Six games into the season, the Tennessee Titans were a forgotten squad, withering with inconsistency and uninspired play. The season appeared lost.
Smash cut to today, the Titans conducted Championship Wednesday pressers after finishing the season 7-3 and upsetting the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens to be the first No. 6 seed since 2010 to reach a conference title game where they’ll face the Kansas City Chiefs.
"We can’t change what we’ve done to get us in this position, to have this opportunity," coach Mike Vrabel said. "On October 15, we were 2-4. I was a bad coach, and this was a bad team. We tried to believe in each other, we tried to improve, tried to prepare, trust each other, execute and that’s what’s gotten us here."
The Titans’ season turned with Vrabel’s decision to bench quarterback Marcus Mariota and insert Ryan Tannehill into the lineup. Since Week 7, Tennessee’s offense has steadied the ship, with Derrick Henry pummeling opponents into submission, and Tannehill divebombing opponents with big plays. The Titans averaged 160.6 rush YPG and 245.6 pass YPG (406.2 total YPG) in Weeks 7-17.
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Tannehill said Wednesday that it took some time to move into a leadership role after being mostly "a fly on the wall" during training camp and the start of the season.
"It’s a little bit of a slow process," Tannehill said. "You don’t want to come in guns blazing and shake the boat too much. It’s just a matter of being myself, leading in my own way, encouraging guys, trying to press this offense, press each and every person, build relationships and try to get the most out of every guy."
After he did blaze guns, the Titans took off.
Tannehill said that going from an afterthought to January Cinderella instilled conviction that Tennessee can weather any storm that might come in Kansas City during Sunday’s AFC Championship Game.
"There’s a belief in one another, first and foremost, that we’ve been through a lot this season," he said. "Ups and downs and won games in a lot of different ways. Different guys have stepped up throughout the season and made those plays for us to win. And with that comes a lot of belief, and all that confidence in one another that it doesn’t really matter not matter play call that we’ll find a way to make it work."
Henry has been the key to the Titans’ turnaround, churning out yards like a bulldozer moves land. Henry generated 1,273 rush yards over his last eight games (including playoffs), second-most rush yards in an 8-game span (including playoffs) since at least 1950 (Adrian Peterson, 2012, 1,322).
The running back carried the offense through the first two playoff games, averaging a whopping 188.5 rushing yards per game.
What happens if the Chiefs are able to stymie Henry early, or the Titans get down to an explosive Patrick Mahomes squad? Will Tannehill and the passing offense, which has averaged 77 yards per game in the playoffs, be able to get in gear?
"No doubt," Tannehill said. "We’ve put in a lot of work do get to this point in the season. We’ve done it multiple ways throughout the season. You don’t forget how to throw and catch in two weeks. It’s something we still have a lot of confidence in. And I know our guys outside have a lot of confidence in themselves. And I have a lot of confidence in them being able to get open and give them the football."
Facing a dynamic Chiefs offense that scored touchdowns on seven straight possessions in the Divisional Round is a different beast that the Titans have fought in recent weeks. Mahomes exploded for 446 passing yards in Tennessee’s Week 10 win over K.C. It took a brilliant Tannehill drive at the end, and several key defensive stops, to pull out the 35-32 home win. The Titans once again may need Tannehill to deliver against the Chiefs, this time with the Super Bowl on the line.
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