It was ugly at times, but effective enough as the Tennessee Titans punched their first ticket to the postseason since 2008 with a 15-10 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday at Nissan Stadium.
The Titans defense and special teams got four takeaways to help overcome an offense that was sluggish and mostly unproductive on Sunday. Despite those struggles that included a fumbled exchange returned by the Jaguars for a fourth-quarter TD, the Titans hung in and sewed up a playoff bid when safety Kevin Byard picked off his second interception of the game with 10 seconds to play.
The Titans are the fifth seed in the AFC and will now face the Kansas City Chiefs next week in the AFC Wild-Card Playoffs on Saturday at 3:35 p.m., thanks to the Ravens losing to Cincinnati on Sunday.
For many Titans players who had persevered here or with other organizations, the wait was finally over.
“Personally I’ve never been to the playoffs,” said linebacker Brian Orakpo, who signed with the Titans after leaving the Washington Redskins in 2015. “Nine years. I thought I’d never have the chance. We had our ups and then we had a three-game skid but we were still in control of our own destiny.
“We refused to go home. I didn’t want to be on a Southwest flight back to Texas tomorrow wondering, ‘what if.’”
It was the Titans defense had had the upper hand, getting three takeaways, plus a special teams turnover where the Jaguars muffed a punt.
“We were unwavering. It was one on those things where we put it on our back,” said linebacker Derrick Morgan, a first-round pick in 2010 who will be making his first playoff appearance. “We weren’t really worried about what else was going on. We had to control what we could control. It’s been a long time coming. We’ve had a lot of 2-14, 3-13, 6-10 seasons, and to have a meaningful game in week 17 and actually get in, it feels great.”
The Titans had some pitfalls along the way Sunday, before finally breaking through with a 66-yard screen pass from Marcus Mariota to Derrick Henry for the game’s first score early in the second quarter. But even that had a downside as the Jaguars’ Telvin Smith blocked the extra point to keep the score 6-0.
After giving up a field goal, the Titans got back-to-back turnovers in the second quarter – first a muffed punt that Phillip Supernaw recovered deep in Jaguars’ territory, and then a forced fumble by Adoree’ Jackson at Jayon Brown fell on at the 29. Both times, however, the Titans only came away with a field goal and led 12-3 at the half.
The Titans would add another field goal in the third period to go up 15-3 before disaster struck when Mariota and Henry mishandled the handoff exchange as the Titans were getting in range to at least add three more points. Jacksonville’s Yannick Ngakoue picked up the football and rambled 67 yards to pull the Jaguars to within 15-10 with 10:48 to play.
For the remainder of the game, the Titans mostly relied on their defense and a key rushing first down by Mariota, who stiff-armed a Jaguars defender to claim the win and head to the postseason.
Byard’s pick on a desperation heave from Blake Bortles, his second interception of the day, sealed the deal for Tennessee.
For Coach Mike Mularkey, the win was special as well, taking over a team that had bottomed out while he was an assistant coach, and with his own job security being questioned as the Titans approached the season finale with a three-game losing streak.
“It’s more gratifying because I was here for two of the years that we weren’t so good,” Mularkey said. “To watch a team take a franchise and believe in somehting, and watch it turn around and become competitive every Sunday, where they have a chance to win every single Sunday, is gratifying.”