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AP photo by Wade Payne / Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel leaves the field after Sunday's home playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

The game and the season for the Tennessee Titans had just ended Sunday afternoon in Nashville. Emotions were raw on both sides, the Titans having gone on the road to knock Baltimore out of the playoffs a year ago before the Ravens returned the favor this time around, winning 20-13 inside Nissan Stadium.

"We won the division, hosted a home playoff game," Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. "Wasn't good enough today. Our guys competed and battled and came up short."

He was right on all counts, mostly because Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner and 2019 NFL season MVP, had never been more right when it mattered most.

Especially in the second quarter, the Ravens trailing 10-3 after crawling into a 10-0 hole somewhat created by a Jackson interception.

At that moment, ESPN analyst Steve Levy mentioned that Baltimore was the only NFL team over the past four seasons to fail to win so much as a single game after trailing by 10 or more points. Then again, as Alison Gerber, this newspaper's editor and director of content, wittily and sagely wrote in an in-office email late last week: "Welcome to the 13th month of 2020."

Eleven days into 2021, how can anyone feel otherwise? Down remains up, up remains down, and the only thing you can count on these days is that you can count on nothing.

So not two minutes after Levy provided that statistic, Jackson broke loose on a 48-yard touchdown gallop that tied the game at 10, a run so uplifting to the visitors and upsetting to the Titans that the score would become 17-10 in favor of the Ravens before the Titans would kick a field goal for their only points of the final half.

"The best run I've seen by a quarterback," Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said.

"We didn't get rattled," Jackson said after his 179 passing yards and 136 rushing yards were the driving force in his first playoff win. "We just kept fighting."

That had been Tennessee's calling card the past two seasons. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill engineered five fourth-quarter comeback wins over that time. Running back Derrick Henry has led the league in rushing for two straight years, including a whopping 2,027 yards this season prior to Sunday.

There was also the Titans' overtime win in Baltimore on Nov. 22, when King Henry finished with 133 rushing yards, including a 29-yard run in overtime to seal the 30-24 win.

But on Sunday, the Ravens held him to 40 total yards, Tannehill threw a late pick after receiver Kalif Ramond either fell down or was pushed — "It definitely looked like it could've been a flag and probably should've been, but it wasn't thrown, so here we are," Tannehill said afterward of Marcus Peter's game-clinching interception — and another Tennessee NFL season came to an end without reaching the Super Bowl. The Titans haven't played for the NFL title since the 1999 season.

So just where are they heading into this offseason? Are they positioned to be better or worse a year from now? They failed to make a return trip to the AFC title game after last year's surprising run ended at Kansas City, and if their red zone defense doesn't improve dramatically from its current No. 30 ranking among 32 teams, it's tough to see them even reaching the playoffs next season.

To expand on the defensive nightmare that was 2020, that defense, which went out and got pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney for $13 million for this season only, saw him play but eight games, record zero sacks and have season-ending knee surgery in late November. Theoretically, he might return if the price is right, but no one should expect it.

That's not to say all is bleak. Tannehill has been worth his pricey contract and Henry is the league's best running back by a wide margin. Beyond that, Taylor Lewan, one of the NFL's very best offensive left tackles when he can control his temper, will return after missing most of the season with a knee injury.

If we're not in the 21st month of 2020 when the 2021 NFL season begins, Vrabel may have indeed found a way to turn around the defense, which is supposed to be his specialty, while hoping offensive coordinator Arthur Smith — if he doesn't leave for an NFL head coaching job — can create a little better passing attack to take some pressure off Henry.

Until then, one can hope that if Tennessee couldn't beat Baltimore on the field in the playoffs, it will strongly embrace the postgame wisdom of the Ravens' Jackson when he was asked about finally getting the best of Henry in a big game.

"It's not about me and Derrick Henry," he said. "It's about winning the game. We just came together and got it done."

Whether or not Titans Nation will see its football heroes come together well enough to get a return trip to the Super Bowl done for the first time in 22 years will depend on how much Vrabel and general manager Jon Robinson can improve the defense between now and what hopefully won't feel like the 21st month of 2020.

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Mark Wiedmer

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

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