The AFC playoffs feature three of the NFL’s brightest young star quarterbacks. Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Joe Burrow look like the future of the NFL for the next decade. They are the quarterbacks ready to take over whenever Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers call it a career.
Then, there’s Ryan Tannehill.
The 33-year-old Titans quarterback is the AFC playoff party crasher. Tannehill arrives at Saturday’s divisional round matchup with Burrow and the Bengals as the old man who rarely gets mentioned in conversations about the game’s top quarterbacks. The 2012 first-round pick by the Dolphins was written off long ago, but he has experienced a resurgence with the Titans in the last three years and he guided Tennessee to the No. 1 seed in these AFC playoffs, whippersnappers be damned.
“At the end of the day, I play to win games,” Tannehill said a few weeks ago. “It would be nice to get recognized, but I’m not worried about it. I’m worried about finding ways to win games, lead my team, be great in big moments, critical moments, and win football games.”
Tannehill has done the job in that department. Since taking over for Marcus Mariota as the Titans’ starter in 2019, they are 30-15 in the regular season. They have been in the playoffs in each of the past three years, reaching the AFC Championship game in 2019. Tennessee has won the AFC South crown in each of the past two seasons. Tannehill led a dramatic win over the Texans in Week 18 to clinch the top seed this year. He threw for 287 yards and four touchdowns in the 28-25 win that gave the Titans a first-round bye.
Tannehill did not have as good of a season as he did the last two years in Tennessee. His touchdown passes dropped from 33 to 21 and his interceptions rose from seven to 14. But he was able to keep the Titans on track after star running back Derrick Henry broke his foot at midseason. Tannehill has had to deal with a revolving cast of teammates as injuries ravaged the Titans. Wide receiver A.J. Brown missed four games and receiver Julio Jones missed seven.
At the end of the season, Tannehill played better, coinciding with the return of Brown. He threw two touchdown passes against the Dolphins in Week 17 and four against the Texans.
“Contrary to popular belief, I never felt like I lost it,” Tannehill said. “I felt good all season, and I think we have done some good things here the last few weeks to catch our stride a little bit. Excited about the momentum we have gained over the last few weeks, and hopefully, we can build on it as we move forward.”
Most of the attention in this game is going to be focused on the return of Henry and on the rising star on the other sideline, Burrow. But this game could come down to how the veteran Tannehill operates with his wideouts against a Bengals defense that ranked 26th against the pass in the regular season.
This will be Tannehill’s fifth playoff game in three years, a distinct advantage over his young counterpart. He knows what it takes to win in this spot, having beaten Tom Brady and Lamar Jackson in the 2019 playoffs before falling to Mahomes.
“You want to play your best football late in the season and into the playoffs,” Tannehill said. “I know the reason we play this game is to go and win a championship. That is the reason I play. I am chasing after it year after year, day after day.”
The sexy names in the AFC playoffs are Allen, Mahomes and Burrow. But sexy does not always succeed in January, and the veteran Tannehill might be able to remain a playoff party crasher for a little bit longer.