To the Tennessee Titans,
We’ve had an interesting last couple of months, haven’t we?
There was a time this season when I was riding shotgun in your race to be acknowledged as a true Super Bowl contender. It was fun for a while – you represented a potential changing of the guard in the AFC. You’d made the playoffs and won games in January recently. Your crown jewel was a workhorse back that everybody wanted to see, who seemed destined to put you on his back and pick up his MVP award on the way to bringing you to the AFC’s top seed. Of course, it was a talented team, but Derrick Henry was at the center.
Everyone started to believe that maybe you could be the ones to pry the AFC crown away from your rivals in Arrowhead, who was inviting a challenger after an underwhelming start. You dutifully obliged – not just by winning eight of your first ten games, but by stomping the Chiefs 27-3 on your turf. It was a humbling moment in their season but a watershed one for yours. And with it came the speculation, stories, and debates that maybe Tennessee could be the team to fill the void that had been temporarily vacated.
Then, Henry got injured. And the whole world thought you were done – myself included.
Things weren’t all bad at the start. In fact, for a moment, it felt like you hadn’t changed at all. On the same day that your MVP candidate went down, you beat the Rams. The week after, you knocked off the Saints. There was the time when I still called you a contender in the AFC, even at a time of uncertainty. Or what about the time when I said, despite needing to sort out the run game, you were too talented to fade away thanks to the one player’s injury? You weathered the storm, and at first, the world was impressed.
But then, things got ugly. As you started to let games slip away, I began to drop you further and further in the power rankings. There was a point in the season when I had you as low as 14th. Imagine that – a team in contention for the AFC’s top seed almost completely out of the top 15. I said you weren’t the same team that we all believed could contend for the Super Bowl back in the first few weeks of the season. I even questioned if you were the favorites to win the division anymore. The upstart Colts had gained steam and were approaching quickly, and it looked like they may have caught up to you by the end of the season.
I lost the faith, but can I be blamed? Non-competitive games against the Texans and Patriots, propped up by a win against lowly Jacksonville before falling to the Steelers at Heinz, emptied the helium out of the balloon that you’d spent the last nine weeks blowing up. For a moment, it looked like you’d suffer the same fate as Arizona – a wildly talented team that was struck by injury and peaked too early.
But unlike the Cardinals, who lost four of their last five games before going out of the playoffs with a whimper, you ended the season on a three-game winning streak, including one against the Dolphins, who were riding a hot streak of their own. In the face of adversity and without your best player, you grinded, found a way to win, and clinched the AFC’s top seed without Derrick Henry. And I ended up looking foolish.
And the reward of winning that first-round bye became exponentially greater when you received the greatest news you could possibly receive; your workhorse, your MVP candidate, and the clock that makes your offense tick – the man that everyone assumed was gone until the 2022 season kicked off next September – was almost done with recovery and eyeing the divisional round as a potential return.
And while you showed you didn’t need him in your hardest months, you’ll still welcome him back with open arms. Because as good as you were to close out the regular season, the world saw how elite you were when number 22 was lining up behind Ryan Tannehill.
So how drastically do your fortunes change now that Derrick Henry is back in the lineup? It’s tough to say, not just because your playoff date with the Bengals is a tricky one but also because, despite how good a player Derrick Henry is, a running back returning from a lengthy injury is always a question mark. Will he return with the same explosiveness that saw him rack up close to 1,000 rush yards in the first eight weeks alone? Will he need some time to be fully confident in taking a live-speed hit at the line? How comfortable will he be when he changes direction on a dime? Soon, we’ll have an answer.
I’m penning this letter to say this: you proved me wrong. When I thought you were dead in the water, you found a way to cross the finish line with the same goal you set out to achieve at the start of the season. And while your road will be tough, I’ll no longer be surprised if you’re the team that lifts the Lombardi Trophy in early February.