By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – December 16, 2018)
Two games remain in the Tennessee Titans 2018 regular season. As much as we still might not know about this team, we definitely know this: They’ve got to win both of them, and they’ll play both in front of what should be a pair of good home crowds at Nissan Stadium. The trip to New York to play the Giants was treacherous, because the G-Men had something to play for, not to mention the X-factor of the weather.
On this Sunday, however, with no Odell Beckham Jr and no Landon Collins, it figured to be a heavy dose of rookie standout Saquon Barkley. This was much more about what the Titans did than what the Giants didn’t do, and right now the two-toned blue sits at 8-6, with plenty of hope entering Saturday’s matchup with the Washington Redskins.
Here are my Big 6 Takeaways from the 17-0 shutout at MetLife.
HEAVY DOSE OF DERRICK
It would be incredibly unlikely to duplicate 17 for 238 and 4, and I simply hoped to see Henry have a solid, 80 yard day, with 17 carries. Well, due to the weather, Matt LaFleur decided to put the ball in 22’s hands and see how it went.
It went well.
33 carries for 170 yards and 2 scores sounds straight out of Tuscaloosa, much more so than 17 for 238 did last week. But that’s 408 yards and six touchdowns over the past two games for Derrick Henry, who is having one hellacious December. My Monday Night Titans broadcast partner, Marc Mariani, said during the bye week he felt like Henry figured something out in London.
Historically, Henry’s best days have been followed by some of his worst, but that was not the case in New York. He was elusive, he was shifty, he ran with purpose and power, and he faced a Giants defense that blew tackle after tackle, largely because he made it difficult on them. His yards after contact were stupendous. Last week, the national media tried to ignore him and give Jacksonville’s failures the headlines.
Well, how do you like him now?
It was THE focus for the Titans defense. Saquon Barkley’s rookie numbers are outrageous and showcase just what a talent he is, but Tennessee had the benefit, especially with Odell on the shelf, of zeroing in on him. When head coach Mike Vrabel was asked about Barkley earlier this week, the word he repeatedly mentioned was “swarm.” That’s exactly what this Dean Pees defense did on Sunday afternoon.
Henry had 170 yards on 32 carries. Barley had 31 on 14. He only had 56 total yards from scrimmage, his worst performance of the year. None of it was on him. This was a mixture of bad blocking, Eli putting balls in spots that slowed him down, but mainly it was the Titans making his life miserable.
Up front, the away team bullied the Giants offensive line. The linebackers were stellar, as they had to be, and Byard, Ryan, Jackson, etc all showed up and ensured every play was a challenge for Manning, for Barkley, and for anybody in a Giants helmet.
Dennis Kelly stepped in for Jack Conklin, who I continue to believe should not have come back as soon as he did, wasn’t healthy, and was a liability on the field for the Titans. The Undertaker was very good on Sunday and the line gelled well. All you need to know is that Marcus Mariota had time to throw, despite not playing well in the elements, and Derrick Henry ran for 170 yards.
Spain was a little shaky at times, but it was largely a game where you didn’t hear about the OL very much, meaning they were doing their jobs. The offensive stats proved what they needed to, including Mariota only being sacked once. He had enough time on multiple occasions to read through each of his progressions, then run through them a second time until someone broke open as a receiver.
It was a second straight outstanding performance by this unit, following an eye roll against the Jets and some trouble in the two division matchups that preceded it. IF these guys can continue this level of play against the Redskins and against the Colts, the Titans should be positioned well to get to that potentially magical 10-6 number.
GIVE AND TAKE
Entering the game, the New York Giants were +5 in the turnover category, while the Titans were -4. One of the big keys to the game, something else Vrabel intimated earlier in the practice week, was protecting the football. Henry was sure handed, as was Dion Lewis, and although there were some WR drops, much of it can be attributed to the downpour that made the throws awkward and fluttering, not to mention the effect soaked gloves or dripping palms and fingertips can have.
Two turnovers occurred within the game came. The result is the Titans are now -2 on the season and the Giants are +3. It came courtesy of a poor Eli Manning throw that became Kevin Byard’s third interception of the season and an Eli Manning decision to try to avoid a sack by getting the ball out of his hands. Both were disastrous for the Giants.
The Titans played a clean ball game, and without Mariota having to take many risks, all that needed to happen were a lot of good snaps and both 22 and 33 hanging onto that rock. Both did a perfect job all day. It was one of the primary reasons for the victory.
THE QUICK START…OR WAS IT?
The Titans dominated the first half of this game, and really dominated the ball game throughout, but there were feelings of the Dallas game in reverse with the Titans in the role of the Cowboys as the scoreboard continued to read 7-0. Every statistical category was in Tennessee’s favor, with Derrick Henry all over the place, tons of first downs, but there was a missed Ryan Succop field goal and a lot of punts that ended drives. It felt as if the Titans should have been up more like 17-0 THEN, but that wasn’t the case.
Considering Barkley’s propensity to break meager gains and turn them into explosions (he has four 50+ yard touchdowns on the season, the only other guy in the league to do that CUMULATIVELY OVER THE PAST THREE YEARS IS…Henry), there was a definite possibility of a tie game at any moment.
But, it just never came. Eli was ineffective for the most part all day, with Evan Engram being the one guy he could rely on when Barkley was swallowed up and swarmed by the Titans defense. Manning threw for over 200 yards, but not by much, and it came on FORTY-FOUR throws. He had a QBR of 16.7 and could do next to nothing on crucial downs. 3-16 on third down ain’t gonna cut it folks.
The Titans cannot control anything but the games in front of them. This franchise hasn’t won five football games in a row since 2009, but we all recognize they flat out have to if they hope for a Wildcard berth in that six slot. Fittingly, it looks like it’s going to come down to a Week 17 matchup against the Indianapolis Colts at home, a team they have never beaten with Andrew Luck as the quarterback.
That’s as it should be, but the other looming issue is the Baltimore Ravens, who shut this Tennessee team out on the road two months ago, and have the tiebreaker advantage over the Titans. If the fighting Vrabels finish 10-6, will that be enough? It won’t if Baltimore does the same. After defeating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 20-12 in Week 15, Baltimore does control its own destiny against either the Titans or the Colts based on AFC win percentage.
Those two games will not be easy, as first they must travel to play the red hot Chargers on the road, a team still hoping to win the AFC West and snatch it away from the suddenly mortal Kansas City Chiefs. Then, it’s Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns on December 30, a team that after defeating Denver on Saturday, effectively ending their season, still have hopes of the postseason themselves.
If Baltimore wins both, they DESERVE that six spot, because those are two ridiculously difficult games. If they don’t, the Titans-Colts winner in the regular season finale will get that slot, provided both handle business themselves against Washington and New York this weekend.
THE LAST WORD
You just had to handle business and continue to be “in the hunt.” The Dolphins loss helped, Denver appears out of it, Cleveland has to have too much happen to feel good about getting in, but they’ll go all out to win these last two games. It comes down to Baltimore (or Pittsburgh – that Saints game looms large), Indianapolis, and Tennessee. Of the three schedules, the Titans and Colts have favorable matchups, and one will knock the other out in the finale. Baltimore wins out? They go. The AFC North is still up for grabs as well. But back to Baltimore, they could certainly win out.
But will they?
I don’t think so. It’s going to be 9-6 Titans hosting 9-6 Colts on December 30. It’s essentially going to be a playoff game. I don’t expect either to falter this coming week, and I think the Ravens lose their “control our destiny” existence in Los Angeles against the Chargers this coming weekend. Perhaps not, but it’s most likely. If it does come down to Nissan Stadium on 12/30, what a scene that will be.
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