The Titans effectively won the AFC South on Sunday with a 34–31 overtime win over the surging Colts. They’ve now opened up a three-game barrier between themselves and second place, along with clinching a head-to-head tiebreaker over Indianapolis, heading into one of the more generous end-of-season schedules in the NFL. Barring some kind of massive slump, they will win the division for the second year in a row and make the playoffs for the third consecutive season.
And while that may not seem like an incredible feat in 2021, given that they rest atop the softest division in the NFL with a pair of self-destructive franchises circling the drain beneath them, it is incredible when you consider the route they traversed to get there.
Derrick Henry had just 68 yards on Sunday, which is a relatively pedestrian number for the lead back, which helps amplify the point: There may not be many teams in the NFL built as well as the Titans, or in a more unique fashion. On Sunday alone, they won on the strength of two interceptions, one that went for a touchdown and another that occurred deep in opponent territory toward the end of overtime.
Their rise from definition-of-middling club to dominant AFC stalwart gives hope to any adrift franchise that starts anew without any of the traditional tentpoles of a championship contender. Their quarterback was a flamed-out first-round pick, brought in initially to back up their own flaming-out first-round pick. Their offense is largely generated from—but not exclusively limited to—a downhill running game starring a back who has missed just two games since 2016 despite taking every defender’s hardest thwack in an effort to bring him down. Their best receiver was believed to be a concession prize at the end of a receiver-rich first round. Only one of their starting offensive linemen was selected in the draft by the current general manager. Their best defensive player is a third-rounder from Middle Tennessee State. (Answer key: Ryan Tannehill, Marcus Mariota, Henry, A.J. Brown, Nate Davis, Kevin Byard.)
We can craft whatever narrative we wish about the mystical energy conjured by their head coach and his sideline demeanor, or, again, fall back on the fact that they are gifted two games each year against the Jaguars and Texans, which is a bit like Alabama scheduling an extra opponent with A&T tacked onto the end of its name. But the truth is that the Titans are a kind of beautiful, perpetual work in progress. Their build to this point has been scattershot from the traditional NFL standard, which demands you select a rookie quarterback, groom him quickly, pad the roster while he is still on a rookie contract and pay top dollar for elite talent that can make up the difference around him.
In Tennessee, no one player takes up more than 7% of the salary cap. No single player’s base salary is more than $11 million. Highly drafted players are somewhat routinely discarded and not subject to the kind of political coddling that other general managers adhere to in order to pad their legacy as finders of talent.
In many ways, they have sampled some of the best ideas in recent history without forcing themselves down a singular path. They are a little bit like the best Seahawks teams, but without the homegrown, developed quarterback. They have a vintage Patriots flavor, but without the foundational draw of the greatest head coach in NFL history.
And right now, they are winners of four straight. Had it not been for one of the more puzzling hiccups of the season—an overtime loss to the Jets— they would not have lost a game since Week 1 to the Cardinals, arguably the best team in football coming into this week.
The best part about this, of course, is that it challenges other middling franchises to up their game. The Titans didn’t look at their (relative) strengths at the beginning of this rebuild as a box of duct tape, paper clips and other strewn detritus. They clearly saw something we all didn’t and trusted a gifted set of coaches to put it in motion.
They are more than Henry. They are more than Brown and more than Tannehill. They are, at the moment, an enigma for the rest of the NFL to try to stop and a posterchild for how to put a bunch of seemingly disjointed parts together.
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