By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — There’s no such thing as a consensus opinion these days. Too many voices. Too many perspectives. Too much noise.
Still, after the Patriots had their season abruptly ended by the sixth-seeded Tennessee Titans in the wild-card round of the playoffs, the general feeling around these part was that the Patriots underachieved. Sure, the team had its faults, the offense lacked any semblance of consistency, and the idea of Bill Belichick’s team hoisting another Lombardi Trophy seemed to be as big of a stretch as it’s been in recent years. Of course.
But a home playoff date against a 9-7 team that lacked playoff experience? Playing against a franchise that owned just three playoff wins this century? The Patriots should have won that game.
Or so we thought.
It now looks like we may have been very, very wrong.
That’s at least one takeaway you could have after watching Derrick Henry, Ryan Tannehill and the rest of the fearless Titans roster use the Ravens as doormats en route to a thoroughly impressive 28-12 whooping in Baltimore.
Padded stats aside, the presumed unanimous MVP of the league made more mistakes in this game than he’s made over the past three months. The team that led the league by a wide margin in scoring at 33.2 points per game managed to put just 12 points on the scoreboard. That team also ranked third in points allowed at 17.6 points per game yet could not do much of anything to stop the Tennessee offense.
The 14-2 Ravens weren’t just upset by the Titans. They didn’t just lose a football game.
The best team in the NFL never really even competed.
That’s a credit, obviously, to the team lined up against them, a Titans squad led by Mike Vrabel that — unlike the overconfident Ravens — is starting to carry itself with some real championship swagger. Winning in Foxboro against the defending champs in January and then rolling in to the home stadium of the NFL’s best team, and walking away with wins tends to bolster that mind-set.
And here comes Derrick Henry. Look out. pic.twitter.com/LFyEO5W2YP
— Tyler Dunne (@TyDunne) January 12, 2020
So while it may have been jarring to see Tom Brady struggle mightily against the Titans, some context was added a week later when Lamar Jackson — the league’s MVP — found even more trouble against that same Titans defense.
Thanks to a fourth quarter push, Jackson’s yardage totals (365 passing, 143 rushing) may make it seem like Jackson had a typical Jackson night. He most certainly did not. More than 40 percent of that yardage came in the fourth quarter, which the Titans entered protecting a 28-6 lead. The game was over.
Jackson threw multiple interceptions for just the third time all year and the first time since Oct. 6, at the end of his lone cold stretch of the season. There’s also this: From Week 6 through Week 16, Jackson threw one interception. Total. He threw two on Saturday night.
He likewise lost a fumble for just the third time all season, when he found himself trapped in the pocket, desperately seeking to make a play while trailing 21-6 but ultimately holding on to the ball far too long.
It wasn’t just Jackson who struggled. Willie Snead, Seth Roberts, and Hayden Hurst all had drops, and Mark Andrews let a pass bounce off his hands and into the waiting arms of Kevin Byard. Mark Ingram, bothered by an injured calf, ran for just 22 yards. Gus Edwards broke a 19-yard run but had just one more total yard on his other two rushes.
Collectively, the Ravens were a perfect 8-for-8 when going for it on fourth-and-1 this season, a mark of not only their aggressive approach but their ability to execute better than their opponents in such situations.
On Saturday, the Ravens were 0-for-2 on fourth-and-1. The Titans immediately turned both stops into touchdowns.
This was not your standard, run of the mill playoff upset. To really contextualize this one, it’s worth considering just how dominant the Ravens were in 2019.
–The Ravens entered Saturday having won 12 straight games. Their average margin of victory was 17.8 in those games.
–The Ravens averaged 33.2 points per game. The second-best team in the NFL was San Francisco, at 29.9 points per game.
–The Ravens had a league-best plus-249 point differential, which was 54 points better than the Patriots at No. 2.
–The Ravens allowed the third-fewest points in the NFL, allowing an average of 17.6 points per game.
–The Ravens were tied for the third-fewest giveaways in the NFL, and their plus-10 turnover ratio ranked sixth. They lost the turnover battle 3-0 vs. Tennessee, something they didn’t do all year.
–Lamar Jackson posted a passer rating lower than 102.5 over his final eight games of the season just once. His passer rating in those eight games combined was 130.3. His passer rating vs. Tennessee was 63.2, and that’s even with the fourth-quarter stat padding.
–The Ravens had the best fourth-down success in the NFL (70.8%) and the second-best red-zone success (67.2%). Against Tennessee, they went 0-for-4 on fourth downs and 1-for-4 in the red zone.
–The Ravens hadn’t lost at home since Week 4. In their final five home games, they won by an average score of 34-15, and that includes a Week 17 game played without a number of key starters.
To be sure, some of the Ravens’ issues in Saturday night’s shocking loss will be attributed to theoretical rust. Considering the team hadn’t played a real game with its starters since Dec. 22, their lack of rhythm could have been somewhat due to having shut down the operation for three weeks.
But rust can’t explain for a team scoring just 12 points, three touchdowns off their average output. That type of stifling required a suffocating effort from an opposing defense that has the confidence to stop anybody and the talent to back up those beliefs.
And all of that has yet to mention the runaway freight train that is Derrick Henry. Despite Earl Thomas’ assertion that the Ravens would be willing and able to tackle the running back, they were not. (Thomas, like many football followers in New England, was critical of the Patriots’ run-stopping efforts. Thomas learned firsthand how difficult that task actually is against Henry.) Henry got his wheels moving with 27 yards in the first quarter, gained steam with 36 yards in the second quarter before reaching a full rumble in the third quarter, when he ran for a ridiculous 117 yards.
A week after rushing for 182 yards on 34 carries in Foxboro, Henry rumbled for 195 yards on just 30 carries in Baltimore. Though he didn’t cross the goal line himself, he did throw a touchdown on a trick play from the 3-yard line.
Likewise, a week after leaving all of New England in an apoplectic state with a statistically unimpressive-yet-efficient performance, Ryan Tannehill delivered two key passes and finished off one critical run, three plays that provided more than enough offense to beat the NFL’s best team.
Tannehill is now just 15-for-29 for 160 yards total across two games. But his three touchdowns (and one interception) have proven to be daggers. He hasn’t been called upon to carry the offense, but Vrabel and Arthur Smith have merely asked him to deliver two or three key passes per game. He’s been more than up for the challenge, and he even outperformed the league MVP on short-yardage runs in this playoff meeting. Some big-time catches by Jonnu Smith and Kalif Raymond have certainly helped the cause, too.
Take it all together, and if you’ve now watched 120 minutes of playoff football from the Tennessee Titans under Mike Vrabel, then you know that their potency at this point in time is no fluke.
Considering the best team in the NFL just got bulldozed on their home turf, perhaps it is no longer a football slur to say that a team was simply not good enough to beat the Titans this January.
Now, that doesn’t change the fact that the Patriots should have beaten the moribund Miami Dolphins in Week 17 at home, so it shouldn’t rewrite the entire story of the 2019 Patriots saga. Nevertheless, the absolute trouncing of the well-rested 14-2 Baltimore Ravens showed that even the presumed best team in football starting the presumed best player in football with a highly experienced head coach and the backing of a rowdy fan base were no match at all for the football team from Nashville.
No championships have yet been won by the Titans, who may ultimately flop next weekend without reaching the Super Bowl. But as it stands now, there’s a lot less shame to be found in last weekend’s wild-card loss for the Patriots. This Titans team is the real deal.