NASHVILLE – In the weeks leading up to the 2021 season, Tennessee Titans fans salivated at the prospects of a high-powered passing attack, looked forward to another record-breaking year for running back Derrick Henry, and hoped the combination of those two would make up for a shoddy defense.
Would the sum really be enough to capture a second straight AFC South title? Or would those defensive holes prove too much to overcome?
My, how things have changed from summer to winter.
The Titans are division champs all right, earning the crown Sunday with a 34-3 thrashing of a Miami Dolphins team that had won seven straight games entering the contest.
But who could have guessed they would do it this way?
Who would have believed – way back before the season began – the Titans would even be in position to win the division if they’d known Henry would be lost after eight games, that Julio Jones would be a non-factor, that Ryan Tannehill would throw more interceptions this season than all but one in his career?
On the other hand, it would have been all but impossible to forecast a defense that on Sunday held its fourth straight opponent under 20 points. A defense that was rolled on a regular basis last season has now allowed a combined 39 points – an average of less than 10 per contest – in those four games.
It was a most unexpected route to take, but here were the Titans – laughing, joking and wearing their AFC South champion swag – after the franchise’s first back-to-back division titles since the early 1960s.
“It feels excellent. It feels great,” safety Kevin Byard said. “Watching this fan base embrace this city, embrace the team, it’s definitely been great. So, definitely happy.
“Two-time division champs, but I’m pretty sure everybody that’s going to come up here is going to echo it that we’re not done yet. The season’s just getting started. There’s a lot more meat out there on the bone.”
So just who are these Titans that can claim the AFC’s top seed – and playoff bye week – next Sunday with a win against Houston?
Here’s what we know, even if it’s not what we might have anticipated months – or even weeks – ago.
The running game lives. It was easy to believe the Titans’ rushing attack would collapse in the absence of Henry, the seemingly indestructible King who went down with a broken bone in his foot in Week 8.
But it has done more than just survive since then. In recent weeks, it’s even thrived. Led by D’Onta Foreman’s 132 yards, the Titans ran for 198 yards against a stout Miami run defense.
As of now, three of the team’s top rushing totals of this – the other two were 270 yards against New England, and 201 yards against Pittsburgh – came in the last five weeks, with no Henry in the lineup. Foreman, who was at home sitting on his couch until Henry’s injury, topped 100 yards for the third time in five games.
“There is always room for improvement, but those guys ran their ass off today – (Dontrell) Hilliard, Foreman, (Jeremy) McNichols, they ran their asses off,” Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan said. “They found holes and the boys were blocking. That is a really good defense. Hats off to the Dolphins. They have won seven in a row for a reason. Their defense was that dominant. We knew we had a lot to play up to. I am proud of that.”
The passing game is … efficient. In this day and age, it’s hard to believe that Tannehill’s stats against the Dolphins – 13 completions in 18 attempts for 120 yards – were part of a blowout victory. It actually marked the fifth straight game the Titans had thrown for fewer than 200 yards. But Tannehill did what he needed to do against the Dolphins: He threw a pair of touchdown passes against his former team, and he threw zero interceptions – for the third time in four weeks.
Is this the passing attack that was envisioned with Jones on one side, A.J. Brown on the other and a handful of other complementary receivers chipping in? No, it is not. But the presence of Brown alone gives the Titans a much-needed playmaker, someone Tannehill can count on when he’s looking for that downfield completion or third-down connection. Brown’s presence also has a ripple effect on the rest of the passing attack, meaning the Titans’ remaining receivers are more likely to win their one-on-one battles.
The defense is shocking. It’s incredible to see so much improvement on one side of the ball in a single season. One small example from the game on Sunday: The defense posted its third game of the season with at least four sacks and two takeaways. Miami’s offense may not rival Green Bay’s or Kansas City’s, but the Dolphins never even advanced beyond the Titans’ 20-yard line.
Remember how futile the pass rush was last year, registering just 19 sacks? The Titans have 45 this season, with one more game to go. Remember how hard it was for the Titans to get off the field last year, when opponents converted first downs at a mind-blowing 52 percent? Over the last four weeks, the Titans have allowed just 13 conversions in 34 attempts, a success rate of just 30 percent for opponents.
“We kind of know what we are as a defense,” Byard said. “We don’t give up big plays. Teams can’t run the ball on us. We feel like we can stop anybody as far as running the ball. Guys are flying out there and making plays, trying to get the ball out, turnovers and things like that. We’re just a confident group.”
Whether that formula proves enough to push the Titans on a long playoff run remains to be seen.
Will the offense have the necessary firepower if it needs to keep pace in a shoot-out with a team like the Chiefs, Bills or Bengals? Will the defense look just as good against the AFC’s elite clubs as it has against teams like the Dolphins, Steelers and Jaguars in recent weeks?
We just don’t know the answers to those questions yet.
But we do know this: With one game left in the regular season, the Titans are exactly where they hoped to be at this point – even if the journey hasn't been what anyone expected.