The Tennessee Titans have something of a Rodney Dangerfield complex these days, and really who can blame them?
While NFC powers like the Green Bay Packers, Los Angeles Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers get most of the attention, the Titans (7-2) are quietly putting together a remarkable season.
Even their closest comparison in the no-respect club – the 8-1 Arizona Cardinals – at least is afforded the courtesy of seeing quarterback Kyler Murray’s name prominently bandied about in the MVP discussion.
Tennessee? If the team gets any attention at all, it’s usually as an attempt to cast doubt about its success.
A defense that ranks 19th in total yards allowed is the deficiency most often cited. And, until last week, every victory was attributed almost entirely to all-world running back Derrick Henry.
But the Titans’ 28-16 road win against the Rams on Sunday night should open some eyes. It was Tennessee’s fourth straight victory against a team that made the playoffs in 2020, and the Titans are 7-0 against such opponents this year.
It also came without Henry, who is out indefinitely after undergoing foot surgery.
There was nothing pretty about the win. Tennessee gained just 194 total yards, and no player rushed for more than 29 yards in place of Henry. The game arguably turned on a second-quarter interception returned for a touchdown by Titans safety Kevin Byard – the same player whose overtime pick set up the game-winning field goal a week earlier against the Indianapolis Colts.
The win in Indy all-but locked up the AFC South title for Tennessee, and now the Titans have their sights set on bigger games.
The Baltimore Ravens (6-2) are the primary competition for the top spot currently in a conference nobody seems to want to win. And it’s possible the Lamar Jackson-led Ravens ultimately lock up home field throughout the season.
But Tennessee has proven it should not be counted out.
Much of that is because of head coach Mike Vrabel, perhaps the most under rated man at his position in the league. The 46-year-old played for head coaches Bill Cowher and Bill Belichick during his 14-year NFL career, and his teams have followed their no-nonsense approach.
Since taking the Titans’ job in 2018, Vrabel is 36-21 in the regular season and on his way to making the playoffs for the third straight year. The only time Tennessee has missed the postseason under Vrabel came in his first year, when Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts won what amounted to a play-in game in Week 17.
This season, Vrabel’s making a strong case as a coach of the year candidate – especially if he can keep Tennessee winning without Henry.
There is reason to believe.
A.J. Brown is one of the league’s most explosive wide receivers with 40 catches for 551 yards and three touchdowns in eight games this season, and the Titans expect more from injured veteran Julio Jones down the stretch. In six games, he has 21 receptions for 336 yards but is still looking for his first scoring pass with Tennessee.
There’s also Byard, whose five interceptions and 11 pass breakups should put him in the defensive player of the year conversation.
All of which should alleviate some pressure on quarterback Ryan Tannehill. It’s been an up-and-down season for the 33-year-old who has completed 66.1% of his passes for 2,145 yards with 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions. If he can limit the turnovers and make big plays with Brown and Jones when the opportunity affords itself, there could be no limit on how high Tennessee can climb.
Especially if Henry is able to return on fresh legs for the playoffs.
Either way, the Titans have proven they deserve to be taken seriously. And the rest of the league has been served notice.