A season filled with so many high moments ended with a big low in Kansas City on Sunday.
One win away from a trip to Super Bowl LIV, the Titans came up short. Instead, a 35-24 loss to the Chiefs ended the team’s season after what most considered an improbable run to the AFC Championship Game.
“It’s tough — I’m kind of in shock a little bit,” Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill said afterward. “You don’t prepare yourself for this outcome. Everything in your preparation and your mind is: ‘We’re going to win this game.’ So when it hits, it hits hard. I love this team, I love these guys, the way we competed this year.
“It hurts. You feel the pain across the locker room and how far we’ve come, only to come up short from our end goal. It hurts. It’s going to take a while to get over.”
The Titans, who entered the postseason as the No.6 seed in the AFC, knocked off the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. Then, in the Divisional Round, the Titans beat the Baltimore Ravens, the AFC’s top-seeded team.
With a win over the Chiefs, the Titans had a chance to join the 2010 Packers and the 2005 Steelers as the only No. 6 seeds to appear in the Super Bowl since 1990 when the NFL instituted the current 12-team playoff format.
But it didn’t happen. After battling back from a 2-4 record at the beginning of the season and winning in must-win situations so many times, the Titans couldn’t finish the way they wanted to on Sunday.
And in the locker room, many players began saying their goodbyes.
“I definitely shed a couple of tears, because I love my teammates and I love the chemistry that we have throughout the whole season,” running back Derrick Henry said. “I just felt like I could have done more for this team. I love this team, I loved playing football and competing.
“I am definitely going to miss this team, and as I look back, I know I had a lot of good teammates, a lot of good moments I can look back on.”
After a solid start, the Titans saw an early lead evaporate on a cold day at Arrowhead Stadium, where the temperature was 17 degrees at kickoff with a wind chill of five degrees.
Following the game, the Chiefs celebrated their AFC title on the field, while the Titans packed their belongings in a quiet locker room and headed back to Nashville.
“We always believed that we should be in this position,” Titans safety Kevin Byard said. “The goal, the expectation, is always going to be to get to the Super Bowl. Maybe not a lot of people believed we could get to this point. Obviously, it didn’t work out the way we all wanted it to – we wanted to go to the Super Bowl.
“Now we have to do what we need to do to put ourselves in a position to get back here again next year, and win.”
The Titans jumped out to an early 10-0 lead, but they trailed 21-17 at the half and found themselves digging out of a deeper hole in the second half.
Henry, dominant in the first two games of the postseason, was held in check on a day when the Titans abandoned the run in the second half while playing from behind. Henry finished with 69 rushing yards on 19 carries, but he ran the ball just three times for seven yards in the second half.
Tannehill completed 21-of-31 passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns in the contest.
The Titans took a 3-0 lead in their opening possession in a 30-yard field goal by kicker Greg Joseph, which capped an eight-play, 58-yard drive. Tannehill completed passes of 37 yards (to A.J. Brown) and 12 yards (to Corey Davis) on the drive, but the Titans had to settle for a field goal after reaching the Kansas City 12.
When the Titans got the ball back, Henry, who lined up in the “Wildcat” formation, finished off a nine-play, 58-yard drive with a four-yard touchdown run to make it 10-0. A 22-yard pass from Tannehill to tight end Jonnu Smith set up the Henry run. Tannehill’s three-yard pass to receiver Adam Humphries on fourth-and-two from the Kansas City 29 kept the drive alive.
Things were looking good right out of the gate.
“We started how we wanted to,” Smith said. “We came out ready to play.”
After the Chiefs cut the lead to 10-7 on an eight-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Patrick Mahomes to receiver Tyreek Hill, the Titans surged back ahead 17-7 on a one-yard touchdown pass from to Tannehill to tackle Dennis Kelly, who lined up as an eligible receiver on the play. The touchdown capped off a 15-play, 75-yard drive that took 9:07 off the clock. It was Kelly’s second touchdown reception of the season.
But the Chiefs responded with a pair of touchdowns to close out the first half, first scoring on a 20-yard pass from Mahomes to Hill to make it 17-14 with 4:03 remaining in the first half.
When the Chiefs got the ball back, Mahomes scored on 27-yard touchdown run with 11 seconds left in the first half to give Kansas City a 21-17 lead. Mahomes tight-roped the sideline on the run and escaped some sloppy tackling by the Titans to get into the end zone.
The Chiefs extended their lead to 28-17 on a three-yard touchdown run by Damien Williams, which capped off a 13-play, 73-yard drive. The score came with 14:50 remaining in the contest.
A 60-yard touchdown pass from Mahomes to receiver Sammy Watkins made it 35-17 with 7:33 left, and confetti filled the skies at Arrowhead Stadium.
But the Titans kept fighting.
A 22-yard touchdown pass from Tannehill to tight end Anthony Firkser with 4:18 left made it 35-24 with 4:18 left. It followed a perfectly executed fake punt by the Titans – a pass from punter Brett Kern to safety Amani Hooker.
After a defensive stop, the Titans got the ball back again.
But on this day, the celebration came to an end for the Titans.
“You have to be proud of the things you accomplish in life,” Smith said. “We came up short, and now we have to keep working. I know I will, and I know the guys in this locker room will, too.
“And next year, we want to put ourselves back in this position again, and win next time.”
Titans coach Mike Vrabel delivered a message to his players before the plane ride back home.
On Monday, the Titans will clean out their lockers and head their separate ways for the offseason.
“I told them it was an honor to coach them,” Vrabel said. “I felt like we left that locker room before the game as a family and we need to leave it as a family after the game. I’m proud to say that I coached them, and I appreciate their efforts. … I felt like they fought.
“… The expectations have always been really high, whether you lose in the AFC Championship Game, or you lose in the Super Bowl. I want the expectations to be high. That’s what (controlling owner) Amy (Adams Strunk) wants, that’s what (GM) Jon (Robinson) wants, and that’s what I want.”