Tennessee Titans Simultaneously Stun and Annoy the NFL

I became a Titans fan officially during their 1999-2000 playoff run. I’ve often said since that I bought high. The team has been to one AFC title game since and just completed a nine-year run of non-playoff futility that was not all bad but close.

Last night was my friend Don’s birthday party so for one of his gifts I made pizza. Don’s an interesting character. When I told him that I was going to make him pizza and requested topping requirements, he sent me two lists. Yup, Don wanted two pies. Don gets what Don wants.

The problem with making pizza and watching football is you’re not doing either particularly well. The wife and I attended a local podcasting conference/meeting so I hadn’t put the dough out to warm up/rise a bit which is ideal. I had made the meatballs earlier in the day, noticed that I was kind of low on charcoal, and naturally I didn’t have any more to add to the process.

At the same time I was pizza panicking, the Titans were looking like the team that had received a little more national attention, and not much of it good. I was surprised after weeks of calling the Titans a bad good team that The Ringer’s experts just said they were disappointed because the team had so much offensive potential. Criticism stings the most when it’s correct. I like to be pedantic and point out when experts who don’t often pay attention to the team get things wrong, but these are serious football fans who saw what we all saw this year.

The first half was a nightmare but one that’s familiar. The Titans have been blown out twice this year, by the DeShaun Watson express and by the Steelers on prime time, a performance that set the tone for the Matthew McConaughey “it would be much cooler if you did (not have the Titans in the playoffs)”.

Kansas City scored touchdowns on consecutive possessions and they did what teams have done on the Titans for two months: pretty much ignore the run. Rushing leader Kareem Hunt didn’t get a lot of touches and I was surprised that he didn’t see more targets in the passing game as Gurley and Fournette had a lot of success the past two weeks.

Then Derrick Henry. Trailing 14-0, the ball got punched out and somehow, with no Titans around, the ball went out of bounds. There’s potential play one that would have ended the contest. The Titans extended their streak to five games in a row going three and out to start and the fans nodded sadly. I even took off my Chris Johnson Oilers throwback, frustrated at the effort. Mariota led the team into the red zone twice but got picked by Marcus Peters, cornerback and part-time wrestling bad guy. Corey Davis started running a go then turned in but Peters ignored him and cut in front of Delanie Walker. Walker threw his helmet off in disgust. I was glad I had no helmet.

As the Titans started driving again, I had to improvise with the pizza. I warmed up the oven and put pizza number two in there. Because my grill wouldn’t get above 275, the first pizza seemed undone on top (cheese hadn’t all melted) but the bottom was about 75% burnt. I told my wife that the Titans and my first pizza were garbage.

Garbage still has upside, right?

Titans drove and Derrick Henry forgot that he could put his huge body in front of a blitzing linebacker and Mariota got absolutely creamed for a sack on third down. Cue the field goal. Even though the Chiefs (hate that name and the Chop really needs to go away, being repetitive and pretty much the epitome of the worst of “American culture”) lost last year to a team who didn’t score a TD, the Titans would have to do better. It was 14-3.

One of the reason why we love sports and simultaneously curse the day of its introduction is the bad beat. Two-minute strategy is critical for victory and defeat and Andy Reid usually shows us his worse tendencies here. On first down Alex Smith gets sacked. Time out and a good one. On second down, Travis Kelce gains 14 but takes a rough helmet-to-helmet blow from Jonathan Cyprien that is legal for some reason. Kelce’s injury was the harbinger of doom for KC fans who become the Cleveland Browns in the playoffs.

Another time out is called. After Kelce leaves the field, Kansas City converts. Now the worm has turned, as KC tries to get in field goal range. They go better than that, scoring a TD and the 21-3 halftime score pretty much means we’re done. I finish the second pizza (mushroom, roasted green pepper and pepperoni) and we go to the Haus of Funk.

As unlikely as last year’s Super Bowl rally was, the Patriots have been known to score a lot of points in a small time frame. When they trailed 28-3, there wasn’t panic as much as focus. The team understood that to win they would need almost everything to go right for them and wrong for the opponent. In the moment, fans who live and die by the play keep repeating “this is the play that ends it” and either they are wrong or that play never happens.

In 16 regular season games, the Titans scored three touchdowns five times. Marcus Mariota had four three-TD games in 2016 by himself and yes the QB gets most of the touchdowns. The Titans needed three touchdowns to win, and that’s totally ignoring the concurrent need of zero points given up by the defense. The Titans had shut out exactly zero teams in the second half of 2016 games.

With this understanding of stats and facts, we get back to the fingernail biting reality of professional sports. Heading into the second half, the Titans had driven into KC territory on their last two drives of the first half, so there was a little momentum. Henry looked a lot better than in the Jags game, and that gives a lot of credit to the offensive line. I only remember a couple of times that Henry got hit as soon as he received the ball.

The second half started poorly with a penalty on the kickoff. How much could you have made betting Titans fans that Adoree Jackson would score zero return TDs his rookie year? I don’t know what happened there, but he’s been a good enough CB this year that it hasn’t mattered.

On the first Titans’ TD drive in the playoffs since January of 2009, they had to go 100 yards. Penalties bothered the team all day. The drive was 15 plays and I’ll just go on a limb and say that was the longest Titans’ drive by plays and yards all year. They used 8:29 of the clock which was ok because the clock wasn’t an issue yet and there was time to use the entire playbook. Mariota ran for 11 on third and nine and KC fans got John Elway flashbacks.

In the Rams game, the Titans had first and goal inside the one and things went horribly wrong. In this game the Titans had second and goal inside the one and I had a flashback as Delanie Walker had a false start. Are you kidding me? Is this team going to try to kick seven field goals to tie? On third down Mariota went back, tried to go right and couldn’t, rolled to his left which is never good for a right-hander, saw Corey Davis flash open, threw the ball, and unlikely things happened.

Darrelle Revis, who has been one of the most unusual late-season adds in recent memory, jumped to knock the ball down. He succeeded in part but the ball deflected to his right and Mariota somehow caught the ball in the air, dove into the end zone and did his patented ball off the front pylon move.

I had just arrived at my friend’s house and didn’t see the play live. I’ve seen it now probably 100 times. I didn’t even know that a QB can catch his own pass but only if he’s an eligible receiver aka in the shotgun.

http://www.titansonline.com/video/videos/Cant-Miss-Play-Mariota-to-Mariota-for-TD/6d232592-fefa-4266-bc05-269379e7b9d2

So on that drive Mariota converted two third downs by himself (ok, blocking helped) but yet KC hadn’t seen the ball yet and the score was still 21-10.

I feel for Alex Smith. He had a great game, threw for 223 yards in the first half and was on point. The problem was he barely saw the ball in the second half. Kareem Hunt had a nice nine-yard run on second down but on third down Alex Smith ran a not so fast “speed option” that Son of Jor El Casey (I call Jurrell Casey that) tore up.

Here comes another series of plays that can crush the soul of even the most ardent supporter. The Titans spent a lot of money on special teams guys and one of them ran directly into the kicker. A post-play personal foul somehow erased the penalty, and fandom cheered as the Football Gods smiled upon the Titans for once. The second punt went to Jackson who kind of lunged at the ball and it bounced away into a KC player.

KC was already in field goal range. A touchdown ends the dream. The defense came up big, bottling Hunt on first down, stopping Tyreek Hill, and forcing a short Smith run on third down. In comes Harrison Butker.

As a person who lived in Kansas City in the early 90s, I know about playoff suffering. I remember one Lin Elliot, the kicker who missed three field goals in a Divisional Playoff loss to the Colts. Butker didn’t even sign with the team until Week 4 and set a franchise record for field goals in a year. He missed four. This time, he hit the upright. This was beyond my meager understanding.

One problem the Titans had this year was consistency. In the Ravens and Bengals game the offense had three/four great drives and a lot of three and outs. This was not an option with about 17 minutes to go and down two scores. On third and ten, Mariota his Delanie Walker and that was the end of the quarter.

The Titans had the ball for 11 minutes in the third quarter, yet trailed by 11 still.

I didn’t have to wait long. Henry got stuffed on first down then came through a huge hole as if shot out of a cannon. Henry can play like a scatback at time and he, in Matt Waldman’s parlance, goes to the corner store too often. When he follows the hole and encounters defensive backs who have to make business decisions, this is beautiful football.

The Titans can’t have nice things for long. There were 14 minutes to go so it felt early to go for two but Mike Mularkey’s two-point brain short-circuits in the KC cold. The Titans ran a play that featured three linemen on one side and four to the left with Rishard Matthews behind them. At least it wasn’t Eric Decker. Not only did he fail to score on the screen, there was an illegal shift which I thought meant do the play over but nah.

The defense needed to come through again. Again Hunt had a nice run followed by a meh one and on third down with the ball near midfield Smith threw the ball at Orson Charles, a guy I didn’t know was still in the league, and it was dropped. Seriously, don’t call Smith a choker after this game. KC punts and the Titans have the ball with a chance to take the lead for the first time since the first quarter.

They have to go 80 yards. They need three third-down conversions. While the half was almost all about the two Heisman winners, this was a team drive. Delanie converted the first. Mariota ran for the second, making a nice move to get extra yards. There was the required screen pass to Eric Decker, and I made my poor friends hear about how the Titans signed Decker just so his wife could sing the national anthem and I was barely through the story when Decker caught a post pattern for the go-ahead touchdown.

Again with the two-pointers. This is another point in which the game could have shifted in a bad way. Mariota had a screen pass set up but a safety blitz caught him up. They swirled three times, the ref blew his whistle, the ball came out, one guy jumped on it, the ball squirted free and it was returned for a score. This is the second time a KC defender ran to the end zone. Mariota was clearly down according to the ref, but I had flashbacks to Atlanta going for two against KC last year up one and Eric Berry returning an interception for two points and the game ending like that.

KC got the ball back with six minutes left and sadly I knew that this was the perfect amount of time left for an Andy Reid comeback. Alex Smith had a nice run into Titans territory but a holding call pushed it back. One more first down got the ball in Titans’ territory. Smith missed a short pass on second down and got sacked barely by Derrick Morgan on third down. It was fourth and nine at the 44 with 2:51 to go. The Titans called a timeout with 2:15 to go. I don’t think they had the right personnel in.

Anyway KC goes for it and Smith threw a nice pass downfield to Albert Wilson. This is a legacy making throw. The ball hits him in the hands and if he did catch it, Cyprien was there to deliver what looked like legal hit. The ball fell to the ground.

Well, all we need now is a couple of Henry first downs, easy peazy. Henry goes to the corner store on first down and it works. One first down is down. Even if the Titans fail to convert, KC will use its remaining time outs and then we get two-minute Andy Reid. I ignore the fact that it worked in the first half.

After the two-minute warning, Derrick Henry gets the carry. Delanie blocks down, leaving Marcus Peters wide open to take Henry out with a running start. Both guys go behind the offensive line so we don’t see the ball come out and Derrick Johnson return the ball for a touchdown. I can’t imagine what it’s like at Arrowhead (seriously, change the bleeping name) at this moment. The team’s just had its second defensive score that will win the game, a most improbable win and by the way Sean McDonough’s voice cracks when score is made.

Thank you, replay. Henry’s butt was down for a second before Peters rips the ball out. What will the football gods say? Reversal, and eternal boos for the spotless fans.

Henry gets stuffed twice again and it’s third and ten. Everyone in the stadium knows what’s coming. It doesn’t matter. I got in a Twitter fight earlier in the day with Titans fan and super stats nerd Thomas Gower. He called Henry’s two long game-clinching touchdowns earlier in the year the two most inconsequential long touchdowns in memory. Technically he’s right as a first down in both instances clinches things. For fan purposes, watching a giant running back top 20 miles an hour to the end zone heals nine years of WhisenVinceLockerCJwtfk wounds.

This time Henry falls down after getting past the sticks. It’s victory formation time. I’m mostly silent during this comeback as I realize that the team has done the required 100 things to win and only a couple of dumb two-point plays and a fumble were on the negative side. The Titans have the biggest road comeback in a playoff game for 61 years and win despite a two turnover differential. Mularkey gets to talk about the rumors of his demise at the press conference and it’s deserved. Sure, a coach shouldn’t be judged based on one game but this team made a comeback that tops anything the 1999 team did. Naturally they’ll have to overcome three ten-point plus Vegas lines to win a Super Bowl but what the hell, they’re still in the tournament.

One of Don’s friends said that my garbage pizza was the best pizza she ever had.

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