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When this one was over, Mike Vrabel found himself saying some of the same things he did during a regular season in which his team earned the AFC’s top postseason seed: He talked about loving the way the Tennessee Titans fight and the indominable way everyone on the team competes.
Vrabel could also have thrown in the fact the Titans showed up on defense for much of Saturday’s playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals because, well, they had nine sacks and limited the Bengals to just one touchdown.
But none of that mattered. None of that could overcome the overarching truth of this and many playoff games:
Teams with a superior quarterback often win despite their flaws. Teams with inferior quarterback play often go home regardless how otherwise well constructed they seem.
And so this confirmation of that from Bengals coach Zac Taylor:
“If I had the answer for why Joe Burrow is good at what he does, then I don’t know, I’d sell, bottle it up and sell it,” he said late Saturday afternoon. “He’s just special. That allows us to continue to call things the way we call because even after a sack or a negative play, you still feel like we’re always going to get it back.”
Vrabel couldn’t or wouldn’t ultimately talk about any of that quarterback play stuff although that was precisely the most significant reason his Titans were sent packing in the first round for the second consecutive year.
The Titans, for all their team strengths in running the ball and playing sound defense, lack an elite quarterback.
And the Bengals, still in their rebuild infancy but already set for years to come because Burrow is their quarterback, are headed to the AFC Championship game.
The problem in Tennessee is a hard one to analyze because Ryan Tannehill is a good guy who plays well enough during the regular season to get his team past everyone else in the AFC South. But when the stakes are at their highest, Tannehill folds.
When the stage is at its brightest in the playoffs, he steps back rather than steps up.
Tannehill threw three interceptions Saturday afternoon and that ultimately sealed his team’s fate.
“This is brutal,” Tannehill said afterward. “It’s going to hurt a long time. It’s going to be on my mind a long time. This one is going to take a long time to get over.
“When you go home in this sort of fashion, it leaves a lot to be desired.”
He was sacked those nine times and hit many more times. So he had little support from his overmatched offensive line and the Cincy running game was mostly absent — limited to a mere 65 yards and a paltry 3.6 yards per rush.
But after Tannehill threw his third interception with 28 seconds to play, Burrow showed his big-moment mettle.
Burrow followed Tannehill’s interception with a counter-point 19-yard completion that put the Bengals immediately in position for the game-winning field goal. Evan McPherson delivered that kick from 52 yards out for the Bengals’ second consecutive playoff win this postseason after a 31-year postseason victory drought.
“Fun,” was the first word out of Burrow’s mouth when he spoke with reporters. “I feel great. Tomorrow morning may be a different story but right now I feel great.
“We had 20 seconds and two time outs. That’s enough time for three plays to get in field goal range. And based what they had been playing earlier, we kind of knew what coverage they’d be in in that situation. And Zac called a great play and Ja’Marr [Chase] ran a great route and made a great catch.”
Burrow connected on 27 of 38 passes for 348 yards. He did throw one interception. But that work amid the withering Titans pass rush and little time in the pocket was praiseworthy.
Tannehill, who had 15 completions on 24 attempts with those three picks, finished with a quarterback rating of 66.7. This was his fourth of five playoff starts with fewer than 20 completions.
And here’s the thing: Everyone understands this result that was an upset for the upstart Bengals but it’s likely the arc of how these teams are headed in the future.
Because the Bengals can definitely draft a couple of offensive linemen and maybe add a playmaker on defense.
But the Titans are going to have a much harder time finding a quarterback who can exceed what Cincy has in Burrow, or Kansas City has in Patrick Mahomes or Buffalo has in Josh Allen.
The Titans are seemingly only one player away.
But he happens to be the most important player.
Vrabel and Titans players deflected from that truth after this one.
“I don’t think Ryan or myself or anybody did enough to win the game,” Vrabel said.
“I’m not necessarily concerned what the offense does,” safety Kevin Byard said. “Obviously we can’t turn the ball over, but we could have gotten more turnovers as well, especially early in the game. But I definitely am not going to let anything divide the team even though our season is over with.
“And I told Ryan that, too. That appreciate him and all the work he’s put in this year and all the plays he’s made for us. They made some unfortunate plays but we’re going to stick together as a family.”
That’s good. That’s part of what makes the Titans successful.
“We’re going to build off this,” defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons said.
That’s a good idea. The building needs to focus on the quarterback position.
Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero