Titans overcome challenges, repeat as division champs to reach playoffs

AP photo by John Amis / Tennessee Titans inside linebacker Rashaan Evans celebrates after Sunday's home win against the Miami Dolphins. The Titans repeated as AFC South Division champions to earn their third straight playoff berth, and they also moved into first place in the conference heading into the final week of the regular season.

NASHVILLE - Mike Vrabel earned three Super Bowl rings as a linebacker for the New England Patriots, and in his fourth season as an NFL head coach, his team is reminding him of something he already knew: Adversity along the way is quickly forgotten when it leads to success.

The Tennessee Titans are proof of that.

"Winning takes care of everything," Vrabel said. "That's what I learned a long time ago in athletics. Winning takes care of everything."

And now the Titans are dancing as back-to-back AFC South champs, despite entering their third month with star running back Derrick Henry sidelined by injury and having used 88 players - the most for any team in an NFL season not affected by a strike.

Ryan Tannehill threw two touchdown passes Sunday as Tennessee clinched its second consecutive division title and third playoff berth in a row with a 34-3 victory against the Miami Dolphins, who had won seven straight games.

The Titans (11-5) won for the second straight game and the third time in their past four to clinch back-to-back division titles for just the second time in franchise history. The first time came when the team was known as the Houston Oilers and won three straight Eastern Division championships from 1960 to 1962, the first three years of the American Football League.

Tennessee also won 11 games for a second consecutive season for the first time since 2002-03, and it moved into the top spot in the AFC standings after the Kansas City Chiefs lost to the Cincinnati Bengals. The Titans finished off their win and were celebrating with some nice dance moves in the locker room - while wearing T-shirts reading "TITANS RUN THE SOUTH" - as fans stood around TVs on the concourses at Nissan Stadium watching the Chiefs lose, which moved the Titans to the top spot due to their Oct. 24 win against Kansas City.

The Titans close the regular season next weekend with a road game against the Houston Texans (4-12), who were the league's first team eliminated from contention for a playoff spot this season but did upset Tennessee 22-13 on Nov. 21 in Nashville.

"It's definitely good to be in this position," Titans safety Kevin Byard said. "Usually, the last game of the year we're fighting for something anyway. It's good to go into the last game of the season trying to fight to be this No. 1 seed."

The top-seeded team will earn home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs and receive the conference's lone bye.

photo AP photo by Wade Payne / Tennessee Titans tight ends Geoff Swaim and MyCole Pruitt, center, celebrate after Swaim caught a touchdown pass during Sunday's 34-3 win against the Miami Dolphins in Nashville.

Miami (8-8) came in as the first team in NFL history to win seven straight after a seven-game skid. That surge helped push the Dolphins into the third and final wild-card spot in the AFC standings, but this loss seriously damaged their playoff hopes.

"Anytime you don't have the performance that you're looking for, you're disappointed," Miami coach Brian Flores said.

On a cold and rainy day, the Titans ran more than they threw. Tannehill was 13-of-18 for 120 yards and a 127.1 passer rating against the team that drafted him eighth overall in 2012 before trading him to Tennessee in March 2019. Tannehill is 31-15 as Tennessee's starter with his third straight playoff berth clinched.

"It was a great win for us," he said. "Obviously, a lot was on the line for us as a team, and excited that we came out and played well, a full game as a team. Obviously this was an important one for me being where we're at in the season and having the opportunity to win the division, first and foremost."

D'Onta Foreman rushed for 132 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries, and Dontrell Hilliard had a 39-yard touchdown on one of his eight runs. The committe of two continues to be effective for the Titans in the absence of Henry, the two-time reigning NFL rushing champion who was again leading the league when he was injured during an Oct. 31 overtime win against the Indianapolis Colts.

The Titans scored 10 points off a pair of turnovers by Miami quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who was sacked four times, his most this season. David Long, the linebacker drafted with the sixth-round pick included by Miami in the Tannehill trade, picked off Tagovailoa with 2:49 left to set up Hillard's score.

Miami's defense came in leading the NFL with 45 sacks, four shy of the franchise record, but the Dolphins didn't get to Tannehill until the third quarter, when Jerome Baker ended the Titans' first drive of the half.

Tennessee never trailed Sunday, using a 46-yard touchdown drive that ended late in the first quarter to go ahead for good. Tannehill capped the series with a 1-yard toss to Geoff Swaim for the game's first points.

On the second play of the ensuing series, the ball slipped out of Tagovailoa's hand while he was trying to pass, and Elijah Molden recovered for the Titans. Randy Bullock kicked a 23-yard field goal for a 10-0 lead.

Foreman padded the Tennessee lead to 17-3 with a 21-yard run late in the first half. He also set up Tannehill's second touchdown pass with a 35-yard run out of the wildcat formation, and Tannehill found tight end Anthony Firkser wide open for a 15-yard touchdown and a 24-3 lead.

The Titans' biggest setback came in the second quarter, when tight end MyCole Pruitt hurt his right ankle on a running play. His leg was put in an air cast, and he was carted off the field to the locker room.

Tagovailoa was 18-of-38 for 205 yards, the kind of performance that won't help doubts about whether he's the quarterback to lead Miami to the playoffs. The Dolphins close the regular season by hosting AFC East rival New England (10-6), which still has a chance to win the division.

"At the end of the day, I can control what I can control, and that's to be the best version of myself for this team," Tagovailoa said. "We've got to move on to the next game at this point. We'll look at the mistakes we've made, make some corrections and move on."

Miami wide receiver Jaylen Waddle had 47 yards on three catches Sunday, giving him 99 receptions for the season - two short of the NFL rookie record set by Anquan Boldin in 2003.