One more win for the Tennessee Titans. All they need is to win one more game and they can clinch the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC. With an 11-5 record, a low mark for a team in first place but that speaks to a lack of a clear best team in the AFC, a home victory against the 4-12 Houston Texans — who have won two of their last three games — to end the season assures the Titans of home-field advantage and a first-round bye.
Injuries have been an issue for the Titans all season, but their roster has been getting stronger, and they could be as healthy as they have been all year come playoff time. A.J. Brown is back as Ryan Tannehill’s top pass catching target, Julio Jones is healthy and off of the COVID list, the entire starting offensive line is healthy, and the defense has bounced back from early-season injuries to be a top-10 unit per Football Outsiders. Also, it appears that there is one more player the Titans will have back for the playoffs who could tilt the balance of power in the AFC: Derrick Henry.
The best running back in the NFL has not played since the Titans’ Week 8 victory against the Indianapolis Colts, in which he limped off of the field but returned to finish that game. After the game, it was discovered that Henry had a Jones fracture (a fracture of the pinky toe side of the foot) in his right foot that would require surgery. He was out indefinitely.
It’s likely that Henry will be available for the Titans in the playoffs. They designated him for return from IR today, and if he looks good in practice, he could even play against the Texans on Sunday. He has a 21-day window, starting today, to practice to get back onto the field. That’s not technically a guarantee that he will return to the field this season, but judging from the Titans’ social media, they appear to be confident that King Henry is ready to play.
If Henry feels good, he will of course want to play on Sunday, but Titans coach Mike Vrabel would be wise to hold him out until the postseason. Division rivals can be tough no matter their record, but if the Titans want to have any playoff success, they need to be able to knock off a 4-12 team at home with the top seed on the line. That could give Henry nearly the full 21-day period for more recovery and practice time to be ready for a home divisional game.
Henry has received praise, accolades, and a handsome contract in recent years, but what he hasn’t received is a great deal of rest. Counting the playoffs, he had totaled nearly 400 carries in each of the last two seasons. Henry was well on his way to a another 400-carry regular season in 2021 before getting hurt. He had 219 carries through eight games of a 17-game season.
Instead, Henry could jump straight to the divisional round with only 219 carries in total, and nearly a full three months of rest. Woe to whatever defense on a winter Sunday in Nashville has to deal with that 6-foot-3, 250 pounds of that.
Tannehill has shown that he can be the quarterback to lead the Titans to Super Bowl contention, but he needs a full cavalry behind him, and most certainly his cannon ball — Henry. In the future they need to rest Henry more, but not during this playoff run. He’s had enough rest this season. They need to launch him into opposing fronts 40 times per game in the playoffs behind that healthy offensive line.
With the return of Henry bowling through opposing defenses, some well-timed play-action to A.J. Brown, and a strong showing from their own defense, the Titans might be the team that finally separates itself from the rest of the AFC.