NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Go ahead and pick against the Tennessee Titans. Count them out against the New England Patriots or call them the ugliest team left in the NFL playoffs.
A franchise only two years removed from the NFL’s worst record over a two-season stretch cares only about winning.
“Our guys kind of like that role,” Titans coach Mike Mularkey said of being underdogs. “Again, this is not a flashy team. It’s not sexy. It’s just a blue collar, come to work, see what happens when you do and see … everybody compete for 60 minutes, see what the outcome is going to come. … Don’t worry about predictors. That’s their job. We have a job to do.”
The Titans (10-7) went 5-27 between 2014 and 2015, costing Ken Whisenhunt his job after 23 games. Mularkey took over, and he’s now 21-21 after a stunning comeback for a 22-21 win at Kansas City in the wild-card round.
Now they will visit New England (13-3) on Saturday night for Tennessee’s first divisional playoff game since January 2009 and their first divisional road game since losing to the Patriots 17-14 in January 2004. They’ve already been installed as 13-point underdogs, though being at least an 8-point underdog at Kansas City and trailing 21-3 at halftime didn’t stop the Titans.
Pro Bowl defensive lineman Jurrell Casey said the Titans’ confidence never wavered as they tied for the second-largest comeback by a road team in the playoffs.
“Everybody was hungry and had the want to,” Casey said. “When you have that, and look around the sideline and see it in their eyes, there’s no reason to panic. That’s what we’ve been doing all year long, and we’ll continue to do that.”
Actually, the Titans have been doing that for the past couple seasons under Mularkey. The Titans now are 7-1 since the start of the 2016 season in games decided by three or fewer points — best in the NFL.
Tight end Delanie Walker said they are comfortable when trailing, confident in their ability to rally.
“We fight to the end,” Walker said. “We weren’t worried about it. We came in (at halftime) and we were like, ‘They haven’t done anything to stop us.’ We made some adjustments. We went back out there, moved the ball, scored some points and there you have it.”
Mularkey said being in close games is expected with how Tennessee attacks on offense with its run scheme. That’s what makes coordinator Dick LeBeau’s defense so crucial.
The Titans rallied against Kansas City with the defense holding the Chiefs to just 61 yards total offense and no points in the second half. On the other side, the offense held the ball for more than 19 minutes, scored on four straight possessions and Derrick Henry had 85 of his career-high 156 yards rushing in the fourth quarter.
Marcus Mariota also notched the ninth game-winning drive of his career and fifth since the start of the 2017 season in beating Kansas City.
Mularkey said the mental toughness required to pull out so many close games is critical, especially on the road.
“We did a lot of good things in that game to give us a chance to win,” Mularkey said. “Unfortunately, we had to do it late, but we did a lot of good things as a team I think will carry over as we go forward.”
General manager Jon Robinson, who got his start in the NFL with 12 seasons in New England starting as a scout, has been busy rebuilding this roster over the past two years. Cornerback Logan Ryan, who signed as a free agent last offseason after four seasons and two Super Bowl rings with the Patriots, said the Titans feature a bunch of players with nothing to lose.
“A bunch of guys who are underrated, undervalued, who came from different places, and who were trying to do something special. We believe that,” Ryan said.
Now the longshot Titans face their biggest test yet Saturday night in New England.
“We want more,” Walker said.