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Ask the Miami Dolphins.
The NFL’s hottest team cooled off considerably Sunday. Maybe that was the freezing rain and wet conditions at Nissan Stadium, but I’d argue that Titans’ defense was more responsible for a 34-3 rout that wrapped up their second AFC South title in a row.
It was three things, really: Defense. Run game. Physicality.
Last season’s Titans had two of those three things. Now, they can play defense, too.
Defense is what shut the door on the Dolphins’ seven-game win streak. Defense is also the biggest reason why the team that Henry – presumably – will rejoin is a lot different from the one he departed a couple of months ago.
The rapid improvement in the Titans’ defense from last season – or even from earlier this season – is a reminder of how fluid situations can be in the ever-changing NFL.
The Dolphins (8-8) are an example of that, too, maybe the league's best in 2021. On Halloween, they fell to 1-7 with a loss to the Buffalo Bills. They were all but finished.
Meanwhile, the Titans (11-5) looked unstoppable. They’d just finished a season sweep of the Indianapolis Colts. The division was a foregone conclusion. They were zeroing in on the AFC’s No. 1 seed.
Then the next day, we learned that Henry had broken a bone in his foot.
Like an abrupt scratch of a needle on a record. The natural reaction, whether one would admit it now, was to view the Titans' promising season as a lost cause.
That's why they play the games, though. These Titans were 6-2 with Henry. Remarkably, they’ve gone 5-3 in eight games without him.
They’re still AFC South champs. They’re still hosting at least one playoff game. They’re still vying for a top seed in the conference. No soul associated with the Titans wouldn’t have taken that in advance.
For weeks, rumbles about Henry’s recovery have been positive behind the scenes despite no updates from coach Mike Vrabel or the team. We’ll see where that leads and when. Goes without saying that getting Henry back for a playoff run would be a massive boost.
Something has happened, though, that I’ll admit I didn’t believe was possible: The Titans have learned how to win without their best player.
They didn’t reinvent themselves, either. They didn’t overhaul their offensive identity. The run game didn’t vanish. D’Onta Foreman, in particular, has proven himself to be a quality NFL player. On an afternoon drawn up for a good running game, the Titans were able to lean on theirs. Foreman ran for 132 yards Sunday. He was a difference-maker, and quarterback Ryan Tannehill didn’t have to be.
Looking back over these past two months, though, let’s not pretend the Titans' offense has been the same without Henry. It hasn’t been. It has looked downright ugly at times. The Titans hadn’t scored more than 20 points in five consecutive games before Sunday – after scoring at least 23 in nine in a row prior to that.
The offense has survived these past two months.
The Titans’ defense, on the other hand, has thrived. It has stepped up when needed, and it's getting better each week.
In four of the eight games with Henry, the Titans allowed an opponent at least 31 points.
In eight games without Henry, only the Patriots (36) scored more than 22 against the Titans. The Jaguars were shut out. The Rams scored 16, and their turnovers decided that game. The 49ers mustered only 17 points, allowing the Titans’ offense to do just enough to win a pivotal game.
And building off that, the Titans barely gave Dolphins a chance.
This was too easy. It was a bullying performance, an established playoff team having its way with an opponent still figuring out how to get there.
The Titans are beginning to look dangerous. They’re beginning to look like a complete team. They are finally getting healthy, and they are starting to play their best football in January, when it counts the most.
And that’s without their best player.
My goodness, what happens when Derrick Henry returns?
Reach Gentry Estes at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tennessee Titans are improving just in time for the AFC playoffs