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Ten thoughts on the Titans win in Foxborough and what it means for the franchise

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Was this a turning point in NFL history?

NFL: AFC Wild Card-Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

1. Thank you, Miami.

The Dolphins gift wrapped Ryan Tannehill and sent him to Nashville with five million dollars of their own money pinned to his shirt. In exchange, the Titans sent back a $25 gift card to Chili’s and a 2020 fourth round pick.

But the generous Dolphins weren’t done. Filled with the Christmas spirit, Ryan Fitzpatrick and his incredible beard decided to go ahead and serve up a trip to Foxborough for the Titans by beating New England in Week 17 and robbing them of their customary first round bye. Who knows what would have happened if the Titans had headed to Kansas City, but I know it wouldn’t have been as satisfying as Saturday night was.

Thank you, Miami. Hope to come see you in a few weeks.

2. The Patriots dynasty — as we know it — is probably over.

Maybe I’ll come to regret this line next year, but it sure feels like Saturday night was the end of an era in New England. Even before the start of this season there were rumblings about Tom Brady’s future. It’s been a narrative all season long and a first round dismissal at the hands of Mike Vrabel’s Titans wouldn’t seem to make it more likely that this group decides to get the band back together for one more run.

Tom Brady will be 43 years old before the start of the 2020 season and his longtime offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels looks like he’s going to be a part of the coaching search car wash once again this offseason. Brady’s frustration with his team’s inability to provide him with a capable set of receivers this year has been well-documented.

His contract, negotiated this past offseason, voids at the end of the league year and includes language prohibiting the Patriots from using a tag on him. It’s going to be up to both Brady and the Patriots to say yes to each other one more time. If they don’t, it will be the end of the most dominant run by any franchise in NFL history and the Titans will forever be known as the team that finally killed off the Brady-Belichick Patriots.

3. The Titans have themselves a head football coach.

There have definitely been some ups and downs with the Vrabel era to this point and he’s yet to actually break through that 9-7 glass ceiling, but I think you’re seeing some pretty undeniable signs that the Titans head coach is on the right track.

This win was the exact game that he was hired to get for this franchise. Regardless of what the Patriots looked like over the last half of the season, beating Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in Foxborough is a massive and meaningful victory. New England’s 20-3 home playoff record in Gillette Stadium coming into this game speaks for itself.

Vrabel out-Belichick’ed Belichick in a lot of ways in this game. His team was focused and quiet in the week leading up to the game while the Patriots uncharacteristically spoke of “revenge tours” and “hyenas”. The Titans noticed and used it as motivation.

Then there was the clock milking trick that Vrabel ripped off from Belichick himself that sent the Patriots coach into a sideline tirade during the fourth quarter. The deep knowledge of the NFL rulebook has been one of the traits that Vrabel has carried over from his time under Belichick.

Speaking of the fourth quarter, the Titans have been the NFL’s best team in the final quarter of games over the past two years, outscoring opponents by 114 points over that time frame. Vrabel’s team has “won” the second half in 13 of 17 games this season, most in the league. He and his coaching staff’s ability to make adjustments throughout games has been very impressive and bodes well for the team’s future under his direction. That was true of this game as well. The Titans shut down Brady in the second half, limiting the Patriots offense to just 85 total yards and spent exactly one offensive snap defending in their own territory after halftime.

There are still some valid questions with Vrabel. Can he find a long term solution at offensive coordinator or are the Titans going to be left with a revolving door at the most critical position on his coaching staff? Will he embrace analytics and allow the numbers to influence his in-game decision making more in the future? Those questions will have some say on how successful Vrabel ends up being here, but it’s pretty clear that he has this team heading in a positive direction right now.

4. Jon Robinson has built a very strong roster.

Think about the key players in this win for the Titans. Rashaan Evans — the Titans 2018 first round pick — led the team in tackles and keyed a massive goal line stop with some great individual efforts. Jeffery Simmons — Robinson’s 2019 first round pick — also contributed to that goal line stand and helped stuff the Patriots rushing attack between the tackles all night. Jack Conklin — his 2016 first rounder — helped clear the way for Derrick Henry’s massive effort. Adoree’ Jackson — a 2017 first — limited Tom Brady to 1 of 4 passing when throwing into his coverage. The only first round pick that didn’t have a big game, Corey Davis, contributed his usual excellent blocking (I know, I know).

Logan Ryan — Robinson’s biggest free agent acquisition in 2017 — made the game sealing pick six to end it. Rodger Saffold — the Titans biggest addition in the most recent offseason — was part of a dominant offensive line performance.

The Titans also got contributions from guys that were brought in for less. Tramaine Brock — a midseason waiver claim — had a great game in coverage and deflected the pass that Ryan intercepted. Anthony Firkser — a former undrafted “camp body” — caught a touchdown pass and picked up the biggest third down conversion of the game.

Like Vrabel, Robinson isn’t perfect. He mismanaged the kicker situation all season and there have been a few busts here and there, but at the end of the day, Robinson has built a roster that is capable of winning games in a multitude of ways. After months of riding a red hot offense, the Titans found themselves in a knock-down-drag-out street fight of a game Saturday night and they still managed to come out on top.

5. The “hyenas” get the last laugh.

“They want the hyenas? They got the ****ing hyenas!”

Those were Mike Vrabel’s words for his Titans team when they arrived back in the visitor’s locker room in Gillette Stadium Saturday night according to Ben Volin of the Boston Globe. Vrabel, of course, was referring to the hype video that his good friend Tom Brady dropped on Twitter Saturday morning that compared the Titans to a pack of hyenas and himself to a lion.

Two years ago the Eagles embraced their underdog role by wearing dog masks throughout the postseason run. Well, I’m all for the Titans steering into the hyenas theme as this run continues.

6. The Titans have to find a way to bring back Derrick Henry.

I hate the idea of paying running backs big money on second contracts in the modern NFL. There is plenty of data available that screams “don’t pay high dollar contracts for backs” and I think there is a lot of truth to the idea that the marginal value added by a good running back over a mediocre running back is minimal in most cases.

However... Derrick Henry might be an exception. His value to this Titans offense is undeniable at this point. His 182 yards rushing were a postseason franchise record in a game where he carried the Tennessee offense. Since the end of the 2018 season, he’s been one of the most unstoppable forces in the NFL. Full stop.

The Titans have a lot of decisions to make this offseason and we won’t get into those here — there will be plenty of time for that talk after the season ends — but whether it’s a long term contract, the franchise tag, or the transition tag, 22 needs to be lined up behind Ryan Tannehill when the 2020 season kicks off.

7. This win will change the way the Titans are viewed nationally.

While the win in Kansas City two years ago was epic in its own respect, beating Alex Smith isn’t the same as going to New England and taking down icons in Brady and Belichick. This win moves the needle. This was a 12-4 Patriots team in Foxborough with the NFL’s best defense.

The Titans are getting plenty of national love — an uncomfortable feeling for some Titans fans after years of being either ridiculed or ignored — and I think this win virtually guarantees that this Tennessee team will get a different level of respect next season, regardless of what happens in Baltimore or beyond.

8. One game should not change your opinion about Ryan Tannehill or A.J. Brown.

Ryan Tannehill had his worst start as a Titan in this game. He threw for just 72 yards on 8 of 15 passing with a touchdown and a really bad interception. He also fumbled once, though he managed to recover the ball himself.

A.J. Brown also had his quietest game, catching just one pass for 4 yards.

That shouldn’t erase what those two did for the ten weeks prior to this game though. This was a road game against the league’s best pass defense, and frankly, the Titans didn’t ask these guys to do much. They threw the ball just 15 times as New England sat back and challenged Arthur Smith to stay patient with the run. We will get into this deeper on the All--22 later this week, but the Patriots refused to come out of their two-high safety shell almost all game. It was clear that the gameplan was to take away the play action chunk plays that the Titans thrived on during the regular season.

I expect both these guys to bounce back and the Titans will need them to this week.

9. Where does this win rank in the Titans era of the franchise?

Obviously, I think this list starts with the AFC Championship win over the Jaguars in 1999. While the Music City Miracle is the most memorable game in franchise history, that win over the 14-2 Jaguars in Jacksonville was the biggest. Beating their division rival for the third time and heading to the Super Bowl is a big part of what gave Frank Wycheck’s throwback to Kevin Dyson such meaning.

I would probably put the 2003 wildcard win over the Ravens next on that list. The Tennessee-Baltimore rivalry was at the peak of its existence then and beating the Ravens in Baltimore after they had ended the 2000 team’s season in the divisional round was among the most satisfying wins I’ve ever experienced as a sports fan.

The overtime win over the Steelers in the 2002 playoffs and the two wins against the Bills and Colts leading up to the AFC Championship in 1999 are the games that I would place Titans 20, Patriots 13 in the company of.

10. This team isn’t done yet.

I don’t know if the Titans will take down the Ravens on Saturday night. Baltimore was the best team in the NFL during the regular season and the 7th best regular season team since 1985 according to Football Outsiders DVOA.

However, I’m certain that this Tennessee team is going to show up and compete. They’ve done it all year. This Titans team feels focused, even coming off an emotional win over the Patriots.

The Ravens rivalry probably doesn’t hold much weight with many of the current Titans players and coaches — it’s been over 17 years since the old AFC Central dissolved — but it still does with the fan base. Outside of the Super Bowl, the Ravens have dealt the Titans two of the three most painful losses in team history. The 2000 Titans and 2008 Titans were both legitimate Super Bowl contenders that entered the playoffs at the 1 seed in the AFC and both had their seasons ended by the hated Ravens. The 2019 Titans will get a chance to repay the favor this weekend.