The game had already been – essentially – decided. With slightly more than three minutes left, the Tennessee Titans held a 28-14 lead in Houston over their division rivals. But they still had a little bit of unfinished business.
Entering the game 165 yards behind Cleveland’s Nick Chubb, Tennessee’s Derrick Henry – after a huge game on the ground – now stood just 7 yards behind Chubb for the league rushing title. And so, as Henry cruised down the sideline on his final carry of the day for the 53-yard touchdown that would push him past Nick, his sideline erupted with, perhaps, the most emotion they had shown all game.
What began as a must win for Tennessee to even extend its season into the playoffs, ended as a rout, and a coronation – of sorts – as the Titans rode Henry’s 211 rushing yards – and 3 rushing touchdowns (along with another excellent effort from quarterback Ryan Tannehill) to a 35-14 wildcard clinching victory (gamebook) (summary).
One of the tipoffs to Henry’s success came just after the touchdown as he stood along the sidelines embracing his offensive linemen. If you didn’t know which one was Henry, it would be a little difficult to tell which was the running back and which was the offensive lineman.
Even as the running game has regained importance over the last few years – and even with the rise of a new generation of hammer backs – it is still unusual to see that running back standing eyeball to eyeball with his offensive line.
Listed heights and weights for NFL players are notoriously imprecise, but – as a point of comparison – Derrick Henry is listed at 6-3 and 247 pounds. Of the other running backs that finished in the top ten in rushing, the next tallest was Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon, listed at 6-1. Toiling in relative obscurity in Cincy, Mixon rolled up his second consecutive thousand yard season (1137) this year. Taller than most, Mixon is still (officially) 27 pounds lighter than Henry at 220.
By listed weight, the next heaviest to Derrick are the bowling-ball backs – Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott and Jacksonville’s Leonard Fournette. Both are listed as 6-0 and 228 pounds – again almost 20 pounds lighter than Henry.
So Derrick’s sheer size is a factor – and the primary reason that his production rises notably in the second half of games. On Sunday, Henry went into the locker room with just 47 rushing yards. In the second half, he rolled up 164 – almost as many in those two quarters alone as he needed to catch Chubb. For the season, Derrick earned 543 yards in the first halves of his games, averaging 4.1 yards per carry. In the second halves he added 997 yards at 5.8 per carry. In his combined third quarters alone, Derrick ran for more yardage (669 yards) than in the first two quarters of his games.
But Henry’s size is well-known. What, perhaps, doesn’t get as much play is his speed and overall nimbleness. Two plays before his 53-yard touchdown, Derrick popped for a 23-yard run. Both plays were very similar. The first run was a pitch to Derrick going down the left sideline. He basically took the ball and outran Texan linebacker Brennan Scarlett around the corner.
The touchdown run was slightly more complex. It began as a zone run left that Derrick cut back up the middle. There was a lot of green in front of him, and only linebacker Peter Kalambayi waiting for him in the hole. Peter was probably waiting for Henry to lower his shoulder and plow through him, but – channeling his inner scat-back – Henry pivoted adroitly off his left leg and cut sharply to the right. With Kalambayi diving after him in vain, Derrick burst through the thinnest of openings between linebacker Barkevious Mingo and cornerback Keion Crossen and outran the rest of the defense for the last 40 yards down the right sideline. I’m not sure Lamar Jackson could have done it better himself.
It is this unique combination of size, power, speed and quickness that makes Henry such a devastating weapon. Derrick has now spent four complete seasons in Tennessee. He has only one previous 1000 yard season, and has made just one previous trip to the playoffs. After the 2017 season, the Titans went into Kansas City and won a wildcard game 22-21 fueled by 156 yards from Henry. The next week – in the Divisional Round – they were dumped in New England (the site of today’s playoff game) 35-14, with Henry piling up just 28 yards. He only carried 12 times.
Derrick has always been this kind of weapon. His enduring problem in Tennessee is that the Titans could never muster a consistent enough passing game to allow them to keep handing the ball off to Henry for the whole game. In fact, 2019 began the same as all of those other seasons.
Six weeks into the season, Tennessee was 2-4, with Henry averaging 18.8 carries a game for a modest 69.3 yards – averaging 3.7 yards per. At that point, the team was handed over to Tannehill, and as the passing game picked up, so did Henry’s effectiveness.
Since the change in quarterbacks, Henry is averaging 21.1 carries and 124.9 yards per game – 5.9 yards per carry. Over his last 6 games, he has been almost otherworldly, carrying 23.2 times a game for 149.3 yards per contest – almost 6.5 yards per carry.
The life brought to this offense by Tannehill almost can’t be overstated. All Henry really needed was a solid passing attack. To everyone’s surprise, what he got was arguably the most effective passing attack in the league.
Out of the mediocrity of his seasons in Miami, Ryan Tannehill has exploded onto the NFL scene like the second coming of Tom Brady. His numbers are stunning. His 117.5 passer rating leads the NFL – as does his average yards per pass (9.59) and his yards per completion (13.6). His 7.7 touchdown percentage is second in the league, and his 70.3% completion percentage ranks third.
He passes the eye test, too. If you watched him against Houston, you saw him following up his excellent decision-making with laser-precise throws into very tight windows.
You would not have expected this at the beginning of the season, but by every measure available to us, Ryan Tannehill looks to be the real thing.
All of this makes Tennessee one of the most intriguing darkhorses in the playoffs. Two years later, they will be getting a second shot in New England – this time against a Patriot team that doesn’t seem to be a match for them. Whether this Tennessee team could hold up against the Baltimore Ravens is a discussion we’ll have if that ever becomes relevant, but today I fully expect to see them end New England’s season.
As to the Texans, yes, they played this game under wraps. Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, Kenny Stills, Laremy Tunsil, D.J. Reader, Benardrick McKinney and Bradley Roby never saw the field, while their star running back – Carlos Hyde – didn’t play after the first series.
While we have to take Sunday’s final with a grain of salt as far as Houston goes, it is nonetheless true that this has been a mostly disappointing team all season – never more so than when they followed a transformational victory over New England with a head-scratching loss to Denver in weeks 13 and 14. In Week 15 of this season, they traveled into Tennessee to win the game that essentially gave them the division title and left them with little to play for last Sunday.
But even in that game, one came away believing that Tennessee was the better team. After a shaky first half that saw them fall behind 14-0, the Titans came roaring back after the intermission to narrow the final to 24-21 – a performance that makes me doubt whether Houston could have won this game even if they had tried.
While Tennessee enters their playoff game this afternoon as a team on the rise, I can’t feel the same for the Texans – who also play this afternoon.
I don’t trust them. Even playing at home, I don’t trust this team to rise to the occasion. Their opponents today from Buffalo have consistency issues with their offense, but they are a legit defense. Truthfully, the Bills have precious few victories over quality teams on their resume, so it’s hard to favor them going into Houston and winning. But I do expect them to give the Texans all they can handle.
And I can no longer feel any surprise when Houston loses a game that most feel they could have won.