The Tennessee Titans are back in the playoffs. And they are going back to the place they played their most recent playoff game.
Derrick Henry won the NFL rushing title as the Titans secured the AFC’s second wild card with a 35-14 victory over the Houston Texans on Sunday in Houston. They finished 9-7 for the fourth straight year but for the second time in the last three that was good enough to get them into the postseason.
They will play at New England in the wild card round (the date and time have yet to be determined). The Patriots have been the Super Bowl four of the last five seasons and won it three times.
“You’re basically walking into the viper’s den,” coach Mike Vrabel said. “We’re going to have to go on the road and beat a team that’s won a lot of playoff games up there.
“… I’m excited for these guys. These guys are ready to continue to play football.”
Tennessee’s last playoff contest was a 35-14 loss at New England in the divisional round of the 2017 season.
That turned out to be Mike Mularkey’s final game as head coach. Days later he was fired, and Vrabel quickly was hired as the Titans, under general manager Jon Robinson, began to deepen their connection to and/or imitation of New England’s way of doing things.
Robinson, of course, was a long-time member of that franchise’s front office staff. Vrabel played for the Patriots and was an assistant coach at Houston under former New England assistant coach Bill O’Brien. Some of the biggest free agent acquisitions in recent years, including Logan Ryan (2017), Malcolm Butler (2018) and Dion Lewis (2018), came directly from the Patriots.
All of them have been a part of at least one New England team that won a Super Bowl. Tennessee is one of 12 franchises that has never won a Super Bowl.
“I haven’t had a paycheck with a Patriots logo on it since 2008,” Vrabel said. “… “They’re no strangers to winning playoff football games at home,” coach Mike Vrabel said. “So, we’ll have to go up there. We’ll have to prepare.”
Tennessee needed only to win the 3:25 p.m. (CST) contest against the Texans in order to advance. They got some help in early games, which left Houston no opportunity to move up or down in the conference standings.
The Texans (10-6) elected not to dress some of their top players and held out several others. Nonetheless, they scored first when backup quarterback A.J. McCarron led a 75-yard touchdown drive on the opening possession.
The Titans responded with the 21 straight points and pulled away with three second-half touchdowns by Henry, the last from 53 yards with 2:54 to play. After resting last week against New Orleans, the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner ran for 211 yards on 32 carries.
Henry finished the season with 1,540 rushing yards, 46 more than Cleveland’s Nick Chubb and 153 more than NFC leader Christian McCaffrey. Henry’s 16 rushing touchdowns tied him with Green Bay’s Aaron Jones for the league lead.
“That was the main goal – getting into the postseason,” Henry said. “I think anytime you put the team first and do everything right for the team, then all the individual stuff will fall into place.”
Six weeks into the season, Tennessee did not look like a good team. At 2-4 it was in last place in the division and had scored seven points or fewer in three of the previous four games. That’s when Vrabel and his staff decided to make Ryan Tannehill the starting quarterback ahead of Marcus Mariota.
The Titans won seven of their final 10 and have scored at least 20 points ever since.
The Patriots (12-4), who have been set at quarterback with Tom Brady for nearly two decades, have lost three of their last five. Their latest defeat, Sunday against Miami, combined with Kansas City’s win dropped them to the conference’s No. 3 seed and onto the schedule for the postseason’s first week. New England is a playoff team for the 11 straight year, but this is the first time since 2009 it will be in action during the wild card round.
“We finished the season the way we wanted do, getting ourselves in position to be in the playoffs,” Tannehill said. “Now starts the postseason for us. … We knew what it was coming into (Sunday). We needed to come out with a ‘W.’ We were able to do that.
“… Obviously, (the Patriots) have a lot of experience in the postseason and we’re going to have to go in and play well.”