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AP photo by Sam Craft / Tennessee Titans kicker Sam Sloman (2) celebrates after making the winning 37-yard field goal against the Houston Texans at the end of Sunday's game in Houston. The Titans' 38-35 victory locked up their first AFC South Division title since the 2008 season.

It was late, late, late in the fourth quarter of the Tennessee Titans' hugely important regular-season finale Sunday evening at Houston. Win and they'd clinch their first outright AFC South crown since 2008. Lose and they'd head to Buffalo, arguably the hottest team in the conference, for what would promise to be a very cold road game next weekend.

The Titans were ahead 38-35, but the Texans were driving for what could be a game-winning touchdown. Only Tennessee managed to force Houston to settle for a game-tying field goal with 18 seconds to play, which briefly appeared to guarantee overtime.

Watching all this unfold, CBS analyst Rich Gannon, the former NFL quarterback, said of the Titans: "They're gritty. They never give up."

Or give in, at least not since Mike Vrabel took over as coach three years ago.

So 75 yards from the end zone with 18 ticks on the clock but with all three of his timeouts still in his hip pocket, Vrabel approved of a first-down bomb, with quarterback Ryan Tannehill firing a 52-yard pass to A.J. Brown, who beat the defense to the ball at the Houston 23 with 10 seconds to go.

Then Tennessee handed it to Derrick Henry to push it 6 yards closer and set the stage for kicker Sam Sloman to be the hero or the goat from 37 yards away.

Remember, Sloman is a rookie from Miami of Ohio, and he was trying to hand the Titans their first division title since a couple of weeks before Barack Obama was sworn in for the first of his two terms as president.

So Houston attempted to ice him with a timeout, as anyone might expect. Then Sloman lined up again, the Texans unable to further delay the kick.

Sloman swung his right leg as powerfully as he could. The kick began to drift right, soon to strike the upright on that side. Doink. Only it somehow ricocheted off the upright and through. The Titans won 41-38, which means they'll host the Baltimore Ravens in a replay of last year's second-round game that resulted in an unexpected Titans win. How else to end this COVID-19-dominated Titans regular season?

But to go back to Gannon, however suspect these Titans are, cursed by a suspect defense and an uncertain kicking game, they are gritty. They never give up. And they rarely forget that Henry is their meal ticket, which is why they just might last more than one round of the playoffs yet again.

Let's be clear. Sunday was not the Titans' finest hour of their 11-5 regular season despite producing a division championship. Even Henry played a pivotal role in Tennessee blowing a 31-15 second-half lead when he fumbled with his team ahead 31-21. Before the Titans would recover, the Texans would actually lead 35-31 on the strength of 20 straight points.

But that's also when the grittiness kicked in. And so did the savvy of Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, who called for Tannehill to fake a handoff to Henry near the goal line, then roll left into the end zone, correctly figuring the defense would swarm Henry and the Titans quarterback could score easily, which he did.

No wonder multiple news outlets have Smith listed as a candidate for at least three head coaching jobs: Atlanta, Detroit and Houston.

And that should greatly concern Titans Nation moving forward because the Tennessee defense, which is supposed to be Vrabel's strength, has looked like anything but a champion for much of this season, including Sunday when it couldn't stop Texans wideout Brandin Cooks with a double team. There's no reliable pass rush and no true lockdown cornerback, though Malcolm Butler certainly fits the definition of gritty.

Beyond that is Vrabel's annoying habit of needlessly gambling on fourth down, as when he went for it needing 11 yards inside the Houston 40 while ahead by three, saw Tannehill sacked and Houston soon drive for a touchdown and the lead. This is not the first time such a risky decision has backfired on Vrabel. Then again, maybe he figured his defense would give up the score eventually, so why not save as much time as possible?

Still, the Titans have the remarkable Henry and the savvy Tannehill to often erase Vrabel's lapses in judgment. Henry become just the eighth player in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a single season, his 250 at Houston giving him 2,027 for the year and placing him in an elite fraternity with O.J. Simpson, Eric Dickerson, former Titans star Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Barry Sanders, former Tennessee Volunteers standout Jamal Lewis and former Georgia Bulldogs great Terrell Davis.

The Titans also have an elite receiver in Brown, who's big, strong, fast and tough, which forces opponents to focus too much attention on Henry at their own peril.

Does any of this mean Tennessee looks like a team capable of reaching the AFC title game for a second straight season? Probably not. The defense is too iffy, and with the Ravens heading to Nashville, the Titans will face a revenge-minded squad — think Ohio State against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl this past week — that not only wants payback for last year's playoff loss, but also a regular-season defeat this time around.

Of course, there were also doubts this time last year as the Titans headed to New England to face the Patriots.

Come the playoffs, the grittier team often wins, and no one is grittier week in and week out than the Titans.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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