FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP)Titans coach Mike Vrabel posted himself outside the locker room following Tennessee’s 20-13 wild-card playoff win over the New England Patriots and waited.
He wanted to personally shake the hand of every member of his team as they came off the field. Between the flood of high-fives and hugs, Vrabel mostly said, “Thank you” as his smiling players streamed by.
The last player to come down the corridor was running back Derrick Henry. When he locked eyes with his coach, he beamed as well and began shouting, “We want more! We want more!” before the pair eventually shared their own embrace.
Tennessee’s methodical effort against the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots and the league’s top-ranked defense was one of the biggest surprises of Saturday’s opening day of the playoffs. But the Titans made one thing clear afterward: They feel like their best football is still ahead of of them. They advanced to face AFC top seed Baltimore in the divisional round.
“That’s the way we like it. We don’t want nothing easy. We want it gritty, we want it dirty,” said Henry, who carried 34 times for 182 yards and a touchdown.
Henry, whose 444 scrimmage yards rank second in the Super Bowl era for a player in their first three career playoff games, said they weren’t fazed playing against a Patriots team that had motivation after losing to the Titans during the regular season last year. It was a game that also could have potentially been quarterback Tom Brady’s final game with the Patriots. The six-time champion’s current contract expires following the season.
“We knew what type of game this was going to be. We knew this was a hostile environment,” Henry said. “We knew this was a different type of team in the playoffs. But we just had to play our game. Not worry about the outside noise. Just do what we needed to do.”
The Titans also did it the same way they did it in winning seven of their 10 games to qualify for the playoffs: grinding out points through Henry and riding the resurgent play of quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who is 8-3 since taking over the starting role from 2015 first-round pick Marcus Mariota.
Tannehill led the NFL during the regular season with a career-best 117.5 passer rating, and also led the league averaging 9.6 yards per pass attempt. He was just 8 of 15 for 72 yards and an interception Saturday night, but stayed poised and kept the ball moving – which limited the number of possessions for the Patriots.
Tennessee’s 72 passing yards are the fewest by any team in a playoff win since the 2009 Ravens (34) against the Patriots in the 2009 wild-card round.
Combined with his time as Miami’s starter, Tannehill now has five victories over New England. Including the playoffs, those are the second-most wins of any quarterback during the Belichick and Brady era, behind only Peyton Manning’s six.
“I’m so proud of this team,” Tannehill said. “It was ugly at times offensively. But we kept fighting and found a way to make a couple of plays at the end.”
The biggest of the night came on the Patriots’ final possession of the night – after All-Pro Brett Kern’s 58-yard punt put the ball at the 1 – when cornerback and former Patriot Logan Ryan intercepted Brady and ran it in for a 9-yard touchdown.
The defense also had a goal-line stand in the second quarter that limited New England to a field goal just before the half.
“This is amazing. But it’s not over,” tackle Taylor Lewan said. “The last two decades, they’ve been the greatest team in football. We played good football. We took care of the ball and our defense stepped up when they needed to. Offense stepped up. And now we play the Ravens.”
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