Repeating as AFC South champions was surely at the top of the Tennessee Titans’ list of goals as they began training camp back in mid-July.
But I doubt anyone foresaw it unfolding the way it did.
The Titans clinched their second consecutive division championship Sunday at Nissan Stadium, ending the red-hot Miami Dolphins’ seven-game win streak and putting themselves in the driver’s seat for the AFC’s No. 1 seed with a win in Houston next week.
The same Titans that had really bad losses to the then-winless New York Jets and the then-1-8 Houston Texans, who had lost eight in a row.
The same Titans that currently have 14 players on injured reserve and have played an NFL-record 88 different players this season. The same Titans that have a 5-3 record without workhorse running back Derrick Henry.
“We’ve been through a lot, faced a lot of adversity,” quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. “It’s kind of wild when you think back through everything that we’ve been through — injuries and COVID and everything else along the way. I’m proud of our guys, the way we’ve battled through. We’ve been in some tough situations and found a way to win games when we were short-handed. If you’re able to do that and just continue to find a way to win games, you put yourself in a situation like we’re in now to control your own destiny.”
A little self-reflection, and the Titans have plenty to be proud of.
The team has an 11-5 record despite Tannehill throwing more interceptions this season (14) than he did in his first two seasons with the Titans combined (13), and prized offseason acquisition Julio Jones playing in just nine games and contributing just 26 catches for 376 yards and zero touchdowns.
Tennessee has the No. 4-ranked rushing offense (142.5 yards per game) despite being without Henry for half of the season.
The Titans are only averaging 6.3 points per game fewer under first-year offensive coordinator Todd Downing than they did last season despite Henry, Jones and A.J. Brown missing a combined 19 games, and the starting offensive line missing a combined 14 games.
Now, the Titans are just one win away from not only locking up the AFC’s top seed but also a first-round bye and an extra week of recovery time for Henry, who’s reportedly been working out at the Titans’ team facility and doing some light running.
Week 18 losses by Kansas City, Cincinnati and New England also get the job done.
“I think winning takes care of everything,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. “And that's what we told them all the time, and that the mentality was that we were just getting started. We'll have to prepare for a team that's been playing really well and that's already beaten us once this year.”
Tennessee shouldn’t be satisfied with where it’s at right now. Sure, the franchise’s first back-to-back division titles since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 is a nice accolade, but now the Titans control their own destiny.
They need to make that mean something.
“Me personally, I feel like this is the new standard here, but we want more,” Brown said of the consecutive AFC South crowns. “It feels good to go back-to-back, but it’s not the end goal. Just to be a part of this special group just moving forward, it feels great. We are excited. We appreciate it. But this is not where we want to stop.”
Added Tannehill: “It’s fun as hell to win. I love winning. I love competing. But winning is why you’re out here.”
The pressure is on Tennessee to not only win in Houston in Week 18 but also carry that momentum over two weeks from then should it earn the first-round bye. Four of the previous six times the Titans entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed, they’ve lost in the divisional round.
“When you win the division obviously it’s a great reward for all of the hard work we’ve put in this year, all of the adversity we’ve faced,” safety Kevin Byard said. “I’m pretty sure everybody that’s going to come up here is going to echo it that we’re not done yet. The season’s just getting started. There’s a lot more meat out there on the bone.”
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_