BALTIMORE _ Nary a single Titans player or coach was with the organization when Tennessee lost twice to the Baltimore Ravens as a No. 1 seed both in 2000 and 2008.
But when the Titans traveled here Saturday night and KO’ed the AFC’s top seed with an impressive 28-12 divisional playoff victory, it exorcised many demons for the organization and the Tennessee fan base. The Ravens entered the game 14-2 with 12 straight victories.
The Titans did it with a game plan that slowed down the high-powered Baltimore offense in the red zone, as Tennessee was content to let MVP frontrunner Lamar Jackson move the ball between the 20s and then stiffen in the red zone. Jackson ran for 143 yards and threw for 365 more, but accounted for just 12 points as the Titans held the Ravens 21 points below their season average.
It also didn’t hurt that the Titans defense essentially forced five turnovers in the game – collecting two interceptions and a fumble, but also stopping the Ravens twice on fourth-and-1 situations.
It was the type of effort by the Titans that the Ravens of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed would have been proud of. Statistically, the Ravens outgained the Titans 530 yards to 300, but lost by 16 points, thanks to taking advantage of opportunities.
“Not to say that anybody looked past this, but the way we were on a roll, no one thought it would be over this quick,” Ravens defensive lineman Michael Pierce said.
Added running back Mark Ingram, “They whipped our (expletive) today, so we’re going home. You know what I mean?”
While the top-seeded Ravens head home, the sixth-seeded Titans will head the AFC Championship Game for the first time since 2002 with a chance to reach the Super Bowl for only the second time in franchise history. The Titans will travel to the winner of Sunday’s Houston-Kansas City game.
Running back Derrick Henry was again the Titans offensive engine, grinding the Ravens for 195 yards on 30 carries and even throwing a touchdown pass to Corey Davis out of the wildcat formation in the third quarter. Henry also became the first player in NFL history to have three straight games of at least 180 yards rushing. But for the Titans star, he said it was about the team effort and the way the team has played with confidence in two straight road playoff wins.
“(It’s about) believing in each other, no matter what’s thrown at us. No matter what happens, just keep believing and keep pushing,” Henry said.
The Titans played opportunistic football in building a 14-0 lead in the first half. Safety Kevin Byard intercepted a tipped pass and returned it to midfield and the Titans got 15 more yards when Jackson grabbed Byard’s facemask in driving him out of bounds on the tackle.
From there, the Titans drove down to the red zone, but faced third and goal at the 12 as Tannehill was sacked. On that third-down play, Tannehill lofted a fade route pass toward Jonnu Smith, who made a sensational one-hand grab to put the Titans in front.
“Ryan put it up and gave me a chance to make a play, and I made it,” Smith said. “Coming in here, you’ve got to take the noise out of the crowd. They’ve got an amazing stadium. This place is loud and being able to put that dent into them early was big.”
The Tennessee defense then stuffed Jackson on a fourth-and-1 at his own 45-yard line on the first play of the second quarter. Tannehill, who passed for just 79 yards but had two TD throws, wasted no time with the good field position. He lofted a 45-yard bomb that a diving Kalif Raymond cradled in the end zone to put the Titans up 14-0 and stun the faithful at M&T Bank Stadium.
“ It was just taking a shot downfield. We wanted to make an explosive play in the game, and we made it,” said Raymond of his only catch and target of the night.
While the Titans offense took advantage of the big plays the defense made, the Titans defense continued to hold Jackson in check when it counted most, forcing him to settle for two field goals in the second quarter as Tennessee led 14-6 at the half.
The Titans continued to find big plays when they needed them in the second half. The Titans stuffed Jackson on another fourth-and-1 play, this one at the 18-yard line. Henry then bolted through the Ravens line for 66 yards to set up first-and-goal at the 4. From there, on third and goal, the Titans resorted to trickery. Henry lined up in the wildcat formation, took the shotgun snap and lofted a jump pass that Corey Davis caught for a touchdown and a 21-6 Titans edge.
“I had to try to get it over the defense to give Corey a chance, but it was perfect, man,” Henry said. “I haven’t done that pass since high school.”
The Titans defense again flustered Jackson, as Jurrell Casey got a strip sack and rookie Jeffery Simmons recovered the ball at the Baltimore 20. The Titans again cashed it in, as Tannehill got in from a yard out on an option play to push the lead to 28-12.
From that point on the Titans had the Ravens right where they wanted them. They no longer had to worry about the run-pass option portion of the Baltimore playbook. They only had to worry about defending the pass and containing Jackson’s scrambling ability.
“We knew we weren’t going to completely eliminate a dynamic player, but it certainly helped,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said.
Jackson was able to muster one touchdown drive, but the Titans got a late interception from Kenny Vaccaro and two more fourth-down stops to seal the win and punch their ticket to the AFC title game with the Super Bowl within sight.
For Vrabel, it was just another step toward their goal – even if it did come much to the delight of long-time Titans fans everywhere.
“We knew we were going to get on a place a couple of weeks ago, and as long as we kept winning, we are going to keep getting on that plane,” Vrabel said. “The same thing this week. We’re going to continue to improve and not let complacency set in and not be excited about winning whatever this was. I know we’re playing in the AFC Championship Game, but we have to continue to improve. You heard me say the teams that do, they keep playing. And the ones that don’t, they make off-season plans.”
Travel for TitanInsider.com provided by A Moment’s Peace Salon and Day Spa.