HOUSTON, Texas — It wouldn’t be the final week of the season if it didn’t come down to a dramatic finish between the Titans and Texans. And Sunday deep in the heart of Texas, the Titans grabbed the AFC’s No. 1 seed then nearly threw it away, before hanging on in a 28-25 thriller in the NFL’s first-ever week 18.
The victory means the Titans will now be idle for the first week of the playoffs and will stand just two home wins away from Super Bowl LVI in Los Angeles (or Dallas if the NFL ends up moving the game) when they take the field next, either Jan. 22 or 23 at Nissan Stadium.
Tennessee played one of its best quarters of the season to seemingly take control before halftime Sunday. They outscored the Texans 21-0 in the second quarter with Ryan Tannehill leading drives of 94 and 85 yards, capped by touchdown passes to Anthony Firkser and A.J. Brown. He then tossed a third touchdown to Nick Westbrook-Ikhine just before halftime to seemingly put the game away at 21-0 after a pass interference on Houston set them up at the four-yard line.
But that cushion may have started the celebration a little too soon. The Titans appeared to lose their edge after halftime. The offense went three and out on three consecutive possessions and the defense, which has a lot to be proud of this season, looked lost as rookie QB Davis Mills got hot and Danny Amendola (yes, that Danny Amendola) became as unguardable as he ever was during his Patriots glory days, running by defensive backs for seven catches for 113 yards and two touchdowns.
Amendola’s first touchdown was followed by a two-point conversion catch and the Titans found themselves very much in a fourth quarter ballgame, having surrendered 18 unanswered points.
That’s when Tannehill put them on his back. Facing third and six, Tannehill looked like he would be sacked as Jacob Martin burst through the line and into his face, but the veteran quarterback was able to spin free of Martin’s grasp, scramble out of the pocket and find a wide-open Westbrook-Ikhine down the sideline for 36 yards.
“I saw Nick doing his little Billy “White Shoes” Johnson over there,” Tannehill said of the play. Left tackle Taylor Lewan said Tannehill saved his ass on the play, and the Titans as a whole.
Lewan was right because three plays later Tannehill threw a 24-yard strike to Anthony Firkser down the middle of the field on third and sixth. Two plays after that he stood in and took a shot, but hit Julio Jones for the touchdown that proved to be the difference.
It was Jones’ first TD grab as a Titan and capped a five-catch, 58-yard day that added a wrinkle to the Titans’ passing game we haven’t seen much of this season. Jones’ ailing hamstring hasn’t allowed him to look much like the Hall of Fame receiver that he is all year, but Sunday he looked healthy enough to be a major part of the offense moving forward.
With Jones and A.J. Brown (4 catches for 68 yards) demanding the attention of defensive backs, the Titans were able to spread the ball around to Westbrook-Ikhine, Firkser and others. It was the first time all season they had four different pass catchers have 50 yards receiving or more. And that’s before the presumptive return of Derrick Henry for the playoffs.
But most importantly Sunday was the fact that Tannehill was able to lead them to victory. The 33-year-old quarterback has not been as efficient this season as the past two, throwing 14 touchdowns and 14 interceptions through the first 14 games. But over the last three, he’s been one of the Titans’ best players, throwing for seven touchdowns and no picks while guiding them to wins over the surging 49ers and Dolphins, and preventing what would’ve been a monumental second half collapse against the Texans.
Other teams weren’t as lucky. The Colts lost their final two games, including an embarrassing 26-11 defeat in Jacksonville against the clown show Jaguars, with Carson Wentz looking awful. And the Ravens had a promising season derailed by injuries that left them with Tyler Huntley at QB instead of Lamar Jackson.
But there the Titans were holding off a meltdown and clinching the AFC’s top seed with Tannehill playing his best football at the most important time. Now the entire world will watch to see if he can do it in the postseason, which may be the one remaining question about his tenure with the Titans which now boasts a 31-13 record since taking over in week seven two years ago.
And Tannehill and the Titans will have the luxury of trying to reach a Super Bowl by playing at home at a jam-packed Nissan Stadium that might reach new decibel levels when Henry’s introduced for the first time in 10 games two weekends from now.
For all intents and purposes, Sunday was basically a playoff win, advancing the Titans into the Divisional Round with one of the two byes in the 14-team field now in its second year. And now they stand two wins away from getting back to football’s biggest stage.
You don’t have to pinch yourself. The road to Super Bowl LVI really does go through Tennessee.