Tennessee Titans may not look like a Super Bowl-caliber team, but they are one | Estes
HOUSTON — The T-shirt spoke to Jeffery Simmons. He liked it when he saw it.
“CAN’T BELIEVE YOU DOUBTED ME” was the message in large letters. Unmistakable, really, or as Simmons said, “It's kind of self-explanatory.”
That's not a shirt for a rainy day.
Only in the best of times would you wear that shirt.
Good thing. That's exactly where we find the Tennessee Titans, preparing for a weekend off and watching the AFC's best teams fight to join them.
TITANS REPORT CARD:What grade does defense deserve after unraveling in second half?
Simmons’ shirt encapsulated the attitude of a team that has long known something special about itself that no one else can grasp. It has relished being chronically disrespected and yet – courtesy of Sunday’s 28-25 escape against the gritty Houston Texans at NRG Stadium – is now the AFC’s top seed entering the playoffs.
With home-field advantage, the Titans have the franchise’s best opportunity for a Super Bowl since Kevin Dyson came up a yard short in Super Bowl 34.
To hear them, though, this is just a start. And I’d translate the shirt not as a growl and a middle finger at critics. It was more of a satisfied smile and an index finger – “We’re No. 1” – to pretty much everybody, friend or foe.
I mean, who hasn’t doubted these Titans?
When they lost to the Jets? When they lost to the Texans at home? When they dropped three of four games and gave one away in Pittsburgh?
When they lost running back Derrick Henry to a long-term injury and then wide receivers A.J. Brown and Julio Jones and, at one time or another, pretty much anyone on offense of significance other than quarterback Ryan Tannehill? When they kept struggling to protect Tannehill? When they had to start relying heavily on a defense so shaky in 2020?
Heck, even on Sunday in Houston, where they nearly blew a critical game they led by 21 points at halftime?
“We just kept fighting,” Tannehill said. “This team is full of fighters. Adversity doesn't faze us. … I'm proud of our guys. It starts at the top with Coach (Mike) Vrabel and the way he leads us. We had so many guys step up throughout this year in critical moments and big games. Really, too many guys to number. Some guys aren't even here anymore.”
What the Titans accomplished these past 17 games – with all the injuries and moving pieces on the roster – has been astounding. It defied all conventional wisdom and logic in a brutally competitive league that idealizes parity. The difference in equally matched teams often comes down to a few plays and a few star players. The Titans haven’t had theirs healthy to make those plays for much of this season.
And they’re still 12-5? 6-3 without Henry? The No. 1 seed in the AFC?
It’s like the scene in “Moneyball” where Brad Pitt – as general manager Billy Beane – addresses the Oakland A’s, “You may not look like a winning team, but you are one.”
What do the Titans know that the rest of the league does not?
When much of the NFL looks at this team, they still tend to see fluky overachievement instead of earned achievement, much like that label was applied to the A’s of "Moneyball." That’s a backhanded compliment that gets attached to teams that are greater than the sum of their parts.
Look at this season’s Pro Bowl rosters. The Titans had one player – safety Kevin Byard – voted to the AFC’s team. The Indianapolis Colts had seven.
Yes, the same Colts who lost twice to the Titans, trailed them in the AFC South all season and then failed to make the playoffs. The Chiefs had six selections, and the 49ers had five. They both lost at Nissan Stadium, too. I could keep going.
But the truth is, this really hasn’t been a Super Bowl season by the Titans to this point. It hasn’t felt special in that dominant kind of way. You haven't looked at this team and seen an unstoppable force. You've seen one adept at survival.
That doesn't mean, however, that it isn't a Super Bowl team.
I wouldn't view obstacles the Titans had to overcome as a sign of weakness and a team that'll ultimately have the odds catch up against better competition. Maybe the Titans are the better competition.
All the injuries have made their roster better and deeper. They went 6-3 without Henry, the one player everyone said they couldn’t win without.
What's left to scare them now?
They're getting healthier, and they're getting better.
Hidden in the relief of Sunday’s victory were large strides taken by Tannehill and the passing game, which tends to happen with Brown and Jones are both available and contributing.
The offense is picking up steam, and it’s about to get its engine back in Henry. The defense has improved dramatically, which tends to happen when you can rush the passer and stop the run. (Nod to Simmons, though I'm not sure how much I've doubted him personally. Of the Pro Bowl snubs, his was the most egregious).
Overall, though, I'll admit I've doubted these Titans. I may doubt them still.
But at the same time, I wouldn’t want to face them in the playoffs.
Reach Gentry Estes at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.