rolled around, Vrabel knew that if his team had a prayer of a chance to reach the playoffs, they would be on the road for the rest of the year. He thinks of these playoffs as starting with the regular-season game against the Texans on December 29, which Tennessee won. The Titans have now defeated three juggernauts at home in loud stadiums with tens of thousands of people rooting against them, and hope to do so again next week in the AFC championship.
Vrabel won’t waver from the plan that got his guys here in the first place, focusing on the physical style of play on which he pledged to rely when he showed up in Nashville in 2018. He played tape of the Ravens for the players all week, hoping his team would emulate last year’s Chargers, who beat the Ravens in the ’18 wild-card round. “The Chargers went in the last year and got three turnovers and took care of football,” Vrabel said on Friday.
The tape must have worked, because the Titans did exactly the same thing and won by a bigger margin. In the locker room after the win, players were dancing on the benches to Green Light by Rod Wave (“It’s about to be a f---in’ green light”). Guys were grinning, hugging and making fun of each other. The team’s closeness and intense chemistry has played a large part in its tenacity.
“The camaraderie on this team is closer than I even had in college,” tackle Taylor Lewan said. “I remember people saying that when you get to the NFL, guys have wives and kids, and you’re not gonna be that close. But man, this is the closest team I've ever been a part of. ’Cause when the outside world doesn’t care or have any confidence, the only people you can rely on are the people you work with every single day.”
Smith credits Vrabel with fostering that culture. “He’s a hell of a coach,” the tight end said. “Greatest coach I’ve been around. And it’s a pleasure playing for him. We love to make fun of him, but that’s what we do. We’re a family.”
When this family faces either the Kansas City Chiefs or the Houston Texans in the AFC championship next week, Vrabel is going to stick to the same game plan: physical football played “with an energy, and a finish and a focus.” The Titans are in the AFC Championship for the first time since 2003. They’re a game away from the Super Bowl, which they have never won and only played in once.
But hopefully a Super Bowl title wouldn’t come with a huge personal price for Vrabel—last July, he appeared on the Bussin’ with the Boys podcast, which Lewan co-hosts with former Titan Will Compton. When Lewan and Compton asked Vrabel if he would cut off his penis for a Super Bowl win, the coach immediately said that he would, and that his wife Jen would be okay with it (Jen even offered to help). On Saturday night, when it became clear that the Titans could go all the way, Twitter erupted with jokes about Vrabel’s wild claim.
“Oh, I meant,” Vrabel said outside the locker room before heading out for the night. “Listen, I didn’t want to disappoint Taylor and Will when I went on the podcast. I knew they were gonna ask me things that probably, if I just clammed up, [the show] wouldn't be very fun. So I tried to make it as fun as possible.”
He sure did make it fun—and he’s continuing to keep the Titans’ postseason run fun too. This team proves that when very few people believe in you, making them believe in you can be a blast.
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