The NFL Playoffs are very unforgiving.
Last year, the Tennessee Titans in a way played with house money – getting in as the lowest seed on the season's last game, and then parlaying that to upset victories at New England and Baltimore before falling to eventual champion Kansas City.
Heady stuff for a 9-7 team that rode a hot running back in Derrick Henry and a hot quarterback in Ryan Tannehill to within a step of reaching the Super Bowl. With those wins, the Titans ended Tom Brady's 20-year run with the Patriots, and showed the formula for beating Lamar Jackson and the Ravens.
On Sunday, it was the Titans' turn to be humbled, courtesy of Jackson and the Ravens, who gained a measure of revenge for last year, unleashing their game-changing star for 136 yards rushing and 179 more passing in a 20-13 victory.
It wasn't that the Titans defense played completely bad. Their 20 points allowed was their fifth-lowest of the season in 17 games. And though Jackson burned them on the ground – 81 of his rushing yards, including the touchdown, came on just two carries. And Tennessee's much-maligned pass rush came up with five sacks on the day.
You would think with that type of effort, the Titans' would have been in good position – until you consider that the offense had its lowest output of the entire season.
Call it good defense by the Ravens – and certainly it was in holding Derrick Henry to 40 yards on 18 carries. Or call it not enough creativity and play-making on the part of the Titans, who managed only 209 net yards of offense and had the football for only 26:22.
Early on, it appeared as if the Titans had things going their way – even if the Ravens were committed to stopping Henry. Ryan Tannehill and A.J. Brown connected and the Titans built a quick 10-0 lead.
But somewhere along the way, whether it was adjustments from the Ravens, questionable play-calling by Arthur Smith, who seemed at times bent on forcing Henry between the tackles, or just lack of execution, things quickly disintegrated for the best offense in Titans history, crumbling at the most inopportune time.
When it was over, it left Titans players and coaches wondering exactly what had happened – and for fans, it dredged up the bad old days of 2000 and 2008 when the Ravens both time walked into Nashville and walked out of town with a convincing playoff win.
“We lost. We didn’t get it done. We didn’t get it done when it mattered,” said Brown, one of the few Titans to have a good game with 83 yards and a TD on six catches.
Henry, who had 2,027 yards rushing in the regular season and had burned the Ravens for 195 yard last year's playoff upset in Baltimore, was a marked man by the Baltimore defense all game long.
“This definitely is going to sting. Probably be in my mind for the rest of this year until we suit back up,” Henry said. “We accomplished a lot as a team this year during these difficult times, and you know, I'll never forget all the things we accomplished. Just came up short. Got to get back to work. I know that's what I'm going to do and just relish on the good things that we did as a team and look to improve as far as me as a player, how can I be better.”
Henry said that the Titans being one-and-done in the playoffs despite a division title and their first double-digit win season is a humbling experience, but one that should also be motivating for next year.
“There's just the thing about this game, this game will humble you, show you that you need to keep working and that's what I need to do. Stay hungry, keep working and I'll do better,” he said.
For all that went well for the Titans in a strange year like 2020, it didn't take long to undo on Sunday.
“We've got to keep building. Obviously did some good things this year but didn't win this game today,” Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill said.” At the end of the day, we're here to try to win a championship and put ourselves in position to win a championship. We did that by winning the division and then didn't come out and execute today. Every year is a new year. We'll have to start over and build through this offseason and get ready to go for next year. … We didn't end up where we wanted to be and that is competing for a Super Bowl and winning a Super Bowl. Didn't achieve all of our goals.”