NASHVILLE — Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill does not hide his emotions on the football field, celebrating big plays with a fist pump or punctuating his own touchdown run by raising the ball up into the air.
He has even been known to run down a defender after an interception and take him down with a perfect tackle.
Now the No. 8 pick in the 2012 draft has gone from being traded in March to preparing for his postseason debut with his second NFL team, with the playoff opportunity finally coming after eight seasons and 100 games played.
"It's always something that I wanted to be doing my whole career," Tannehill said Tuesday.
The opponent Saturday night will be none other than the New England Patriots (12-4), the reigning Super Bowl champions who hope to make yet another title run with Tom Brady, the former sixth-round draft pick with more Super Bowl rings (six) than any other quarterback.
"He's a guy that's been doing it for a long, long time at a very high level," Tannehill said. "So he's won a lot of games, and I obviously have a lot of respect for him."
The Titans (9-7), who made the playoffs with the AFC's final wild card, and the AFC East champion Patriots are set to kick off at 8:15 p.m. CBS will televise the game.
Tannehill finally reaching the playoffs as the starting quarterback for the Titans didn't seem possible in March, when the Miami Dolphins chose to pick up $5 million of his salary and dump him off on Tennessee while eating $18.4 million of his salary cap hit. The Titans acquired him as upgraded backup for Marcus Mariota, the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner at Oregon who was drafted No. 2 overall by Tennessee in 2015.
Mired in a 2-4 start, the Titans benched Mariota in mid-October and turned to Tannehill, the 6-foot-4, 217-pounder who was a wide receiver in his youth. Tannehill responded, going 7-3 as a starter to help the Titans to their second playoff berth in three seasons.
Tannehill led the NFL with a career-best 117.5 passer rating that is the fourth-highest in a single season among qualified passers in league history. He joined Sammy Baugh and Joe Montana as the only quarterbacks to complete at least 70% of his passes (70.3% for Tannehill) and average at least 9 yards per pass (9.6).
Tannehill has thrown for 2,742 yards with 22 touchdowns and only six interceptions while running for a career-high four touchdowns. He's a big reason why the Titans rank 12th in the NFL in total offense and 10th in points per game after being 28th in scoring with an average of 16.3 points a game when Tannehill became the starter.
Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden said in early December that greatness can't be rushed and the key is how players respond to being cut or released or someone being fired.
"You've got to come back," Gruden said. "(Rich) Gannon didn't get here until he was 34. I mean, Steve Young didn't start in the NFL until he was 30. Kurt Warner, he had to do the same thing, and Joe Theismann had to do the same. There's been a lot of guys that didn't explode onto the scene immediately."
New England coach Bill Belichick said he has always thought Tannehill was a good quarterback who did a good job in Miami, which competes in the AFC East with the Patriots. With Tennessee, Belichick sees Tannehill running the offense well and making good decisions.
"He's obviously athletic and got a really good group of receivers," Belichick said. "I mean, the offense works well together with their strong running game and play-action passes, and he's hit them. He's made good decisions with the ball. Really impressive offense and their system — very impressive."
Now comes the biggest test of Tannehill's career. He is 4-7 against New England and beat the Patriots in just his second season in the NFL in 2013. After that, the Patriots reeled off 21 straight victories against first- or second-year quarterbacks until Lamar Jackson ended that streak Nov. 3.
In games at New England, Tannehill is 0-6 with only five touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
On the other side is Brady, who has the most postseason experience in league history with 40 games, and he also holds the marks for most passes thrown and completed, passing yards and touchdown passes.
While waiting for this opportunity, Tannehill always knew what he wanted: "It's the thought I want to be playing in January and playing for a championship."