NASHVILLE — Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry needs only to look in the mirror to get a glimpse of his toughest critic.
"I just want to do my job very well," Henry said Wednesday. "If I don't, I'm hard on myself. I just keep working until I get it right."
The NFL's rushing leader for the 2019 season and a first-time Pro Bowl selection, Henry will get a chance Saturday night to improve on his most recent playoff performance at the same location when the wild-card Titans (9-7) visit the AFC East champion New England Patriots (12-4) in the first round.
In the divisional round of the 2017 season's playoffs, Henry ran 12 times for 28 yards — a 2.3-yard average per carry — with none of his runs longer than 4 yards. He did catch three passes for 21 yards, but the Titans lost to the host Patriots 34-14 on Jan. 13, 2018
He ran better the last time Tennessee played New England, averaging 5.3 yards on just 11 carries as the Titans routed the Patriots 34-10 on Nov. 11, 2018, in Nashville.
Since then, the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner at Alabama has been punishing defenders, piling up yards in his best season yet. Henry capped his fourth NFL season with 1,540 rushing yards and tied for the league lead with 16 rushing touchdowns, which he calls a "team accomplishment."
Titans coach Mike Vrabel told his players before they clinched the AFC's second wild card that being able to run is how teams win in the postseason. Tennessee ranks third by having averaged 138.9 rushing yards a game this season.
"You control the ball, control the tempo," Vrabel said. "I would say that there's probably less turnovers on running plays than there are on passing plays, and turnovers at this point in the year are critical. The last game the Patriots lost was January 20, 2013 in the playoffs at home, and they had three turnovers and the Ravens had zero. So that's a telling stat."
How well Tennessee runs Saturday night against the Patriots, who are trying to repeat as Super Bowl champions and win their seventh title overall, will hinge on Henry, who averaged 20.2 carries in 15 games played this season. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry, and three of his touchdown runs covered 53 or more yards.
"You have to run the ball to get to the Super Bowl," Henry said, "so I think running the ball effectively is a big key to winning games in the playoffs."
New England's defense was sixth against the run during the regular season, allowing only 95.5 yards a game. Patriots coach Bill Belichick said it's impossible to mimic the 6-foot-3, 247-pound Henry's size, speed and physical play in practice, with few players like him in the NFL.
The Patriots did see Henry up close most recently during joint practices in August, which helps.
"He can make you miss in space, he can drop his pads and run with power and run over you. He's a good inside runner, good outside runner, and catches the ball well and he's got speed to go the distance. He doesn't get caught much. He gets a step and then he's able to finish it off," Belichick said. "He's got a good stiff-arm. He breaks a lot of tackles in the secondary from guys that just can't get close enough to wrap him up — he just pushes them away."
Henry's best season yet is perfect timing. The running back who lasted until the No. 45 pick overall in the second round before Tennessee selected him is in the final year of his rookie contract. Henry made clear during the offseason that his contract status was not an issue.
His motivation is simple: "I love playing."
Henry and the Titans had to balance his playing time against an injury over the past month. A sore left hamstring prompted Tennessee to hold him out of a Dec. 22 home loss to the New Orleans Saints, and he averaged 149.3 yards rushing over his past six games, including a season-high 211 yards in last Sunday's road win against the Houston Texans to clinch a playoff berth.
"We like to call that being a professional — trying to make the hard look easy," Vrabel said.
Henry is very good at that — and he's not on the injury report this week.