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In Battle Of Two Wounded Titans Mike Vrabel’s Team Survives

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The Next-Man-Up Bowl was played Sunday afternoon in Nashville and the Tennessee Titans found a way to beat the New Orleans Saints. 23-21.

A surface glance at this game would suggest it was simply a typical NFL meeting in which two good teams found a way to author a pretty routine game that went into the final minutes with just one score separating the combatants.

That’s typically what professional football on this level offers, so no biggie.

But look below the surface and it was clear how exceptional these two teams really are because their culture is so good, their grit and fight is so unbowed, and because their coaching is so exceptional.

Then understand that both these teams, wounded as they are, have beaten others with relatively healthy lineups but perhaps lacking in the traits just mentioned. So this matchup of two teams irrefutably strong in these traits made this game feel like a bout between two stubborn, bloodied brawlers.

Now, perhaps, you can appreciate the caliber of play the game delivered.

“Look, it’s the NFL and that’s part of the deal,” a visibly frustrated and disappointed Sean Payton said afterward. “And I hear you and I thought the way we approached this game, you’ve got to be able to still play. And that’s the one thing we’ve been able to still do — fight through it, so, we’ll continue to do that.”

Payton had been asked about the play of his team despite the fact the club’s starting running back Alvin Kamara, who has accounted for about 30 percent of the New Orleans offense this year, was out.

And the starting left tackle was out.

And the starting left guard was out.

And starting wide receiver Michael Thomas has been out for a while now.

And so has starting quarterback Jameis Winston.

Are you understanding that the Saints showed up Sunday afternoon with a lineup intent on fighting, but not necessarily able to throw combination punches?

“I appreciate the fight in our team,” Saints linebacker Demario Davis offered. “Our team responds to adversity the right way. We do a good job of not letting one game [lost] turn into two .. We just have to find a way to get better, each man has to find ways to improve and come back next week.”

If they needed an example of how to do that, the Saints needed look no further than across the field to the Titans’ bench.

Mike Vrabel’s team personifies grit and resiliency and all those other intangibles that casual fans don’t often consider but still factor significantly in outcomes.

The Titans, for the record, are a team playing and winning without its best player. All Pro running back Derrick Henry had foot surgery Nov. 1 and has missed games against the Los Angeles Rams and Saints the past two weeks and is expected to perhaps miss the rest of the regular-season as well.

And in those games against two teams that played in the NFC title game a few years back and remain among the best in their conference, the Titans have won on consecutive weeks. Fact is the Titans have won six consecutive games.

And this day they did it without starting receiver Julio Jones. And with starting receiver A.J. Brown being slowed most of the game after hitting his head in the first half and finishing with only one catch.

The Titans’ offense came together despite Ryan Tannehill playing on a day in which he woke up feeling “bad,” the quarterback said, because he ate a toad or an aardvark or maybe something else that didn’t agree with him and upset his stomach starting on Friday.

“Yeah, I don’t feel so good,” Tannehill said. “Still dealing with a lot but thankful I was able to make it to the game and be out there.”

Tannehill, lacking his usual weapons, turned to Marcus Johnson, a journeyman traded twice who caught five passes for 100 yards. That and some timely penalties on the Saints, and two missed extra points and a fumble on a kickoff return by Payton’s crew helped carry the day for Tennessee.

And that gave coach Mike Vrabel the chance to echo post-game thoughts about his tough-as-nails team simply outlasting somebody.

“These seem like the same questions that you guys ask us all the time,” Vrabel growled at reporters asking about his resilient team’s resiliency. “Sooner or later you guys will have to watch and figure out that’s kind of — the more you do something, probably the better you get at it or the more comfortable you get at it.

“Again, we don’t plan them that way. We don’t. We hopefully don’t panic. When you don’t make a big deal about something, they probably don’t make a big deal about it. So, we all have to be prepared for these situations in every game that comes up.”

One final point about these kind of games. They matter on multiple levels.

Because both these teams are contending for playoff seeding, individual success gets rewarded and individual failure is punished swiftly.

Titans linebacker Dylan Cole was key in helping the Titans when he caused a fumble on the second half kickoff which Tennessee recovered at the New Orleans 19 and eventually led to a touchdown.

“Looked like he really factored on special teams,” Vrabel said, “and so that will probably give him some more opportunities.”

Payton, meanwhile, was thinking differently about players who made mistakes.

“It’s the attention to detail, obviously,” he said. “We look at it as coaches, too. Start with me. But pretty soon we start looking at who’s doing it. We start evaluating who’s making plays and who’s not.”

Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

Written by Armando Salguero

Armando Salguero has covered the NFL since 1990 for the Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald and ESPN. He was a 2016 Associated Press Sports Editors Top 10 columnist. He is a Pro Football Hall of Fame selector and AP All-Pro team voter.

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