KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Ryan Tannehill sat with his elbows on his knees and stared blankly into space. Surrounding him in the visiting team locker room of Arrowhead Stadium, his teammates perched their large frames on small stools. A few players were crying. Some scrolled through their phones, their eyes red. Others just looked down.
Tennessee’s future includes many football-less months following their unexpected and thrilling playoff run, which ended Sunday with a 35–24 loss to the Chiefs in the AFC championship game. While the victors hoisted the Lamar Hunt Trophy through falling confetti and fans shot off fireworks in the surrounding parking lots, Tannehill moved slowly. He took off one of his cleats, looked at it for a few seconds and threw it into a gym bag. Players navigated around him on their way to and from the showers, but he stayed put. A few minutes later, he took off the other shoe. A few minutes after that, Tannehill—his eyes still unfocused—finally started removing his socks.
On the other side of the room, safety Kenny Vaccaro was a little more upbeat. His eyes were puffy, but he struck a positive tone once he finished answering some of the many unread texts that popped up his phone after the loss.
“[This playoff run] has been magical,” he says. “But I don’t think it’s a Cinderella story, I think this is momentum. I think this is like, alright, the Titans are for real. Guys are sad, and I’m sad too, but this is momentum for me. I think we earned a lot of people’s respect.”
Earning that respect took a long time, and the Titans weren’t widely considered to be a team really worth paying attention to until the playoffs. Tennessee’s first game of the season was against the hyped (overhyped?) Browns on a warm September day in Cleveland (a far cry from Sunday’s frigid afternoon in Missouri, where frozen blades of grass crunched under players’ cleats as they ran across the rock-hard field). The Browns had been a topic of discussion all offseason, thanks to brash quarterback Baker Mayfield and new coach (now ex-coach) Freddie Kitchens. They were the darling of the NFL, a young team with promise, and Browns fans were psyched. I was at the game to write about what hope looks like in a city that hasn’t had much, when it comes to football, in decades.
But the Titans crushed the Browns, 43-13. And the main story coming out of that Titans’ win? It was a Browns’ loss. The national conversation after the season opener wasn’t, “Hey, how about those Titans?” It was, “Uh oh, were the Browns overrated?”
They were. The Titans were the story the whole time, even though it took a while for the team to give anyone reason to believe it. The team started the season 2-4 and benched Marcus Mariota, their Heisman-winning starting quarterback, in mid October for Tannehill. Tannehill ended up leading the NFL with a 117.5 passer rating in the season’s final 12 games, and Tennessee clawed its way into the playoff picture. They took down two powerhouse teams in the playoffs—the Patriots and the Ravens—on the road. Each time, many fans and media members counted them out. After the Ravens loss, editors at national publications scrambled to reassign stories and redirect reporters, who they assumed would be in Baltimore, to Nashville.
The Titans noticed. Last week, in the visiting locker room of M&T Bank Stadium, Vaccaro joked with me after I mistakenly asked him, “How do you feel about Kansas City?” (I realized—quickly and to my horror—that the Texans and Chiefs hadn’t even played yet to determine who would appear in the AFC championship.) I quickly corrected myself and apologized to Vaccaro, saying, “I meant whoever wins the game, maybe the Texans. Sorry, I really didn’t mean to say that.”
“Wait,” he laughed, “Why did you say Kansas City? You don’t believe in Houston, just like nobody believed in us? See, this is crazy!”
Not only was I embarrassed—I actually did think the Texans had a good shot against the Chiefs!—but I’d also subconsciously let the more popular narrative—a Chiefs’ win—seep into my brain. As a reporter, I should probably pretend that interaction never happened. But it illustrates how easy it is to believe the fates that I, as a member of the media, and some of you, as fans, prescribe to teams before waiting to see what actually takes place.
On Sunday night, Vaccaro brought up this previous interaction when I asked what it felt like to be written off for most of the season. “We never believed [the doubters],” he says. “We cancelled out all the noise, and it was a hell of a season. I mean, hats off to the Chiefs, they’re a really good team. You predicted them to win last week before they even played.”
Sometimes the narratives do play out the way most people think they will. But even after a loss like Sunday’s, the Titans don’t doubt themselves. “A couple more pieces, a couple more reps in the weight room, and the boys will be ready to go,” offensive tackle Taylor Lewan said.
The team put up a fight until the very end, quietly grinding away and narrowing the Chiefs’ lead to a one-touchdown game in the fourth quarter. When everyone wrote them off, they knew what they had; head coach Mike Vrabel knew what they had.
“When people have opinions and comments and games don’t go the way we want them, [the players] don’t pout,” Vrabel said at his post-game press conference. “They stay the course. They are mentally and physically tough. That is part of the reason I am proud of them.”
Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey reiterated Vrabel’s point as he zipped up his suitcase in the locker room. “In past years, nobody really had confidence in us. We didn’t have confidence in ourselves. But we just brought a new foundation of confidence to this organization.”
While free agency and the draft will change the makeup of the close-knit team, the Titans hope to build on the confidence gained through this AFC title game appearance and continue writing this story. They provided a shot of adrenaline, a hit of freshness that the NFL doesn’t get often. Even the story of the Eagles’ underdog run to win Super Bowl LII included the Patriots. But Tennessee shook things up by eliminating New England, ending the oldest trope in the league: the Patriots going to the Super Bowl.
And they did it their way, with physical, old school football. They didn’t play scared; Vrabel radiates a deep confidence that his team embodied. Or maybe he absorbed some of it from his players. Following Tennessee’s win in Baltimore, many people in the media talked about how the Titans have been made in Vrabel’s image. But I think it’s fair to say that he reflects this team as much as it does him.
“We try to hold each other accountable and build trust to hold each other accountable,” Vrabel told me in Baltimore. “I love coaching them. There’s not another team I would rather go on the road and win games with than this one.”
The Titans couldn’t pull off another underdog road win this weekend. But they proved that they belonged to be here, and to be taken seriously in the national conversation as a team that has zero intention of losing that plot.
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More From the AFC Championship Game:
* Jenny Vrentas: Patrick Mahomes Will Not Be Stopped
* Michael Rosenberg: Reid, Chiefs Overcome Their Histories to Reach Super Bowl
* Gary Gramling: Takeaways From the AFC, NFC Championship Games
* Chiefs: Super Bowl Holds Special Meaning for Hunt Family
* Titans: Tennessee Players Say They'll Remember Season for Family, Not Failure