Early Stops Ensure Titans Can Keep Playing
It is clear now that the Tennessee Titans will give up yards this postseason, but they are loath to give up the final yard. That makes all the difference.
Their ability to keep the Baltimore Ravens out of the end zone until the second half Saturday was paramount in their 28-12 upset victory in a divisional playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium.
It kept the Ravens from building an early lead and then playing keep-away, as they had with many opponents during the regular season. It gave the offense time to beat on Baltimore’s defense, which eventually opened up things for running back Derrick Henry. And it forced the Ravens to do things they normally don’t.
It was the same way Tennessee dispatched New England a week earlier. Never mind this was a completely different opponent with a completely different approach to moving the ball, led by dual-threat quarterback and presumptive 2019 MVP Lamar Jackson.
With the victory, the Titans earned the right to play in the AFC Championship game for the first time since the 2002 season. They will face either Kansas City or Houston on the road next Sunday with a spot in Super Bowl LIV at stake. They're also the third team since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to beat the No. 1 scoring offense (Baltimore) and the No. 1 scoring defense (New England) in the same postseason.
“We thought that that was a huge key to the game, was our ability to force them to kick field goals,” coach Mike Vrabel said. “We figured [kicker Justin] Tucker would make them all, which was fine. And then our ability to score when we got down there, to score touchdowns really was the difference in the ball game.”
Tucker did, in fact, make them all. The most accurate kicker in NFL history was 2-for-2 on field goal attempts. He made them from 49 and 22 yards in a span of 5:52 of the second quarter. The latter split the uprights as time expired on the first half, after Tennessee’s defense got a stop on first-and-goal from the 4.
However, a pair of Titans’ touchdowns – one in each quarter – preceded those kicks, which meant Tennessee took a 14-6 lead into the locker room. It was an important state of affairs given that the Ravens scored more first-half points than any NFL team during the regular season. They actually scored more in the first two quarters than five teams scored all season.
“The defense played great all night,” quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. “And it started off in that first quarter when they got that turnover and we were able to turn it into points. … We talked about it all week, they had outscored opponents … a lot to a little in the first quarter. We knew coming in that that would be a critical point in the game for us to get out, move the ball early, get points on the board and get some stops. And we were able to do that.”
That defensive effort included a turnover (Kevin Byard’s first-quarter interception) and a stop on fourth-and-1, things that were repeated at least twice each in the second half. Jackson and the Ravens eventually piled up 530 yards of offense, but the NFL’s best rushing team ever threw the ball more than twice as many times (59) as it ran it (29).
The Ravens finished with three turnovers and were 0-for-4 on fourth down (0-for-2 on fourth-and-1 after having been a perfect 8-for-8 in the regular season). By the time they finally got to the end zone, with 11:04 to play, Tennessee already had scored 28 points and had turned to Henry, who finished with 195 rushing yards on 30 carries, of which 143 yards and 19 carries came after halftime.
Henry did not score a rushing touchdown, but his third-quarter touchdown pass to Corey Davis out of the wildcat formation (following a fourth-down stop) made it 21-6. And for what it’s worth, Tannehill accounted for the Titans final points with a touchdown run.
“It’s all about winning the Super Bowl,” Byard said. “None of this, in my opinion, none of this is going to mean anything unless we win the Super Bowl. That’s our mentality: Go and try to be a Super Bowl champion.”