NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Titans find themselves in the same situation as a year ago with a playoff berth on the line in their regular-season finale.
This time, they hope to have a healthier Derrick Henry for that must-win game in Houston. They rested the Pro Bowl running back in a 38-28 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday and got some much-needed help as Pittsburgh lost to the New York Jets 16-10, setting up the simplest of playoff scenarios for Tennessee.
“It’s the same as last year,” Titans safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “We win, we’ll get in. It’s a playoff game for us. There’s really not no way to put it. If you lose, you’re eliminated.”
The Titans (8-7) lost any chance at the AFC South when Houston clinched the division title with a win Saturday in Tampa Bay. They led New Orleans 14-0 without Henry before the Saints scored 24 straight points to take the lead for good.
Tennessee needed a Pittsburgh loss in the final two games with the Titans needing another win over an AFC team to edge out the Steelers for the AFC’s sixth and final playoff berth. The Titans insisted they didn’t hear about Pittsburgh’s loss until they got into the locker room after their own game.
What lies before them made it much easier for the Titans to turn their attention to Houston quickly despite the loss.
“The approach that the playoffs have started essentially for us because when you get into any kind of playoff you win, you move onto the next step,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. “You lose and you’re done. I think that’s really where we’re at right now.”
The Titans had this very same chance last season, hosting Indianapolis for the final playoff berth in the AFC. The match was moved into prime time as the regular season’s final game. Tennessee played without a handful of injured starters, including quarterback Marcus Mariota, and the Colts won.
As the Texans clinched the division, the Titans downgraded Henry to questionable with the left hamstring that has slowed him noticeably over the past two games. They sat Henry against the Saints, hoping the extra rest helps the running back who came into this weekend second in the NFL with 1,329 yards rushing.
Vrabel called the decision to deactivate Henry an organizational move thought “best for the football team.”
“You can only hope that it would help, and that’s why we made the decision that we made,” Vrabel said.
Tennessee outrushed the Saints 149-102 with Dion Lewis running for 68 yards, rookie receiver A.J. Brown scored on a 49-yard run and Dalyn Dawkins added 24 more. But Henry had 86 yards last week in a 24-21 loss to Houston. He’s been a big key to the Titans turning around a 2-4 start to even have a chance at the postseason.
“Yeah, we want to get Derrick back,” Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. “I think he’s been crucial to our offense the whole year. I think anyone can see that and what he brings to the table.”
Tannehill threw for 272 yards and three touchdowns as the Titans outgained Drew Brees and the Saints 397-377. Tannehill also was sacked five times without Henry in the backfield.
Being able to play for the team’s second playoff berth in three seasons and first with Vrabel eases even the pain of allowing a season-high 38 points.
“I’ve been in this position the last three years,” safety Kevin Byard said. “We beat Jacksonville and got in the playoffs. Last year we didn’t get in by losing to the Colts. It feels great to control our destiny, so we need to do whatever we have to do get it fixed and go play the game down in Houston and get in the playoffs.”