NASHVILLE – The Titans face the Cincinnati Bengals on Saturday in a Divisional Round playoff game at Nissan Stadium.
Here's a look at six things to watch in the contest:
The Return of the King
Now, it's official. The Titans on Friday activated running back Derrick Henry off Injured Reserve, clearing the way for No. 22 to return to action for the first time since breaking his foot back on October 31. Henry walked with a swagger during the open portion of practices this week, and he also talked about how happy he is to be back playing football. The question now: How will Henry look, and perform, in his return? Henry has been a beast in playoff games in the past – he's surpassed 150 rushing yards in three of his six playoff games, and he's one of three players all time with at least 200 scrimmage yards in multiple postseason games. His 111.7 rushing yards per game in the postseason are the second-most since 1970 (minimum five games played). But remember, this is a guy who hasn't played in 2 ½ months. Heading in, no one is sure how Henry will do against a Bengals defense that finished the regular season ranked 5th in rushing defense. But we're about to find out.
Distribution of Carries
When No.22 comes running out of that tunnel on Saturday, another question will arrive with him. After such a long layoff, it's fair game to wonder just how many touches Henry might get in his first game back as well. A workhorse throughout his playing career, Henry carried the ball 28 times his last time out vs Indianapolis, and he had 28-plus carries in six of the team's first eight games this season, including a 33-carry game, and a 35-carry game. But would the Titans really put that much on his shoulders his first game back? Plenty, of course, will depend on how effective Henry is in his first game back. But we also can't forget about the success of running backs D'Onta Foreman and Dontrell Hilliard in Henry's absence during the second half of the season. It's hard to imagine the team not utilizing those guys as well, at least to some degree. Then again, yes, it's also hard to envision Henry not toting the rock time and again like everyone has grown accustomed to over the years. Heck, it's what we've come to know.
Tannehill and Co.
Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill engineered road playoff wins at New England (and QB Tom Brady) and Baltimore (and QB Lamar Jackson) just a few years ago, but the national narrative continues to dwell on Tannehill's so-so performance in last year's playoff loss vs the Ravens and his slow start to this season, while questioning his ability to lead this team to the NFL's promised land. So, it's once again a prove-it game, and postseason, for Tannehill, who finished the regular season strong, and with momentum. There's no doubt Tannehill is going to need to play well in this one, against a Bengals offense that can score points. The good news is Tannehill's top targets – A.J. Brown and Julio Jones – are healthy, and ready to produce against a Bengals defense that finished the season ranked 26th in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game (248.4).
Contain Burrow and His Weapons
Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow has earned his cigar smoking privileges during his playing career, whether it came as a result of a national championship win at LSU, or him guiding the Bengals to their first playoff win in 31 years last week. Burrow has been outstanding this season, with 4,611 passing yards, 34 touchdowns, and only 14 interceptions. Heck, he hasn't thrown an interception in his last 180 passing attempts. Of course he's not throwing the ball to scrubs either. The Bengals have a talented threesome in receivers Ja'Marr Chase (81 catches, 1,455 receiving yards, 13 touchdowns), Tee Higgins (74-1091-6) and Tyler Boyd (67-828-5). Let's face it – the Titans aren't going to stop these guys in their tracks. The key on Saturday for Tennessee's defense will be to pressure Burrow, making him uncomfortable, while keeping plays in front of them. Sacking him multiple times would be nice, huh?
The Titans were very good at times, but also shaky at times, during the course of the 2021 regular season. While the Titans were good enough to win 12 games and post a 4-0 mark against teams currently in the playoffs (wins over the Chiefs, Bills, Rams and 49ers), they also dropped games against the Jets and Texans. Turnovers hurt the Titans in several games, from the five-turnover game against the Texans, to the four-turnover game in Pittsburgh. It's a new season now, the postseason, and that can't happen now. The Titans, a minus-3 in the takeaway (22)/giveaway (25) category, need to take care of the football, and not make things easier for the Bengals. Earlier, I mentioned Burrow's impressive streak without an interception. Well, the Bengals have gone five straight games without turning the ball over, which has put their takeaway (21)/giveaway (21) number at an even zero. In what's expected to be a tightly contested affair, the turnover battle could help decide this one.
Get Your Popcorn Ready
The Titans have put themselves in a great spot, as the AFC's No.1 seed with home-field advantage leading up to the Super Bowl. Now, they have to take advantage of it, by winning on Saturday and giving the city a chance to host its first AFC Championship. The No.1 seed comes with no guarantees – past Titans teams found this out back in 2000, and 2008, by losing in their playoff opener each year. Ask long-time Titans fans and they'll tell you those stung. The 2019 Titans also reminded the Ravens of this, when they knocked them off their perch as the No.1 seed just a few years ago. We're now in January football. The stakes are high, and so is the excitement level of the fan base. I've seen it on social media all week, and I've heard it on talk radio. Heck, I've seen it with my own eyes at Titans games all year, home and away. I'm expecting Nissan Stadium to be raucous on Saturday, beginning with the intros and all the way through the contest. These opportunities don't come around that often, and I get the sense these Titans are ready, and the team's fans are ready to roar. Get your popcorn ready. Is it gameday yet?