One snapshot sums up Saturday night’s AFC divisional playoff stunner: Tennessee head coach Mike Vrabel, a gritty former linebacker, grabbing a towel to scrub the dirt off his face as he celebrated his Titans’ shocking demolition of No. 1-seeded Baltimore.
This was not just a win for Nashville and the Volunteer State, it was a triumph for nine decades of football. A throwback’s throwback.
You could almost picture Dick Butkus somewhere watching the game and smiling, or the ghosts of Knute Rockne, Chuck Bednarik and Bronko Naguski clanking glasses together as old-school football took new-age wizardry behind the woodshed.
Pop Warner 1, Kurt Warner 0.
The Titans’ 28-12 win was a vindication. Forget all this newfangled trickeration. Football, the way it was intended, can be a beautiful thing.
And now, after dismantling one of the best offenses the sport has seen in Baltimore, the Titans should be considered your Super Bowl favorites. How can you ignore what they did to the Ravens, in all facets of the game?
Derrick Henry looked like a young Jim Brown, becoming the fifth running back to rush for more than 150 yards in back-to-back playoff games and the first to eclipse 180 yards in three straight games.
Ryan Tannehill, the NFL’s most surprising story this season, resumed Career Renovation: NFL Edition by throwing for two touchdowns and running for another. He only threw for 88 yards, but when you have a running back go for 195 on the ground, who cares? Tennessee joined Pittsburgh (1974) and Miami (1972 and ’73) as the only teams to win multiple games in the same postseason with fewer than 100 passing yards.
And that hard-nosed, Vrabel-led defense buckled down when it mattered, giving the electric Lamar Jackson his yards but bottling him up in tight situations. Those who thought that Baltimore’s league-best offense would overwhelm the Titans didn’t account for Tennessee’s toughness.
“Watch us work,” Henry said on NBC after the game. “We don’t do too much talking. We’re just gonna work and believe in each other. That’s our mentality. We’re going to come out here and work.”
What worked on Saturday was football circa 1955. Henry and the Titans’ terrific one-cut assault tore up the Baltimore interior. The Ravens came into the game with the second-stingiest scoring defense and the fifth-stingiest rushing defense in the NFL, and Henry bulldozed them.
“It’s not just me,” Henry said, “it’s a team effort. We’re playing collectively as an offense, as a whole. We’re locked in. We believe in each other, and we communicate and it’s working out there.”
Kansas City, or Houston, might have a problem. Two talented young quarterbacks square off on Sunday in Arrowhead Stadium in Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. But neither the No. 2 Chiefs nor No. 4 Texans -– either of whom would host the No. 6-seeded Titans in the AFC title game -– should be heavily favored at home.
Just like Baltimore, Kansas City’s breakneck offense can be curtailed by Tennessee’s ball-control ground game. And remember what the Titans did in Week 17 in Houston, which had already clinched a playoff spot? Henry ran wild for 211 yards and three touchdowns on 32 carries.
The Titans, heavy ‘dogs in Baltimore, aren’t just the NFL’s “hottest” team, they may just be the league’s best team.
“For those of who’ve been around this league long enough, that’s kind of overrated, the underdog thing,” Vrabel told reporters after the game, his face freshly clean from the mud. “This is pro football. Everybody gets paid, everybody has a job to do. We knew we were going to get on a plane few weeks ago, and as long as we kept winning, we were gonna keep getting on that plane.”
Look out, remaining playoff teams, the Titans are flying your way.