Hungry Titans emerge as surprise package of NFL playoffs
By Jahmal Corner
Jan 12 (Reuters) - The Tennessee Titans have emerged as the surprise team of the National Football League (NFL) playoffs, running over opponents and surpassing expectations.
The upstart Titans have posted victories over Super Bowl champion New England Patriots and top seed Baltimore Ravens to qualify for the AFC championship game.
"The Titans right now are just a dangerous, focused and hungry team,” guard Rodger Saffold told the Tennessean newspaper following a 28-12 rout of the Ravens on Saturday. “That's all I can say about it.”
The Titans can credit a lot of their success to Derrick Henry, who has been one of the top runners in the league.
Henry, a 6-foot-3 and 247-pound running back, exploded this season by leading the league in rushing. He punished teams in the post-season with a combined 377 yards in the two wins.
Behind their locomotive, the Titans have been able to control games and limit throws from quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who has needed only 160 combined passing yards on 29 attempts.
Tannehill has also played a major part in the team’s resurgence. He replaced a struggling Marcus Mariota as the starter in Week Seven to lift the Titans to a 7-3 finish and a playoff berth with a win in the season finale.
A free agent in 2020, Tannehill may be playing himself into a future with the Titans offense which also features game-breaking rookie receiver A.J. Brown.
Titans second-year coach Mike Vrabel is enjoying his own emergence. He earned a symbolic wild card round win against his former coach Bill Belichick for whom he played in New England en route to three Super Bowl wins as a player.
Vrabel showcased his tactical ability with a defensive game plan that squeezed Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson, a strong candidate for the league's most valuable player honors, in the Ravens’ lowest scoring output of the season.
“When (Lamar) had space, he took off. But when he did, we made him run laterally," Titans defensive back Kevin Byard said. "That was the key to the game.
"He's an elite athlete and we couldn't let him beat us down the middle, but force him sideways and I think we did a good job of that."
The inspired Titans’ defense has three interceptions, four sacks and two fumble recoveries in the playoffs.
"When you have turnovers, that's what rotates the game," Tennessee safety Kenny Vaccaro said. "No matter what's going, turnovers change the game.”
One more win and the Titans would have their first Super Bowl appearance in 20 years. They have never won the title game. ( Writing by Jahmal Corner in Los Angeles)