BALTIMORE — Mike Vrabel’s message to his team was clear in the week leading up to Sunday’s pivotal meeting between the Tennessee Titans and hosting Baltimore Ravens.
Crunch time is approaching, and there’s a logjam of teams jockeying for position in the AFC playoff race.
“We talked about it all week," Vrabel said. "It's packed in there, and we're going to have to start doing some things to pull away from the pack.”
The Titans took their coach’s message to heart and did just that twice while rallying to beat the Ravens 30-24 in overtime. Tennessee improved to 7-3 and strengthened its playoff profile a week after a disappointing loss to the division-rival Indianapolis Colts.
But back to pulling away.
First, it was wide receiver A.J. Brown. With his team trailing by 5 and with 2:18 left, Brown caught a Ryan Tannehill pass around the 7-yard line, slipped one defender, broke the tackle of a second and then dragged a third into the end zone for the Titans’ first lead since the second quarter.
A.J. Brown’s touchdown might be one of the best plays of the NFL season. pic.twitter.com/KePVXmrCCY
Then, with the game in overtime and the Titans needing only a field goal to win thanks to a strong defensive stand that held the Ravens to a three-and-out, running back Derrick Henry took the handoff and slipped through through a hole at the 29-yard line, broke a tackle, made a cut and raced untouched the rest of the way for the game-winning touchdown.
“That was a great analogy,” Vrabel said of how the game-defining plays epitomized the intentions that the Titans carried throughout their week of preparation.
Tennessee Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown (11) scores second half touchdown during an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020, in Baltimore. (Photo: Terrance Williams, AP)
Sunday’s game had the feel of a playoff contest to it for a variety of reasons. On this same field last January, the Titans ended the Ravens’ dream 14-2 season with a 28-12 divisional-round playoff victory. And as the teams faced again, both were coming off of losses to teams they should have beaten, and each needed a victory to avoid falling behind both in their respective division.
Tennessee proved its worth while Baltimore was found lacking.
The Titans displayed the resilience and grit it takes to not only reach the playoffs, but to win postseason games. The Ravens, however, displayed continued signs of weakness and now finds themselves in a precarious position that could only worsen should they lose to the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers on Thanksgiving.
On Sunday, both teams had much riding on the outcome. Both were dealing with injuries that tested their depth and ability to adapt. And neither consistently executed in impressive or efficient fashion.
Tennessee opened the game by forcing a Baltimore three-and-out and then marched downfield to score a touchdown, but the Titans settled for field goals in the next three trips inside the red zone. The Ravens meanwhile, started slow and found some life in the second and third quarters, but couldn’t sustain their success in the fourth quarter.
The difference was how both teams responded when they weren't in top form.
The Titans kept plugging away — or pounding away. Henry, who managed just 37 yards on 13 carries in the first half, only got stronger as the game progressed and finished with 28 carries for 133 yards and the game-winning touchdown.
Derrick Henry. BALLGAME. pic.twitter.com/6GXnC3A9ra
As the game hit the fourth quarter, you could sense confidence swelling on the Titans sideline while it began to fade among their opponent.
The second- and third-effort plays accumulated for Tennessee. And the Ravens’ defenders began to wilt.
“You could just tell, their body language on the sideline and also on the field,” Vrabel said of Baltimore. “I felt like we were going to be able to break through.”
Pretty damning statement, but Vrabel wasn’t wrong. The Ravens have a tendency of losing poise and grit as adversity strikes. And the Titans coach didn’t stand alone in his assessment.
Said Baltimore’s own Lamar Jackson, “That team … It looked like that team wanted it more than us. They were playing physical. When we went up, I felt like we just took our foot off the gas.”
The disparity in determination was never more evident than on Brown’s touchdown as the 6-1, 226 pounder powered his way through three defenders, the last being linebacker Patrick Queen, who outweighs him by eight pounds.
And although Baltimore’s offense displayed resolve by marching downfield and into scoring position in the final two minutes of play before having to settle for a field goal, it was clear in overtime that the Titans would not be denied.
“We got down but that belief never stopped,” Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. “We kind of felt the tide turning there in the fourth quarter on offense. We felt ourselves gaining momentum, just eating up yards up front and making plays on the outside. The defense kept us in there at the end, and we held them to a field goal at the end of regulation and then, getting a big stop in overtime. There’s a lot of confidence throughout our team that we’ve been on a touch stretch there but when we get in a tough situation, we’re going to keep fighting and find a way to win.”
As November enters its final week, the Titans appear to have weathered a trying stretch of their season that saw them lose three of the last five games. They are confident they have rounded back into playoff form as they regain position among the conference's top teams.
Meanwhile, the Ravens have now suffered back-to-back losses for the first time since Weeks 3 and 4 of last season. And what’s worse, they have now lost to presumed playoff teams in the Titans, Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs, with their defeats to the first two coming after Baltimore held fourth-quarter leads.
The meeting between Tennessee and Baltimore featured a pair of 2019 playoff teams that found themselves in similar positions of desperation.
Now these teams, however, are now trending in the opposite direction.
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