Monday, January 20, 2020

Opinion: Tennessee Titans keeping New England Patriots' spirit alive and well during surprise playoff run

Mike Vrabel patiently waited by the entrance of the Tennessee Titans locker room Saturday night in Baltimore, issuing hugs, fist bumps, edifying words, trash talk — or some combination thereof — to every one of his triumphant players and staff members as they came off the M&T Bank Stadium field.
Vrabel finally embraced Pro Bowl running back Derrick Henry, the last straggler following some post-game obligations after his 195-yard night helped stake the Ravens 28-12 in a divisional-round playoff shocker, before the coach and his star entered the sanctum to join a raucous celebration.
With his face and neck stained by players' eye black after so many bear hugs, Vrabel hardly resembled his former boss, Bill Belichick.

And yet Vrabel's current team, on its way to the AFC championship game in Kansas City, evokes memories of the nascent New England dynasty he helped establish nearly two decades ago when he was a linebacking linchpin. Few were talking about the 11-5 Patriots as Super Bowl contenders then, before Tom Brady was a household name or the "Tuck Rule" became a verbal asterisk — even fewer were mentioning the 9-7 Titans as title threats two weeks ago.
But perhaps the football world shouldn't be so surprised.
"Playoff football – stop the run, run the ball, get turnovers, don't turn the ball over, get to the red zone, score touchdowns, make them kick field goals. So, I mean, that's fundamentally the same (as the Patriots)," Titans cornerback Logan Ryan, who won two rings playing for Belichick, told USA TODAY Sports.
"New England wanted to run the ball all the time, even though we had Tom Brady, and we want to run the ball here. And defense wins championships. We had some special defenses there and a special defense here."
Admittedly, the similarities between the 2019 Titans, who were largely constructed by general manager Jon Robinson (New England's former scouting director), and 2001 Patriots aren't perfect parallels, but consider ...
No one is saying — or has ever said — that quarterback Ryan Tannehill is the next coming of Brady. Yet he sparked this team, largely with efficient and mostly mistake-free play, after taking over as Tennessee's starter earlier in the season much as Brady did when he replaced injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001. 
And no one is saying — or has ever said — that Henry, now amid one of the greatest extended running back performances in NFL history, shares the same historic plane as former Patriots journeyman Antowain Smith. Yet it's fair to say the Patriots offense leaned on their back, if not to quite the degree Tennessee has relied on Henry recently.
Did we mention the defenses? The Patriots made sure Marshall Faulk, Kordell Stewart and Rich Gannon didn't beat them in the 2001 postseason. The Titans have done the same to Brady, Julian Edelman and Lamar Jackson, often employing two-man fronts that dared the presumptive MVP to throw — which he did a jaw-dropping 59 times in Saturday's defeat.
And those bags of tricks. Vrabel was a part-time tight end (he caught 12 passes from Brady in his career, all for TDs) while winning three rings in New England. So it probably should not have been a shock he'd let a sledgehammer like Henry throw a jump pass (for a TD) near the goal line.

And Vrabel has emerged as an A-plus game manager. At his old Gillette Stadium stomping grounds during the wild-card round, he leveraged the rule book so well with deliberate false starts to milk the clock that Belichick nearly lost his mind.
Like New England, Tennessee (despite lacking a Vinatieri-esque sniper) places heavy emphasis on special teams, understands situational football — the Titans have prevented TDs on five of their opponents' seven red-zone visits in the playoffs — and are plus-four in the turnover department in postseason.
And talk about opportunistic: Two of Tennessee's touchdowns in their ambush of Baltimore occurred after takeaways, while the other two came on the heels of the Ravens failing to convert on fourth-and-1.
Lastly, let's not discount the mindset. Henry is averaging 188.5 rushing yards in the playoffs, most ever for a player with multiple games in the same postseason. He's had every opportunity to burnish his own image with free agency maybe just weeks away. But nope, he's taking a page from the Patriots media playbook instead and keeping the message focused on collective success.
"I take pride in us winning the game," he said Saturday. "I don't really care about the individual stuff."
Said Ryan: "This feels like a special team, and I said that during the season. ... This is a special group of guys who work hard and care about one another, happy for one another's success. ... Bunch of team-first guys."
The Titan Way? Maybe?
In fairness, I'm not trying to oversimplify New England's unparalleled blueprint for sustained success, so don't misconstrue this as a prediction that Tennessee will dominate the next century of NFL football. 
Sure, after knocking out the reigning champion Patriots and top-seeded Ravens on the road in successive weeks, I've definitely proclaimed (tongue firmly planted in cheek) the Titans are the clubhouse leader as team of the decade for the 2020s. But with the futures of Henry and Tannehill unclear — and assuming you believe Tannehill is actually cut from franchise quarterback cloth and not merely on a Joe Flacco type of hot streak — no one would suggest this is a blossoming dynasty ... yet.
Former Titans star Keith Bulluck reminded me that the Patriots' plan of attack has historically changed from one week to the next, while the Titans make no bones about their intent to bludgeon defenses with Henry.
And yet ...
"What's great about this coaching staff is that it seems that they are able to take the pieces that they have and put everybody in positions that they need to be in to make plays," said Bulluck, who hosts "Titans Tonight" in Nashville. "It's most important that the players buy into the philosophy and buy into the game plan week in and week out, and that's been evident in the playoff games.
"They scrap, they claw, they fight, and they've been in every game they've played."
Sound familiar?
Just when you thought the Patriots had been eliminated, sure seems their spirit perseveres.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.

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