Their game plan tossed aside by time and score, the Tennessee Titans still found a way to win their season opener on the road against an inspired underdog.
The 16-14 decision in Denver gives Tennessee a good chance at a 2-0 start Sunday when they host the Jacksonville Jaguars at Nissan Stadium in Nashville. The Titans have won their last six matchups with their AFC South rival at home, but third-year coach Mike Vrabel says that has nothing to do with this game.
Not since 2008 have the Titans opened the season at 2-0.
“We always focus on the challenge that’s ahead of us,” he said. “We understand this is a good football team that’s fast and young. When you’re doing things well, you just want to enhance them and keep building momentum.”
Stephen Gostkowski’s 25-yard field goal with 17 seconds left won the game for Tennessee, but it was Gostkowski that put it in danger of losing. The former New England Patriot, the fifth-most accurate kicker in NFL history at 87.4 percent, missed three field goals and an extra point in a stunning debut.
He got his chance at redemption when the Titans drove 83 yards in the final three minutes. One play after Ryan Tannehill missed a wide-open A.J. Brown in the back left corner of the end zone, Gostkowski made partial amends with the game-winner.
“For the guys to still support me and still have my back was pretty good,” Gostkowski said. “You miss a couple of kicks, the camera follows you around, they talk about you the whole time, they watch you. It can get to a lonely spot.”
Tennessee got 116 yards on 31 carries from workhorse running back Derrick Henry, plus 249 passing yards and two touchdowns from Tannehill. It controlled most of the game, picking up 26 first downs and owning possession for nearly 33 minutes.
While the Titans won when expected to, Jacksonville prevailed in a spot few predicted it would. Opening with heavily favored Indianapolis, the Jaguars quashed quite a few “survivor” pools with a hard-earned 27-20 home win.
Jacksonville was outgained 445-241, but played a mostly clean game. It committed no turnovers and had fewer penalty yards than the Colts. It also came up with two Philip Rivers interceptions that led to 10 points.
What’s more, second-year quarterback Gardner Minshew played like a 10-year All-Pro. Minshew was efficient and brilliant, hitting on 19 of 20 passes for 173 yards and three touchdowns, including the go-ahead score with just under five minutes left.
“You can only win one game a week,” he said. “That’s what we’re focused on. It’s one game at a time, one play at a time. It’s what’s going to serve you best.”
A short memory might also work well for the Jaguars in this one. Three of their last four visits to Tennessee has resulted in embarrassing routs, including a 42-20 decision last year in which the Titans scored 28 third-quarter points.
Two years ago, Henry matched Tony Dorsett’s NFL record with a 99-yard touchdown run during a 30-9 blowout in which Henry set a franchise record with 238 yards on just 17 carries.
In his most recent matchup against the Jaguars, Henry piled up 175 yards from scrimmage (159 rushing, 16 receiving) and a pair of touchdowns.
If Jacksonville is going to have a shot at posting a second straight upset against a division opponent, it can’t let Henry run wild, nor can it ignore Tennessee’s other weapons.
“They have pieces in all three phases,” Jaguars coach Doug Marrone said. “You’re talking about a team that went to the AFC championship game, and a team that’s picked to go a long way this year.”