Tennessee Titans will continue being a tough-to-watch outfit — until Derrick Henry returns | Estes

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PITTSBURGH – For weeks, the question hasn’t been whether the Tennessee Titans would make the playoffs. And the question isn’t whether they’ll be ready for the postseason.

No, the question has been whether Derrick Henry will be ready.

It’s minimizing Henry’s teammates to assume the Titans have no chance at a playoff run without him, but everyone knows he’s the difference-maker on this team. So assume away, I’d say.

Especially after Sunday afternoon.

The Titans somehow lost an important — and oh, so winnable — game at Heinz Field, where the Pittsburgh Steelers messed around in the cold for about three quarters before rallying for a 19-13 victory that’ll sting the Titans as their AFC South lead gets closer and the AFC’s No. 1 seed further away.

And they gave it away.

This wasn’t on the Titans’ defense. Or its special teams. Those units did enough.

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The Titans’ offense — shut out in the second half — was the culprit. It didn’t do enough to capitalize and seize control of a game in which the home fans spent much of the afternoon booing their middling Steelers. And then when it got close late, things got worse.

After taking a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, the Titans’ next seven offensive possessions finished as follows: fumble, field goal, punt, punt, fumble, interception, fumble.

The four turnovers all resulted in field goals for the Steelers, who didn’t have to go very far and didn’t manage to put together a drive longer than eight plays during the entire game against a swarming Titans defense that’s playing as confidently as it has in years.

Didn’t matter in the end because you have to score points and complete passes downfield to win games against respectable teams. The Titans were driving and in the red zone in the final minute only to come up a few inches shy on fourth down. The last gasp wasn’t enough to overcome their own mistakes and shortcomings.

"I'm not the guy to make excuses for anybody," safety Kevin Byard said, "but we've got a lot of injuries on offense. As a defense, we've got to carry the torch. ... I felt like we did that, but at the end of the day, if their defense is getting turnovers, we've got to get more turnovers."

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The Titans are shorthanded, yes. But they aren’t any closer to offensive excellence now than when Henry broke his foot on Halloween. Along the way to blowing this game, receiver Julio Jones hurt his hamstring again, which looks like a big problem for an offense that is still missing its best receiver in A.J. Brown and has forgotten how to complete a throw longer than 25 yards. Woeful protection is largely to blame for the passing game struggles, and that looks like an even bigger problem.

The running attack hasn’t been toothless without Henry. The Titans gained 201 yards on the ground Sunday, but it’s not the same. Nothing is the same for this offense, and it’s a remarkable reversal for a team that this time last year was having to win shootouts because of how poor the defense was playing.

That Titans team wasn’t complete enough to make noise in the playoffs?

But this team? Well, that depends?

Among NFL teams, there’s a gap each season between those merely hoping for a playoff spot and those expecting it. Sometime in the last couple of years, the Titans progressed from one category to the other, meaning each performance is judged not necessarily by what it’ll mean for next week’s standings as much as what it’ll mean in January.

An entire season could be spent trying to decode legitimacy, but it’s more about peaking at the perfect time. To that end, the real clues often arrive on chilly afternoons like Sunday. Winning a stern test like this offers a hint of a team worth watching. But if a team is flailing into December, it’s unlikely to find its form quickly enough.

"Especially in December," defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons said , "you can't beat yourself."

Take the Titans the past two years, for instance. In 2019, they flew to Oakland and spanked the Raiders — in a similar spot as the Steelers were Sunday — to the telling tune of 42-21 before getting hot in the playoffs on the road. In 2020, they went to Green Bay and got spanked 40-14 by the Packers in the snow. Two weeks later, a home playoff loss to Baltimore.

This mistake-filled effort in Pittsburgh wasn’t so decisive either way, which is on theme. This season’s crystal ball has been foggy since, oh, about Halloween.

The Titans with and without Derrick Henry are two different outfits with much different ceilings. Any expectation for a playoff run hinges on the hope of No. 22 being in uniform again also with A.J. Brown.

Once that happens, we’ll see.

Until that happens, it’ll remain tough to watch.

Reach Gentry Estes at gestes@tennessean.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tennessee Titans' brutal Steelers loss a bat signal for Derrick Henry

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