Tennessee Titans survived Houston Texans to earn No. 1 seed — and that's all that matters | Estes

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HOUSTON — To those who were certain, even at halftime, that the Tennessee Titans would stroll through NRG Stadium on Sunday to grab the AFC’s No. 1 seed in the playoffs, that’s just not how this rivalry works.

It wasn’t going to be that easy. Nothing is for the Titans against the Houston Texans.

Given that, it’s difficult to quibble with an important 28-25 victory.

Even if it really shouldn’t have been as stressful as it proved to be in the second half.

Even if the Titans flinched offensively and eased up defensively, nearly choking away a three-touchdown halftime lead against an opponent a day from the golf course.

Even if a legitimately big fish and Super Bowl contender shouldn’t struggle to put away a minnow like the Texans with so much on the line.

Even if it took a miraculous, tide-turning play by quarterback Ryan Tannehill on third down to spin away from a sack and find wide receiver Nick Westbrook-Ikhine for 36 yards, extending the 75-yard drive that resulted in the first Titans touchdown catch for Julio Jones (!) that ended up as the game-winning score.

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"We kind of sleepwalked through the third quarter and the fourth as well," Titans safety Kevin Byard said.

Should we be worried about that? About such an ill-timed lapse?

Ultimately, a season-turning close call won’t matter any more than it did last year in this stadium.

These Titans (12-5) are in a much better position, too, as the regular season ends. They won’t have a playoff game outside of Nissan Stadium until the Super Bowl, and that’s a sweet advantage for a team that appeared until halftime Sunday to be peaking at the perfect time.

And still doing it, for now, without Derrick Henry.

Had the Titans messed around and actually lost to the Texans, their decision not to activate Henry – who practiced this past week – would have been second-guessed forever.

It was a calculated gamble. Because if we’re being honest, who could be sure the Titans wouldn’t have trouble with the Texans? They always do.

“We weren’t perfect, but a huge step," coach Mike Vrabel said. "... We’ve moved on to the second round of the playoffs.”

These two franchises have spent the better part of two years sprinting away from each other, and yet you couldn’t tell it on the field. Before losing to the Texans this season, the Titans barely squeaked by them twice last season.

Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) celebrates after beating the Texans at NRG Stadium Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022 in Houston, Texas.
Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) celebrates after beating the Texans at NRG Stadium Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022 in Houston, Texas.

They needed a late comeback and overtime at home before clinching the division in the final seconds in Houston on the strength of a field goal doinking between the posts.

In both 2020 games, Henry ran wild. In 2021, he was missing, and the Titans lost.

Had the Titans brought him back in these circumstances, it might not have been advisable. But it would have been understandable.

And don’t tell me the Texans (4-13) had nothing to play for, either.

Outside of Titans playoff implications, two narratives decorated the buildup to this game. One was Henry’s status. The other had to do with David Culley, Middle Tennessee native, former Vanderbilt quarterback and – for the moment, at least – coach of the Texans.

On Sunday morning, NFL Network reported that the Texans would “evaluate” Culley’s future after only one season. That’s a telltale sign of danger (I mean, the Titans won’t soon be “evaluating” Vrabel’s future), especially when the shot was chased by Houston Chronicle legend John McClain tweeting before the game, “It won’t surprise me if coach David Culley gets fired.”

Let’s not dwell on how dimwitted it’d be for the Texans to fire Culley after one season in which he had no chance; if anything, he overachieved to win four games. His Texans improved. They spanked a good Chargers team the day after Christmas. They never quit on Culley.

They kept fighting Sunday, too. Even if it was at a half-empty NRG Stadium in which a lot of loud roars came from fans of the visiting team. The Texans had to realize they’d be making an argument for their coach to be retained.

"We were struggling defensively. Give them a lot of credit," Vrabel said. "And give us credit for battling back."

The Texans did enough to get a moral victory.

The Titans did enough to get an actual one. They’ll be off next weekend, and when they return at Nissan Stadium, Henry surely will, too.

"We've got to win two games to get to the Super Bowl," Titans defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons. "What better situation to be in? Especially (since) you've got to come through Nashville."

On this Sunday, that’s all that mattered.

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

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tennessee Titans clinched AFC's No. 1 seed — now the real fun begins

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