It’s easy to get carried away after a win like the one we saw at Nissan Stadium on Sunday. The Tennessee Titans took Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots behind the woodshed and gave them a good old fashioned ***-whipping the likes of which that franchise has rarely experienced. There are lots of fun stats coming out of this game that show just how rare this type of performance has been against this opponent.
Football Outsiders’ Scott Kacsmar noted that the Patriots crossed the Tennessee 34-yard line just once during their 12 offensive drive, including a stretch of 9 straight drives to end the game. The Pats have only had 6 games in the last 18 years where they’ve failed to cross the opponent’s 34-yard line more than once.
The 10 points the Titans defense allowed Sunday tied for the 11th lowest total of the Brady-Belichick Era (2001-2018). The 24-point margin of victory is tied for the 4th largest blowout of the Pats during this timeframe.
Patriots reporter Jeff Howe pointed out that this was New England’s most lopsided loss in the months of November or December — the time of year when the Patriots are annually hitting their stride — since 2000 (Belichick’s first season).
It’s not just that the Titans dominated the Patriots, it’s how they dominated the Patriots. This was not a fluky, turnover-fueled upset. It was a methodical, physically imposing dismantling of a very good opponent. Tennessee was the aggressor from the very first snap and they appeared to mentally break New England sometime around the end of the 3rd quarter. By midway through the 4th quarter, Belichick was pulling Brady to protect him from the Titans vicious defense.
There is so much to discuss coming out of this game — and we will get to it all here throughout the week — but I think the biggest question is what this win means for this franchise moving forward. Here are my answers.
Jon Robinson and Amy Adams-Strunk made the right call swapping Mike Mularkey for Mike Vrabel
The Titans are just 5-4 right now and it’s not a complete lock that Vrabel matches the 9-7 record that Mularkey put up in 2016 and 2017, but I think it’s safe to say that the ceiling for this team has changed under it’s new coaching staff. Vrabel’s Titans are aggressive and play with a swagger that seems to stem from their head coach. Despite a healthy dose of adversity early in his first season, his team has clearly improved over the course of the season. Ultimately, that’s what you want to see from well-coached teams.
Would a Mularkey-coached team have been able to put together the comprehensive performance we saw against New England? In fairness to the former coach, he did pull off a similarly impressive win over the Packers back in 2016. However, that was a game that was largely built on a +3 turnover differential in favor of the Titans. It felt like a game where the Titans and Packers were relatively evenly matched, but the ball bounced Tennessee’s way more often than not. The Patriots win felt like a total domination by a team that was flat out better than New England. There’s a difference.
Stories about Vrabel’s effectiveness are interesting. After the Texans win back in Week 2, Titans players were raving about how Vrabel’s pointers and advice were spot on and helped them win the game. After this week’s win, Vrabel explained that the Titans coaching staff came straight from the airport to the office when they landed at 3:00 AM after the Monday night win over Dallas and didn’t go home until Friday. They slept on air mattresses around Saint Thomas Sports Park in an attempt to squeeze every moment of preparation that they could out of a short week. The extra effort showed on Sunday.
Time will prove this out one way or another, but it’s hard not to look at this Titans team under Vrabel and feel confident about the future for this team. The most encouraging thing to me is the growth of individual players over the course of the season. A coach’s primary job is to make his players better and put them in a position to succeed. Guys like Adoree’ Jackson, Corey Davis, Marcus Mariota, Quinton Spain, Rashaan Evans, and Jayon Brown have all taken clear leaps in performance level in 2018. What might those players look like in 2019, 2020, and beyond?
The AFC South Division race is on
After three weeks, the AFC South standings were as follows:
Titans 2-1 (2-0)
Jaguars 2-1 (0-1)
Colts 1-2 (0-0)
Texans 0-3 (0-1)
Just 7 weeks later, things look quite a bit different:
Texans 6-3 (2-1)
Titans 5-4 (2-0)
Colts 4-5 (1-1)
Jaguars 3-6 (0-3)
With just 7 games left there is still a lot of room for movement, but things are shaping up to be pretty interesting down the stretch. The Texans have won 6 straight and while that’s always an impressive feat in a league defined by parity, it’s not like they’ve played a slew of juggernauts in that stretch. They have overtime wins over the 4-5 Colts and 4-5 Cowboys followed by a narrow Nathan Peterman-assisted win over the 3-7 Bills, convincing wins over the 3-6 Jaguars and 5-5 Dolphins, and finally an escape against the 3-6 Broncos that required coaching malpractice and two missed field goals from Denver.
The Colts have won three straight after a 1-5 start to the season, but even that streak is highly questionable, coming against the 3-7 Bills, 1-8 Raiders, and 3-6 Jaguars. They are clearly a much-improved team though and will be yet another tough test for this Titans team in Week 11.
Lastly, the Jaguars are hilariously in free fall. The defense is still tough, but it’s not getting the turnovers and defensive scores at the unsustainable rate that they were last season. Blake Bortles and the offense are a disaster behind a banged up offensive line. Jacksonville’s loss to the Colts yesterday likely eliminated them from AFC South contention.
The remaining schedules for each team are relatively similar:
Texans: @WAS, TEN, CLE, IND, @NYJ, @PHI, JAX
Titans: @IND, @HOU, NYJ, JAX, @NYG, WAS, IND
Colts: TEN, MIA, @JAX, @HOU, DAL, NYG, @TEN
Jaguars: PIT, @BUF, IND, @TEN, WAS, @MIA, @HOU
The next two games for the Titans are absolutely massive. Wins over the Colts and Texans would put them in the driver’s seat for the division with just five games remaining and four of those final five scheduled to be played in the friendly confines of Nissan Stadium. While the Titans trail Houston by one game currently, they still control their own destiny in the division thanks to their head to head win earlier in the season. There are plenty of big games left, but Titans at Texans on Monday Night Football in a couple weeks looms as a massive matchup.
If this Titans team reaches the playoffs, they’re a real threat
Last year, the Titans arrived in the playoffs largely viewed as a pretender. They shocked the Chiefs in the first round with a 22-21 come-from-wayyyyyy-behind dramatic win in Arrowhead, but then exited with a whimper in Foxborough. Beating the Patriots in Nashville in the regular season is not the same as beating them in the playoffs in Gillette Stadium, but you can be sure the Titans won’t be viewed as a “tomato can” if these teams cross paths again.
Tennessee’s top ranked defense is allowing less than 17 points per game and seems to be picking up steam as the season goes on. Having an elite scoring defense generally translates very well in January. Out of 52 Super Bowl champions, a whopping 15 of them finished with the league’s best scoring defense during the regular season, a throne the Titans defense currently occupies for 2018.
The Titans ability to both run the football and stop the run seem to be trending in the right direction. Over the past three games, they’ve out-rushed the Chargers, Cowboys, and Patriots a combined 439 yards to 159 yards. Obviously, game scripts have helped those numbers some, but it’s been a pretty stunning turnaround on the ground over recent weeks. If those trends continue, this will be a really tough team to beat once the weather turns cold. Oh, and 5 of the top 7 teams in the AFC right now play their home games outdoors in cold weather cities.
How this season ends remains to be seen, but the Titans inserted themselves firmly in the AFC playoff race with this win and appear to be putting things together at the right time. The next two weeks will largely tell us whether what we saw on Sunday was a team turning the corner or a mirage. Put me in the camp of believing the corner has been turned.