In a league that has never been more reliant on the passing game, Derrick Henry is an unlikely savior and the Titans are an improbable Super Bowl contender.
Improbable? Feels more like impossible.
But here they are, fresh off another shocking upset of what appeared to be a worthy choice to carry off the Lombardi Trophy in Miami in Super Bowl LIV on Feb. 2.
A week after conquering Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots at Gillette Stadium, the sixth-seeded Titans punched a ticket to the AFC Championship Game against the Chiefs with an even more shocking upset of the top-seeded Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on Saturday night.
And all — or at least mostly — because of Henry, the game’s premier running back, who is proving that old-school football is alive and well in the NFL.
At a time when most teams are placing less reliance on the run and investing more heavily in the passing game, the mountainous Henry might just carry the Titans all the way to South Florida on his back.
Henry has been spectacular in the Titans’ two upset wins, running for 182 yards and a touchdown and adding a receiving score in a 20-13 victory over New England and then mauling the Ravens with 195 rushing yards in Saturday night’s 28-12 win over Baltimore. Not only that, but Henry threw a touchdown pass on a trick play to put the game away in the third quarter.
Henry, 26, helped get the Titans into the tournament by rushing for 211 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-14 win over the Texans in Houston to end the regular season. His 377 combined rushing yards against the Patriots and Ravens are the most ever in back-to-back playoff games.
But those numbers are not what matters most to the 6-3, 247-pound Henry, who led the NFL with 1,540 rushing yards in the regular season.
“I’m more happy that we won,” he said. “The stats and all of that stuff is good, but we got the win and we are advancing. That’s the most important thing to me.”
The man is incredible, and he’s at the heart of a simple yet effective formula that is getting it done for the Titans: Run effectively, stop the run and don’t turn the ball over.
Sound familiar? Well, that’s the way things were before the unprecedented emphasis on the passing game took hold in the NFL in recent years. The Titans are playing the kind of football that was commonplace from the 1950s through the early 1990s.
But even by those standards, Henry’s performance has been next-level. Consider: In both playoff wins, quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who has resurrected his career since taking over as the starter for Marcus Mariota in Week 6, threw for fewer than 100 yards.
“He’s special,” Tannehill said of Henry. “I think he is special because he has the size that is extremely rare in a running back. But he also has the speed to go with it. So he has the size to run those 2- or 3-yard runs that are physical when there’s no hole. He’s getting the yards to keep us ahead of the chains. But also, if he breaks free and gets past the first level, he has the speed to take it 60 or 70 yards, which is extremely rare.”
Henry fired off a 66-yard run in the third quarter against the Ravens moments after Tennessee stopped presumptive MVP Lamar Jackson for a second straight time on a fourth-down rushing attempt. Henry’s run set up his eventual 3-yard jump-pass touchdown toss to Corey Davis.
“It’s fun to coach him,” coach Mike Vrabel said. “He’s got a great energy. He’s durable, he’s physical and I’m glad he’s with us.”
So are the rest of the Titans, who are one victory away from getting the chance to win the first Super Bowl championship in franchise history.
The 1999 Titans came within a yard of beating the Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV as wide receiver Kevin Dyson was tackled just short of the goal line in the final seconds.
If Henry gets a similar opportunity, you get the feeling he’ll find a way to get that extra yard.
Derrick Henry has been a battering ram in the Titans’ last eight games, averaging 25 carries and nearly 160 yards:
Week Opp. Carries Yards Rush TDs
10 KC 23 188 2
12 Jack. 19 159 2
13 Ind. 26 149 1
14 Oak. 18 103 2
15 Hous. 21 86 0
17 Hous. 32 211 3
WC NE 34 182 1
Div. Balt. 30 195 0