Behind Derrick Henry, the Titans Deliver First Shot in Crowded AFC Playoff Race

They didn’t want to take him out, even as he waved toward the sideline for his replacement with 8:37 to go in Thursday Night’s pummeling of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Derrick Henry was on the doorstep of a fifth rushing touchdown but dragged Dion Lewis on the field and stayed planted on the sideline even as head coach Mike Vrabel egged him on. It took the convincing of some paid spectators, who wouldn’t have stayed this deep into a dead-on-arrival weeknight game had their running back not been on the verge of a record-tying fifth touchdown.

When they finally got him back in the huddle and into the backfield, Henry ended up shoved out of bounds by a Jaguars defense that, for the first time all night, had seen something coming (a counter toss to the outside). Henry finished with 238 yards and four touchdowns, including a 99-yard run that featured a troika of brutal stiff-arms in the middle of the second quarter. In one night, he nearly managed to double his season touchdown total. He rushed for more yards than he did in the previous six games. He lifted an offense that has been frustrating at worst, and middling at best throughout the season.

But he also delivered the first shot in what is, all of a sudden, the most entertaining playoff race in the NFL. The Titans, along with the Ravens (7–5), Colts (6–6), Broncos (6–6) and Dolphins (6–6) are all angling for the final position in the AFC. With the win, FiveThirtyEight’s prediction analysis gives Tennessee a 25% chance to sneak in—a number that steadily increases should it handle the remainder of a winnable schedule that includes the Giants, Washington and Indianapolis.

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This was a team blanked by the Ravens about two months ago. A team that lost to the Dolphins in the season opener, and one with two separate losing streaks this year. With Henry as a viable power option, even if he finds space on the outside with half the consistency as he did Thursday night, changes the parameters down the stretch.

All of the teams left floating in the AFC’s wild-card race are a band of misfit toys. The Ravens are pinballing their way through a fascinating, if still developing offense piloted by Lamar Jackson and still have to play the Chiefs and Chargers. The Broncos are riding the back of a thrilling run game, managing to survive an in-season teardown attempt from president and general manager John Elway with the lightest part of their schedule remaining. The Colts, though seriously wounded with last weekend’s punchless performance against the Jaguars, are difficult to minimize thanks to a resurgent performance by Andrew Luck and new head coach Frank Reich.

Perhaps none, though, could scramble the playoff field quite like Tennessee. After watching the Titans perforate an underperforming but established Jacksonville defense, a few of the teams atop the standings eyeing the developing bracket would prefer that the Titans stay home.

Henry amassed that total by sitting out almost half of the final quarter. Should this breakout sustain, the chances are we won’t see him getting breathers again. The Titans are going to need a few more of those over the next month.

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