The Titans really did that. After a Divisional Round that included something for everyone, I keep coming back to the Titans out-rushing the greatest rushing team in NFL history; to Ryan Tannehill converting in three vital short-yardage situations on the ground while Lamar Jackson got stuffed; to Mike Vrabel’s coaching staff neutering the Ravens Revolution by taking them completely out of their game plan.
The Titans keep disrupting preordained plot points. Supposed to be supporting actors in the Cleveland Browns‘ Week 1 coronation, Mike Vrabel’s bunch dropped 43 points in front of Tony Romo and Jim Nantz. They didn’t allow the Chiefs-Patriots playoff rematch to happen, and we’ll have to wait another year for the sport-altering Lamar vs. Mahomes playoff showdown. They spoiled Mahomes’ return from injury back in Week 10, winning with as much bravura and good fortune as when Melvin Gordon’s goal-line fumble turned their season around. Their success has sacked lazy narratives, with Tannehill piloting a Titans team that is exceedingly fun to watch. So before enterprising editors start brainstorming those Andy Reid or Mahomes Super Bowl features, recognize that your predictable storyline is always one Derrick Henry run away from the trash can.
The Titans made their own luck on Saturday night. A Ravens defense built back to front — heavy on defensive backs — couldn’t even use its entire secondary because Tennessee didn’t have enough receivers on the field. The Ravens‘ blitz-heavy approach was rendered toothless, with the Titans requiring only 15 passing attempts to win. More importantly, they forced Jackson into the type of mistakes he didn’t make all year in the third quarter of their 28-12 victory. Jackson had an MVP-level stat line and made a ton of incredible plays, but the Ravens were always chasing their short-yardage mishaps and Jackson’s turnovers. (Two were on him, another was on his drop-prone receivers.) The Ravens running backs wound up with nine carries in 92 plays. Jonnu Smith and Kalif Raymond made the type of plays Hayden Hurst and Miles Boykin did not. Derrick Henry took a clean shot from Ravens outside linebacker Matthew Judon in the hole and bounced off him for 66 yards. It was all so breathtaking and brutal.
In a league where the margins are always so slim — even for one of the great regular-season teams of the last two decades — no single result should ever be that shocking. Yet, it’s hard not to fall for the okeydoke, that we somehow knew this Ravens team would be special in a single-elimination tournament just because they were so special for the three months prior. The Titans really won games in Foxborough and Baltimore with 154 net passing yards combined in the year 2020. I know six other teams played this weekend, and I’m supposed to wrap up the entire slate in one big bow here, but the Titans make it hard to focus on anyone else. They’ve disrupted the NFL’s best-laid plans all season, and they aren’t done yet.
One big thought for each conference championship game
1) Don’t put too much stock in Packers-49ers I
The lack of faith surrounding this Packers team largely stems from two games: Their blowout loss to the 49ers on Sunday Night Football in Week 12 and their near-death experience against David Blough in Week 17. Sunday’s great escape against Russell Wilson and an otherwise overmatched Seahawks squad probably won’t quell that doubt, but the one-sided nature of the 49ers‘ 37-8 win back in November is not that instructive.
The 49ers are clearly the more talented, complete team. They are significant favorites, and they deserve to be, especially after their thorough destruction of the Vikings in the Divisional Round. It’s hard to find a position group on the 49ers that didn’t play well against Minnesota.
With that preamble out of the way, this matchup won’t be that one-sided if Aaron Rodgers plays near the level he showed against the Seahawks. Rodgers didn’t miss a single throw over 10 yards against the Seahawks and was nearly flawless on third down. The Packers‘ offensive line, which figures to get right tackle Bryan Bulaga back from illness, should be able to compete with the 49ers‘ ferocious front far better than Minnesota or Seattle did in recent matchups. Kyle Shanahan has schooled his former boss Mike Pettine in two previous matchups, but the Packers‘ defense turned a corner down the stretch after its embarrassment in Santa Clara, which was the team’s last loss.
The 49ers finished fifth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA in the regular season, solidly ahead of the 10th-ranked Packers. That reflects the actual gap between these two teams better than a blowout in November that was “one of those nights” for both of these teams. We’ve already seen two upsets bigger in these playoffs than the Packers finding a way to win a close game to reach another Super Bowl.
2) Ryan Tannehill will have to throw a lot more on Sunday.
Derrick Henry figures to have plenty of success against a soft Chiefs rush defense, but it’s unlikely that Tannehill will escape another week with fewer than 20 pass attempts. I say that for the same reason that the Texans‘ 24-0 second-quarter lead over Kansas City on Sunday didn’t feel nearly as big as the Titans‘ 14-0 second-quarter lead in Baltimore: Patrick Mahomes. There is no defense for some of the throws Mahomes made, and the Titans‘ lack of a consistent pass rush is likely to show up more this week.
Mahomes played one of his best games of the season in a 35-32 loss in Tennessee that included some major situational-football malfunctions down the stretch by the Chiefs. Tannehill is more than capable of holding his own with big plays, like the 52-yard toss he made to Kalif Raymond against Kansas City. (Sound familiar?)
The larger point here is one of game style. I don’t fault Texans coach Bill O’Brien for his fake-punt call in Kansas City on Sunday, because stopping it required an extraordinary tackle, and O’Brien knew he couldn’t give the ball back to Mahomes often. While the Titans‘ defense is far better than the Texans‘ group, I don’t think Mike Vrabel will be able to rely on his defense like he did in Baltimore.
Vrabel called a timeout late in the first half on Saturday that gave Lamar Jackson more time to score, a show of confidence in the Titans‘ defense that I appreciated, even though it backfired. The Titans also essentially opted to make the Ravens use timeouts in the fourth quarter rather than try to score, all but choosing to give the ball back to Baltimore. It worked like a charm, but playing to the Titans‘ defense doesn’t feel like the move at Arrowhead Stadium. The Titans averaged 33.4 points over the last seven games of the regular season, and that’s the type of number they’ll need to pull off another upset.
What’s next for the vanquished Divisional Round teams?
Venerable guard Marshal Yanda took pictures on the field after the Ravens‘ loss like a man who could be headed into retirement. Cornerback Jimmy Smith, who helped deliver Baltimore a championship seven years ago, may be on his way out after nine productive and injury-plagued years. Still, this offseason is unlikely to be as dramatic for general manager Eric DeCosta as last year’s overhaul.
The Ravens need help in the defensive front seven. Their best pass rusher by far, Matt Judon, is a candidate for a franchise tag. Run-stuffer Michael Pierce is also a free agent, and the team is still looking for a replacement for inside linebacker C.J. Mosley after he bolted for the Jets last offseason. DeCosta will also be mining for free-agent wide receivers to help Jackson, and there’s plenty of cap space to get it done.
The foundation is in place on offense with the league MVP, Pro Bowl-quality tackles and a great young tight end group. The coaching staff ranks with the NFL’s best. The Ravens are too smart an organization to rest on their 14-2 laurels during Jackson’s rookie contract, which runs through 2021 with a fifth-year option for ’22.
2) The Vikings will finally start getting younger.
Continuity and experience can only take this Vikings defense so far. Xavier Rhodes is sure to be released this offseason, while defensive tackle Linval Joseph is another candidate to be cut. Tight end Kyle Rudolph could also be deemed expendable for a roster that has a ton of highly paid veterans and is higher over the 2020 salary cap than any team in football. Stefon Diggs could be a potential trade piece if Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman try to sell high after more drama this season.
Zimmer thinks defense first, and he thinks secondary first when he thinks about his defense. So it’s surely on his radar that Rhodes is leaving, his best defensive back (safety Anthony Harris) is a free agent and other Zimmer draft picks Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander are also without a contract. This could get complicated, which is why any discussion of an extension for Kirk Cousins will likely have to wait until the summer, if it happens all.
3) The Texans need to double down on fixing their defense.
It was obvious that the Texans‘ defense needed help even before giving up touchdowns on seven straight possessions Sunday, but a meltdown of this scope should encourage coach/GM/VP/TEXAN FOR LIFE Bill O’Brien to get aggressive. The Texans were 26th in defensive efficiency this season because of poor team speed, a mediocre pass rush and a talent-poor secondary that O’Brien tried to revive with in-season acquisitions. The talent drain on the less-talented side of the ball could only grow worse, with cornerback Bradley Roby and excellent nose tackle D.J. Reader headed for free agency.
Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel’s future remains uncertain, and the team traded its first-round pick for tackle Laremy Tunsil, which will only complicate matters. Still, it’s not all bad news for O’Brien. The Texans have more cap space than they can use, and they have Whitney Mercilus and J.J. Watt coming back. Deshaun Watson is still on his rookie contract, and the core of the talented offense is in place. Texans fans have every reason to believe Watson will get another chance in the playoffs next year.
4) More important in Seattle: Defensive talent or a philosophical change on offense?
This Seahawks season ended like the last one: with more of Russell Wilson‘s prime wasted. Just like their playoff loss to the Cowboys a year ago, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer only started to allow Wilson to spin his magic once the Seahawks were down by too much. Pete Carroll continues to coach the team he used to have, with a dominant defense and excellent running game, rather than the one he has now. The inflexibility to adapt is becoming a trademark.
Injuries were a big part of the story, but it still looks like Wilson is being forced into an offensive system that hasn’t been particularly successful rather than building a system around Wilson.
The team’s defense, however, was the bigger issue on Sunday and throughout the year. The Packers scored four touchdowns on their first eight drives and successfully ran the clock out on their final possession. Jadeveon Clowney, Jarran Reed, Ziggy Ansah and Quinton Jefferson are all entering free agency for a squad that struggled to rush the passer. Cornerback Tre Flowers‘ struggles in Green Bay were emblematic of the team’s young secondary. General manager John Schneider and Carroll need an infusion of talent, preferably in the draft and preferably now.
UNSTOPPABLE PERFORMANCE: The 49ers defensive line
Kirk Cousins only dropped back to pass 35 times, which makes PFF’s six sacks and 17 recorded pressures for the 49ers‘ defense even more impressive. Nick Bosa led the way with seven pressures, while DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and Dee Ford all dominated their matchups. When the 49ers front cooks like that, it requires an opposing quarterback to make plays out of structure. Perhaps Aaron Rodgers will be up to the task; Cousins was not.
Unstoppable Performance is presented by Courtyard by Marriott, the Official Hotel of the NFL.
Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.