Despite Sunday’s 38-28 loss to the New Orleans Saints, the Tennessee Titans hold their fate in their own hands for week 17.
Thanks to the New York Jets upsetting the Pittsburgh Steelers, the 8-7 Titans now hold the No. 6 seed in the AFC playoffs and need only to find a way to win Sunday in Houston to secure a playoff bid for the second time in the past three seasons.
The Titans, knowing that once the Texans won the AFC South title on Saturday with a win at Tampa Bay, elected to rest running back Derrick Henry’s sore hamstring and take their chances in matching points with Drew Brees and the Saints offense.
“That was an organizational decision that we thought was best for the football teamWe try to make every decision with the team’s best interests in mind,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said of sitting Henry out.
In Henry’s absence, the Titans resorted to some of their other playmakers to take a quick 14-0 lead Sunday. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who finished the day 17 of 27 for 272 yards and three touchdowns, hit Jonnu Smith with a 41-yard catch and run to get the Titans on the board.
On the next Tennessee offensive series, the Titans turned to some trickery, giving the ball to receiver A.J. Brown on a reverse, and the rookie rambled 49 yards for a score.
Even though the Saints started sluggishly, that wouldn’t last for long. New Orleans managed to get a 47-yard Wil Lutz field goal and then a 61-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees to former Titans tight end Jared Cook.
The Saints didn’t waste time in the second half in taking control of the game. Alvin Kamara broke free on a 40-yard TD run to start the third quarter, and the Saints scored again on their next series with Kamara getting to the end zone from a yard out this time to go up 24-14.
Tennessee battled to stay in the game as Tannehill directed a touchdown drive on the ensuing series. Tannehill found Tajae Sharpe for a 36-yard catch and run to the end zone.
But the Saints answered as Cook scored his second TD of the game, this time from 16 yards out.
Tannehill and Sharpe capped another Titans drive in the fourth quarter with a 7-yard touchdown pass to cut the Saints lead to 31-28.
Tennessee received a golden opportunity as the Saints tried a fake punt at the Titans’ 38. Taysom Hill’s pass was dropped by Justin Hardee, giving the Titans the ball with 4:26 to play.
Tannehill hit receiver Kalif Raymond for 23 yards to the Saints’ 39, but a jarring hit by C.J. Gardner-Johnson that knocked Raymond out and caused a fumble that Gardner-Johnson returned to the Titans 25. That set up a TD drive that Brees capped with a 2-yard pass to Michael Thomas with 2:16 left that sealed the game. Thomas had set a new NFL record for single season receptions (with 144) on his previous catch, which set up the touchdown.
The Titans felt that the hit to Raymond should have been a penalty for a hit to a defenseless receiver.
“What did it look like to you? The replay is out there,” cornerback Logan Ryan said. “He got knocked unconscious, so he definitely got hit in the head. The game has got to clean that up. They’ve got to review that. That was a pretty vicious hit.”
As it is, the Titans fall to 8-7, and are in a familiar position – needing to win to get into the postseason.
“That’s all you can ask for. Playoff ball starts for the Tennessee Titans next week,” defensive lineman Jurrell Casey said. “So either we’re going to continue to roll this thing out to the Super Bowl or we’re going home. I guess we’re in the playoffs already so to speak.”