Opinion: Tennessee Titans' playoff loss to Cincinnati Bengals will sting for a long, long time

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean

Tennessee Titans safety Kevin Byard was asked last week if he’d view this season as a disappointment if it didn’t end with a Super Bowl ring.

Yes, he answered.

“We've accomplished some good things,” Byard said. “But when the playoffs start, none of that stuff means anything.”

He was right. It didn’t.

For Saturday’s AFC divisional playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals at frenzied Nissan Stadium, the Titans were as rested and healthy as they’ve been all season. They had Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown and Julio Jones together again. They had an aggressive, nasty defense at full force. They had home-field advantage, a perfect setup and finally zero excuses or hurdles.

MORE:Bengals upset top-seeded Titans with last-second field goal, advance to AFC championship game

Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) passes the ball during the second quarter of an AFC divisional playoff game at Nissan Stadium Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022 in Nashville, Tenn.

None of it mattered in the end.

Bengals 19, Titans 16.

It’s gonna take a long time – if ever – to get over this one.

Had the Titans played their best and fallen short, it’d be easier to rationalize the memory. But instead, they have to live with not playing their best.

They’ll remember three interceptions, all the missed opportunities and too many points left on the field, being less physical in key moments, Henry being stopped on a 2-point conversion early and fourth-and-short late.

And they’ll remember Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow winning a game he never trailed – and Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill losing one that he never led.

Tannehill was intercepted on the game’s first play. Then while trailing 16-6, he was intercepted on a tipped pass to end a drive inside the Bengals 10-yard line. It felt like one mistake too many.

Yet even after his earlier mistakes, Tannehill had a chance Saturday to answer them in the affirmative. The Titans had the football with two minutes remaining and a tie score. On third down, he was picked off again on an unwise throw over the middle, giving the football back to Burrow with 20 seconds remaining. That was trouble for the Titans.

Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons (98) sacks Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) during the first quarter of an AFC divisional playoff game at Nissan Stadium Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022 in Nashville, Tenn.

Without much of a run game or any illusion of safety from his offensive linemen, the Bengals’ quarterback was tough as nails all day. Continually hit and seemingly never rattled, Burrow was relentlessly accurate. He threw for 348 yards. He just kept performing. He kept the Bengals' offense moving against a defensive front that sacked him a playoff record NINE times.

In doing so, Burrow won this game by outplaying his colleague on the other sideline.

Much as I’d rather not view the NFL like the NBA as a league where only a handful of players determine the best of the best teams, it has become impossible to ignore how the playoffs keep becoming an exclusive club of quarterbacking talent.

For three seasons, the Titans have been fortunate to have a good, solid quarterback in Tannehill. He’s been better than average, much better than his predecessor, Marcus Mariota, and much, much better than the price the Titans paid the Miami Dolphins for him.

If an NFL quarterback gets it done long enough and well enough in the regular season, this game is going to eventually find out of he belongs in the elite or not.

Those questions get asked in the postseason. That’s ultimately what counts, and that’s what Tannehill still had to prove after playoff losses the past two seasons.

After Saturday, he still does.

In a close game between two good teams, the quarterbacks were the difference from beginning to end. That'll be the toughest memory and the one most difficult to swallow as the Titans mourn the end of a promising season wondering how they can take the next step.