Hot or Not

NFL Hot or Not: Derrick Henry's a mythical force; Lions hit restart (again)

In the wake of Week 12, Marc Sessler dishes on what's hot -- and what's not -- in the NFL:

WHAT'S HOT

High Plains Drifter.

This Clint Eastwood feature released in April 1973 opens with Eastwood's character, The Stranger, roaming on horseback across desert slabs of the old Southwest.

Waves of heat obscure The Stranger as he rumbles across barren landscapes. Dee Barton's ghostly, synthesizer-doused score stirs a sense of otherworldly tension as Eastwood descends into a valley toward the unkempt mining town of Lago.

Sweaty locals stare in a mixture of fear and awe as The Stranger rides up the main drag. Men don't like the look of him; women can't take their eyes away.

A full seven minutes pass before Eastwood speaks. Tying up his horse and striding into the saloon, he says to an old bartender flanked by a horde of local thugs:

"Beer. And a bottle."

"Ain't much good. It's all there is," the bartender says of the drink, pouring from a tap. "Will you want anything else?"

"Just a peaceful hour to drink it in."

The locals inch closer.

"Flea-bitten range bums don't usually stop in Lago," says a casting-call henchman. "Life here's a little too quick for 'em."

Eastwood, clutching his beer, staring down into nothingness, refuses to even look at the guy.

"Maybe you think you're fast enough to keep up with us, huh?" says the heavy.

Now Eastwood is looking. That long stare. Silence. Everyone growing uneasy.

"A lot faster than you'll ever live to be."

. . . . .

Eastwood goes on to do exactly what you'd expect him to do. Archetypally, it's every Western ever, but it works. The classically painted mystery man, devoid of fear, floating into town and cleaning house.

You aren't on the wrong website. It's just that High Plains Drifter came to mind as I watched the Tennessee Titans gallop into Indianapolis and separate the Colts into a thousand pieces.

Derrick Henry is that near-supernatural mystery man. The Colts don't want to see him in these parts again after he riddled their stout defense for 140 yards and three touchdowns in the first 30 minutes of play.

The final 30 were of zero consequence. Henry broke the locals before halftime oranges were handed out. Yes, Indy's rugged front seven was missing stalwarts DeForest Buckner, Denico Autry and Bobby Okereke, but this was no aberration. Henry's 103 yards against the Colts in Week 10 marks the only other game all season Indy has allowed a runner to cross the 100-yard barrier.

Back to that cowboy-riding-into-town thing, though: Henry thrives on the dusty road, posting 100-plus yards rushing in eight straight road outings. His 1,121 ground yards over that eight-game road span are topped by just two players in NFL lore: Earl Campbell and Eric Dickerson.

Nobody wants to be Carlton Davis crumbling in the national spotlight against from-another-star-system Tyreek Hill, but nothing tops the psychological damage of a caught-on-fire runner embarrassing an entire defense.

I thought Henry finished the Colts with 4:25 left in the second quarter and Tennessee up 21-14. Indy kept pace early with two lengthy touchdown drives, but started asking internal questions after a second straight punt gave the Titans control all over again.

On that critical drive's first play, Henry carried the ball into the dark heart of Indy's defense, dashing past a diving Taylor Stallworth, an unsteady Julian Blackmon and into the second level with no less than four Colts within arm's reach as he chugged for 31 yards before safety Khari Willis dragged him to the ground. Indy wasn't up to the task. You could see it on their faces.

Eight plays later, Henry punched in his third score of the day, burying the Colts in a 28-14 hole they'd sleep in that night.

. . . . .

It was fair to question the Titans (8-3) after their stumble-and-bumble act against the Bengals in Week 8. Their loss to the Colts in Week 10 had plenty to do with Tennessee's third-string punter melting down on national television and the Titans' defense allowing Philip Rivers to play his best game of the season. The defense, though, did its job in a white-knuckle win over Baltimore -- and again in Indianapolis.

Can Cleveland possibly stop this train come Sunday? At 8-3, the Browns earn points for beating the teams they should. They've flown under the radar in securing their first non-losing season since 2007. Kevin Stefanski, in his first season, has brought an even-keel, business-first energy to an organization wed for decades to utter chaos.

Cleveland isn't entirely different than Tennessee, with an offense that channels through its two dynamic churners, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Teams have sold out to stop the run in recent weeks, hoping to put matters into the hands of a hot-and-cold Baker Mayfield. It hasn't mattered, though, with the backfield duo owning the second half and closing out games with clock-burning runs in the final minutes.

Sunday's too-close-for-comfort win over the Jaguars saw the Browns post 200-plus rushing yards for the fourth time this season. The Titans have done so three times. Still, Cleveland is eyed suspiciously after being topped by the Raiders and drubbed by the Ravens and Steelers. Outside of knocking off the Colts, every one of the Browns' victories have come against teams currently below .500.

The Titans won't vanish without a tussle. Mentally tough. Physically daunting. Well-coached by Mike Vrabel and fearing nobody.

Can the Browns play the role of spoiler? Marching into Tennessee with zero hesitation or self-doubt. Shrugging off would-be heavies, waltzing up to the bar and telling the rusty barkeep exactly what they want?

Or will Cleveland learn the same lesson so many challengers have been taught along the way: Derrick Henry, The Stranger, has arrived as an unstoppable combination of speed and fury. In so many ways, the league's true MVP.

The most intriguing tussle of Week 13 will answer every question.

WHAT'S NOT

1) A challenge to the Detroit Lions as they stare into the abyss of yet another rebuild: Become something we don't expect. Something more. Something bearing a defined identity. Something greater than one drab Sunday after the next. The Lions have served as a hotbed of boredom for so long that it's become normalized. Poured into the bloodstream. In the wake of moving on from Matt Patricia, Lions ownership faces immense pressure to right a wandering vessel. Imagine all the 15-year-old football fans in Detroit who watched the fascinating Deshaun Watson light up the skies while asking themselves: Football can stir the heart? Think about how, one week prior, these same teenage Michiganders saw first-year Carolina coach Matt Rhule coax a watchable performance out of former XFL signal-caller P.J. Walker in a 20-0 shutout of a listless Lions roster. Waves and generations of would-be Lions fans are looking elsewhere for a better product. It's time to examine how past decisions have been made -- who made them -- and whether or not anything will be different this time around in the search for a new head coach and general manager.

2) What to make of the Raiders being flattened by the Falcons? In my book, every team deserves a mulligan for an ugly Sunday. Green Bay looked terribly confused in their 38-10 crumbling against the Bucs in Week 6. The Saints fell in back-to-back weeks to the Raiders and the Packers. Outside of Kansas City, I don't see a team rounding into INVINCIBLE STATUS. Even those Chiefs, though, were clipped by Las Vegas back in October. The Raiders are a good-but-not-great team that can't survive when Derek Carr fumbles the ball three times and unfurls a killer pick-six to bury his team in a 23-3 hole. Sunday lowers my trust, but isn't this part of the Carr experience? He's never as bad as the doubters suggest, but endless flowery praise doesn't fit him, either. Getting right quick against the Jets on Sunday will stop the bleeding, but -- aberration or not -- it's fair to question if the 2020 Raiders are anything more than wild-card fodder heading for an early bedtime.

3)Two days later, I'm still dealing with the life-force drain triggered by watching the Bears on prime-time television. The Scheduling Heads have finally listened, though, burying Mitch Trubisky and his merry band of misfits scoring 19.6 points per game -- 29th in the NFL -- on hushed early-slate Sunday kickoffs from now until the end of this miserable campaign. Chicago vows to make up for it with an offseason promising plenty of high drama.

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter.

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