Let’s be honest here: Did we really expect the Tennessee Titans to clinch the AFC’s No. 1 seed any other way?
If they’d continued to play in the second half the way they did in the first on Sunday – when they rolled up a three-touchdown lead against an overmatched Houston Texans team – we probably would have had to check player IDs after the game.
Doing what’s predictable just hasn’t been the Titans’ thing this season.
If we didn’t know that before the season, maybe we should have figured it out when they lost to the lowly New York Jets in Week 4. Or when they rattled off six straight wins after that, a streak that included victories over Buffalo, Kansas City, Indianapolis and the Los Angeles Rams. Or when they laid an egg in a loss to the Texans in late November at Nissan Stadium. Or when they absolutely pummeled a Miami team that had won seven straight games.
Just when you think you have these Titans figured, they throw a surprise at you. Most of the time it is good. Sometimes it is not so good.
Just when you think they’re about to stroll through their regular-season finale, they give up 18 straight third-quarter points to the Texans, coming within one miraculous Ryan Tannehill escape from surrendering the football while clinging to a 21-18 lead.
“We did our best to `classic Titans,’ you know,” a relieved left tackle Taylor Lewan told media in Houston afterward. “We fell asleep on both sides of the ball, and Tannehill … just willed us into that thing.
“We accomplished in the season what we wanted to accomplish, however it looked. We did it. Finishing with the No. 1 seed is awesome. But at the end of the day, it’s for real now. We’ve got to clean up a bunch of stuff from this game.”
So, just how should we feel about the Titans (12-5) heading into the playoffs – after a week’s rest, of course, courtesy of earning a first-round bye with their 28-25 victory?
On the one hand, there were some encouraging signs, especially on the offensive side of the ball as the Titans scored at least 28 points for the second straight week:
• Tannehill completed 23-of-32 passes for 287 yards, tying a career high with four touchdown throws. Since his four-interception game against the Texans in November, Tannehill has thrown eight touchdowns and two interceptions. None of his completions were more important, though, than a third-and-5 early in the fourth quarter, when the 33-year-old somehow shed what looked like a sure sack by the Texans’ Jacob Martin and completed a 36-yard pass to Nick Westbrook-Ikhine.
“On that play, he just showed another level of his grit, being able to continue to fight throughout what (looked like) a sack,” safety Kevin Byard said. “I was sitting on the sideline, heard the crowd erupt, thought it was a sack. And he ended up getting out there, finding (Westbrook-Ikhine) for a big play for us. In my opinion, that was probably the play of the game.”
• Five of Tannehill’s completions went to Julio Jones, including Jones’ first touchdown catch of the year. It was Jones’ most impactful game of the season since Week 2, a promising way to ready for the postseason.
• The Titans were clutch when they absolutely had to be, going a perfect four-for-four in the red zone and converting eight-of-13 third-down attempts.
“I’m excited about the way our guys came up and competed,” Tannehill said. “It wasn’t always pretty. We got off to a hot start. Things got ugly there for a second, but we just kept fighting and guys made plays when we needed them.”
On the other hand, how can we just ignore what happened to the Titans in the third quarter on both sides of the ball – and defensively for the entire second half?
If the Titans wanted to give ammunition to those who believe they are unworthy of the No. 1 seed, they did just that with a strangely bad final 30 minutes against a Texans team that entered the game with a 4-12 record.
Is there any rational way to explain how rookie Houston quarterback Davis Mills – who was just seven-of-14 for 61 yards at halftime – went 16-for-19 for 241 yards and three touchdowns in the second half? Those numbers came without the aid of top receiver Brandin Cooks, who didn’t play over the final 30 minutes due to injury.
Is there a good explanation as to how 36-year-old Danny Amendola, who’d caught just 17 passes in seven games before Sunday, torched the Titans for seven catches for 113 yards and two touchdowns – along with a two-point conversion?
And how was it that the same Titans offense that steamrolled the Texans for 268 yards and three touchdowns in the first half couldn’t manage a single first down in the third quarter?
“(The Texans) made plays and we didn’t,” Byard said. “I think we kind of sleep-walked through that third quarter, which is obviously something we don’t want to do, especially heading into the playoffs.”
Indeed, the Titans certainly gave cause for concern heading into the postseason. Will fans see the first-half Titans or second-half Titans when they play in the divisional round in two weeks?
Here’s something to keep in mind, though: If we only judged the Titans after their worst efforts of the season – like the losses to the Jets and Texans, and the second half near-collapse in Houston on Sunday – we would not have believed this team capable of doing much of anything.
Instead, we need to keep the bigger picture in mind.
No matter how ugly things got there in the third quarter on Sunday, the Titans found a way to win. No matter how badly they slipped against lesser opponents this year, they still found a way to finish 12-5. They still found a way to win the AFC South. They still found a way to earn the conference’s No. 1 seed for the first time since 2008.
So, although the Titans will once again have analysts and gurus scratching their head and doubting the postseason fortunes of this team, doubt the Titans at your own peril.
Because as we’ve seen many times this season, they are full of surprises.