There was a time not all that long ago where the Tennessee Titans were devoid of star power and could even have been described as relatively non-descript. They weren't always bad – they were occasionally average - but they rarely set the pulse racing with breath-taking plays and big-time players.
That is no longer the case.
The 2014 and 2015 seasons – which saw the Titans win a combined five games – seem a million miles from what we are seeing in Nashville this season.
The Titans are loaded with star power and they are explosive. That is not a description that would have been levelled at this team towards the end of Jeff Fisher's reign as head coach or under the leadership of Mike Munchak, Ken Whisenhunt or Mike Mularkey over the past decade or so.
But this Tennessee team – which has started 5-0 for just the second time in franchise history – can score from anywhere on the field and they have that ingredient needed to be a good champion in any sport. They are very hard to beat and they can dig deep and pull out a result when things appear to be sliding away from them.
The Titans had to dig very deep to defeat the Houston Texans on Sunday night. Tennessee were in control midway through the third period before a field goal block turned the tide. In a back-and-forth second half, Houston moved into a 36-29 lead with 1.50 remaining as the excellent Deshaun Watson threw a short touchdown strike to Brandin Cooks.
That led to an interesting yet ill-advised gamble from Texans' interim head coach Romeo Crennel. Kick the extra point and you're up by eight, leaving Tennessee needing a touchdown and a two-pointer to tie. Go for two and make it and it is very likely game over with a nine-point lead. Crennel rolled the dice and failed, leaving just enough time and room for Ryan Tannehill to work some magic.
Tannehill took over as Tennessee's starter around this time last year and he has enjoyed a career resurgence in Nashville. He doesn't look much like the quarterback I saw in Miami.
Tannehill is the highest-rated quarterback in the NFL dating back to the start of last season, ahead of Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Aaron Rodgers and all the others with a mark of 116.0. But the numbers only tell a small part of the story with Tannehill. His confidence and poise is off the charts.
With the game on the line, Tannehill had completed a pass in the middle of the field to the Houston seven-yard line. Out of time outs and the seconds were ticking down… 15, 14, 13… TV analyst and former NFL MVP quarterback Rich Gannon was suggesting he spike the ball to stop the clock but the Titans quarterback already had another play up his sleeve and lofted a beautiful pass to A.J. Brown, who made a toe-tapping catch in the endzone with four seconds left to send the game to overtime.
It's not that Tannehill was terrible in Miami. He was much like the Titans of old – he was just average. I'm not sure he could have delivered that kind of victory in the clutch for the Dolphins.
And the victory came in overtime thanks to another behemoth on this Titans team – running back Derrick Henry. A good indication of what was to come for Houston was the reaction of their quarterback when Watson lost the coin toss at midfield. He was frustrated and not afraid to let that be known to the world. It was like he knew he might not see the football again and that proved to be the case (that is not a rule I like in overtime but let's save that for another time).
Henry got the Titans into scoring range with a 52-yard catch and run (not his biggest play of the day but more on that in a moment) and finished the job by taking a direct snap at Houston's 10-yard line and rumbling towards the goal-line. He was met by two Texans defenders at the two-yard line, but who do you think won that particular battle? Henry and the defenders ended up in a pile on the floor more than a yard into Houston's endzone. Game over!
Henry is a beast of a back, as has been well documented in recent years. He is basically a running back in a defensive end's body. But what makes him so scary is the ability to rip off a big play like he did in overtime and earlier in this contest when he scored on a 94-yard run.
On that play, the 6-foot-3/247-pound rusher simply raced away from defensive backs to reach the endzone untouched. How the heck are defenders supposed to deal with this guy? I can understand defensive backs getting thrown around by the bigger player, but if they're going to lose foot races with Henry as well, there is little hope.
Henry rushed for 212 yards and two scores on the day, while adding 52 through the air. Tannehill threw for 364 yards and four touchdowns as the Titans became the first team in NFL history to have a 200-yard rusher and a 350-yard passer in the same game.
But they were not alone in making big plays for a Titans team that has now scored 30+ points in four straight contests. Brown stepped up with two touchdowns and Adam Humphries was also a factor in the slot. Suddenly, the Titans are loaded with star power and can rightly take a seat at the NFL's top table of contenders.
Tampa Bay's defense… I came away from Tampa Bay's 38-10 demolition of the Green Bay Packers very impressed with a defense that is shaping up very nicely indeed. The Bucs intercepted Aaron Rodgers twice – scoring on Jamel Dean's tide-turning pick six. And that was notable because Rodgers had not been picked on the year and Green bay had not committed a single turnover in four games. There was more. The linebacker pairing of Devin White and Lavonte David made plays all over the field and the front seven got consistent pressure on Rodgers, sacking him four times. Again, that was significant because Green Bay's line – that lost the excellent David Bakhtiari at tackle to injury - had only conceded three sacks in the season's first four games. In a game where much was made about Rodgers and Tom Brady, Tampa's D was the star of the show.
The Pittsburgh Steelers… There was much talk heading into Week 6 about how a victory in Pittsburgh for the first time since 2003 would be a real statement of intent for the Cleveland Browns. An opportunity for the Browns to show the rest of the NFL that they are for real this season. Cleveland got hammered 38-7 by a Steelers team that was just better and more physical in every phase of the game. It actually turned into a statement of intent in showing that the Steelers are for real at 5-0. James Conner, Chase Claypool and James Washington had some nice moments on offense, but it was the defense that led the way, recording four sacks, seven quarterback hits and two interceptions while knocking Baker Mayfield from the game. That group is elite and these Steelers appear good enough to win it all.
Ryan Fitzpatrick… How can you not love Ryan Fitzpatrick? He not only threw three touchdown passes in leading the Miami Dolphins to a 24-0 win over the New York Jets, but he was also there as a cheerleader in the final moments when rookie first-rounder Tua Tagovailoa saw his first NFL action. Tua completed his first two NFL passes at the end of the one-sided win and Fitz was the happiest man in the stadium, serving as a hype man from the sidelines. That speaks volumes about the class of Fitz and it served as a reminder that the veteran is the perfect mentor for the rookie. Fitz is not only one of the smartest players in the league, he is also a selfless leader and Tua should be a sponge around him for the remainder of this season.
Kirk Cousins… Don't let the numbers fool you as Kirk Cousins threw for 343 yards and three touchdowns on Sunday night. Cousins had a terrible first half during a game his disappointing Minnesota Vikings would go on to lose 40-23 to the previously-winless Atlanta Falcons. Cousins threw three interceptions and this one got out of hand early. The yardage totals and touchdowns came with the game already gone from a Vikings point of view. Cousins threw his touchdown passes while trailing 23-0, 33-7 and 40-15. He and his team have much to improve upon during their bye week but at 1-5, their season might already be lost.
The New York Jets… The Jets appear to be at rock bottom and I cannot see a route out of this mess that involves Adam Gase keeping his job as head coach. New York are 0-6, devoid of star power, starting quarterback Sam Darnold has been out injured and there is now reported in-fighting between Gase and his defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who is refusing to have his D take all the blame for this winless and hapless start to 2020. It's hard not to blame Gase and the decision makers around him. As he did in Miami, Gase has, for some reason, shown a tendency to get big-name players out the door; parting company with the likes of receiver Robby Anderson, running back Le'Veon Bell and elite safety Jamal Adams. The cupboard is pretty bare and the future looks bleak.
New England's passing attack … Credit the Denver Broncos for doing a number on the New England Patriots on Sunday night as Brandon McManus kicked six field goals in an 18-12 win at Foxboro. But every time I looked at this game, I saw receivers struggling to separate downfield and I saw Cam Newton missing throws he might normally be expected to make. Cam threw for 157 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. He was sacked four times and struggled badly. New England's final drive summed up their day as they only got moving with Julian Edelman trick play passes to James White and Cam. When Cam started dropping back to throw again, he was off target and looked poor. And it was game over.
The Fast Five…
- Philip Rivers is one of the classiest guys in the NFL and he happily admitted after Sunday's win over Cincinnati that he had been reading criticisms coming from the media in Indianapolis. And he held no such grudge for the reporters writing such stinging words. Rivers bounced back in great style on Sunday as he threw for 371 and three touchdowns in a 31-27 win in which the Colts had to fight back from 21-0 down. It was a classy performance from a class act.
- We discussed the potential for a trade deadline fire sale for the Atlanta Falcons on Sky Sports NFL on Sunday evening and came to the conclusion that Matt Ryan and Julio Jones should be part of any rebuild and not traded away in the coming weeks. The pair emphasised the need for them to be kept in Georgia during win number one of 2020 as Ryan threw for 371 yards and four touchdowns, while a fit-again Julio Jones caught eight passes for 137 yards and two scores. More on him later because I think he will be the one, of the two, more likely to be moved on.
- There could be trouble brewing in Jacksonville after another no-show on Sunday, this time resulting in a 34-16 home shellacking at the hands of the Detroit Lions. The Jags get occasional moments out of quarterback Gardner Minshew and he remains an energetic bright spot, but the offense as a whole struggled against Detroit as the unit gained just 275 yards. With five straight losses, the Jags face a big game against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 7. Another loss could spell trouble and changes could be coming.
- Jimmy Garoppolo and the San Francisco 49ers got back on track with a 24-16 win over the LA Rams on Sunday night and it was a combination of sharp QB play and outstanding play-calling. Jimmy G looked effective on touchdown strikes to George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk, both of which came in the face of some fierce pressure. But the quarterback also threw a lot of short, quick strikes, including an under-handed end-around to Deebo Samuel that proved tough to defend time and again. The speed of those throws negated the threat of Aaron Donald in a very impressive bounce-back win for the Niners.
- We all stepped into an NFL Time Machine on Sunday night as we saw Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski connect for one big play after the other, albeit in a different uniform during Tampa's defeat of Green Bay. Gronk started to look a bit more like his old self as he caught five passes for 78 yards and scored his first touchdown since 2018. With O.J. Howard out for the rest of the year with an Achilles injury, look for Gronk to feature more and more the rest of the way. He has the complete trust of Brady and that is a massive thing.
Fact of the Week
Pittsburgh safety Minkah Fitzpatrick had a pick-six on the Browns' first offensive drive of the game, scoring what turned out to be the game-winning points as the Steelers took a 10-0 lead and went on to win 38-7. The Steelers have now won each of their last 16 games in which they scored a defensive touchdown.
Finish That Sentence
Each week in this spot I ask readers - via Twitter - to randomly send me the start of a sentence and, as we do on our NFL UK Live stage show tours, I will finish the sentence with the first thought that comes into my head. Here we go…
From David Hill (@DavidHi87344943) The New England Patriots will not win their division… because they just don't have enough passing game weapons to be effective in today's NFL. And Sunday's loss to Denver has me now questioning how far Cam Newton can take this team. I think the Pats will always be a tough week to week proposition because of Bill Belichick's coaching genius, but there is no doubt he is being forced to coach around some major deficiencies. Buffalo are going to suffer a few more bumps here and there, but I think they are by far the better team. And keep an eye on the Dolphins, whose only losses have come to New England, Buffalo and Seattle.
From Jordan Frost (@JordFrost) The Super Bowl will be contested between…_ two teams who were not my original selections. If you asked me to put my house on the participants in the big game now, I would lean towards the Pittbsurgh in the AFC and the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC. But that is a bit too obvious, so why don't we go with this Steelers-Bucs as an outside matchup? My original selection of Baltimore vs. New Orleans could still happen once Michael Thomas returns for the Saints and the Kansas City Chiefs and Titans are still going to be in the mix in the AFC. I think the playoffs are going to be wild and it really feels like being a wide open and crazy season. Brady to Gronk for the winning touchdown in Tampa? That may seem far-fetched, but it has been that kind of year in and out of the NFL.
From The Sports Bubble (@sportbubble) The best running back in the NFL is… King Henry. When myself and Jeff Reinebold had this conversation on Inside the Huddle over the summer, I picked Christian McCaffrey as the narrow winner because of his ability to fit more seamlessly into the modern NFL. But if Henry is going to score from anywhere on the field and be a factor in the passing game, I'm taking him every day of the week and twice on Sundays. He is unstoppable and here is the bad news for the rest of the NFL… he normally starts off slow and takes his game to greater heights in December and January. So, if what we are seeing now is a prelude to bigger things to come, these Titans will be for real and defenders should be quaking in their boots at the thought of tackling Henry.
From Mike Green (@Mikegreen1982) The Atlanta Falcons should start their rebuild by trading… Julio Jones to the New England Patriots. The Pats are going to be desperate for elite receiving talent and could pay a high price for Jones, who is now 31 years old and who could be way past his prime by the time the Falcons are ready to compete again. Jones could really help New England in 2020 and 2021, but what is he going to offer the Falcons in 2022 and 2023? Jones is the one who should be moved on to start the rebuild in Georgia.
The great Bill Parcells so often said about teams across the NFL… "You are what your record says you are." With that in mind, we should be giving the Chicago Bears a lot more credit than they are currently receiving. The Bears have opened this season 5-1 and sit proudly on top of the NFC North. Yet, they are not getting as much of our attention because they are wining ugly with the latest victory coming Sunday as they saw off Carolina 23-16. As with many of their wins this season, the Bears have received just enough from the offensive side of the ball and some stellar play on defense, particularly late on with games on the line. The defense is for real (four sacks and three takeaways on Sunday) but I do worry about the offense led by Nick Foles. The Bears deserve our praise for now but may get found out a little in their next three as they take on the Los Angeles Rams, New Orleans and Tennessee.