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Ryan Tannehill, the Titans’ unlikely savior, is one upset away from starting the Super Bowl



Tannehill’s surprising success this season for the Titans means that another reevaluation of the memorable quarterback draft class of 2012 is in order. It adds intrigue to the speculation surrounding the potential moves of quarterbacks who will be available during the upcoming offseason. Such weighty issues can be resolved later. For now, it’s Tannehill against the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes in an unlikely quarterback duel, with a trip to the Super Bowl in Miami at stake.

That would make for the most triumphant of returns to South Florida for Tannehill.

“Big picture, yeah, you dream of playing in the Super Bowl,” Tannehill said in Baltimore after the Titans’ upset last Saturday night of the Ravens. “But as the season goes on, it’s one week at a time, do whatever I can each and every week to come away with a win.”

For much of the season, Tannehill had to do quite a bit for the Titans to win. He had 22 touchdown passes, only six interceptions and a league-best passer rating of 117.5 while playing in 12 games during the regular season. He made 10 starts and aided the Titans’ turnaround from a 2-4 beginning when Coach Mike Vrabel turned to him and benched starter Marcus Mariota.

During the postseason, much less has been asked of Tannehill. He did provide a pair of touchdown passes in the 28-12 triumph over the Ravens. But has thrown only 29 passes over two games while totaling a modest 160 passing yards in the Titans’ victories at New England and Baltimore. The Titans bludgeoned the Patriots and Ravens with the bruising running of tailback Derrick Henry, who totaled 377 rushing yards.

“It’s definitely unusual,” Tannehill said of the consecutive playoffs wins with fewer than 100 passing yards. “I can’t say I’ve seen it before. But that’s kind of the way the games have played out. We’re not dropping back much, not throwing the ball much at all. But we’re moving the ball … on the ground and Derrick’s done a great job making big plays, running physical and finishing runs. The offensive line is doing a great job of moving the line of scrimmage and giving him creases. So at this point in the season, it’s about doing whatever it takes to win, whether it’s throwing it 30 [times] or throwing it 10.”

When the Titans traded fourth- and seventh-round draft picks to the Dolphins in March for Tannehill and a sixth-round choice, they were getting an insurance policy for Mariota. This season was supposed to be a referendum on whether to re-sign him. Instead, the Titans now face a new quarterback dilemma: Should they sign Tannehill, also a prospective free agent, to a lucrative long-term deal to stay?

He is 31 and has a history of injuries, having missed 24 games over his final three seasons with the Dolphins. He had some productive seasons in Miami but never quite fulfilled the promise of being the eighth overall selection in that 2012 draft.

It will be an offseason in which fellow quarterbacks Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Jameis Winston, Teddy Bridgewater and Dak Prescott also are potential free agents. Teams will have options. But some around the league suspect Tannehill has found a home and the Titans have found a quarterback.

“I don’t know if he’ll want top dollar, and I doubt they’d be willing to pay him huge money,” a front office executive with another NFL team said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss another franchise’s quarterback situation. “But that’s one where you would think they’d find a way to work it out because it was such a good fit this year.”

If Tannehill continues to thrive in Tennessee in the second act of his NFL career, that would add to the tumult of the 2012 draft class. That draft was supposed to be memorably great for quarterbacks because of its two headliners, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. Things looked promising when Griffin was the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year for the Washington Redskins and Luck quickly established himself as a regular Pro Bowler in Indianapolis.

But now Luck is retired. Griffin is a backup in Baltimore. The strength of that draft class comes from third-rounder Russell Wilson being a Super Bowl winner and MVP contender in Seattle, from third-rounder Nick Foles being a former Super Bowl MVP for the Philadelphia Eagles, and from fourth-rounder Kirk Cousins being an $84 million man in Minnesota after taking Griffin’s job in Washington.

Is it Tannehill’s turn? The sixth-seeded Titans already have ousted the third-seeded Patriots and the top-seeded Ravens from the AFC playoffs. Next up is the second-seeded Chiefs.

“I just try to make sure we all stay level, put our head down and just work,” Henry said in Baltimore. “Like I told them in there, like I said at the end of [training] camp, ‘Why not us?’ We’re gonna keep that same mentality.”

Yet Vrabel rejected the underdog label as being overstated.

“It’s pro football,” he said. “Everybody gets paid. Everybody has a job to do. We knew we were gonna get on a plane a few weeks ago. And as long as we kept winning, we were gonna keep getting on that plane. And we’re gonna do the same thing this week. We’re gonna continue to improve, not let complacency set in and not be excited about winning whatever this was. I don’t even know. We’re gonna play in the AFC championship game. But we have to continue to improve. You’ve heard me say it: The teams that do that, they keep playing. And the ones that don’t, they make offseason plans.”

Tannehill playing a Super Bowl in Miami would be a fittingly unexpected culmination to this out-of-nowhere run.

“That’s obviously the goal,” Tannehill said. “But as you go throughout the week … I just focus on what’s in front of me, like I said, doing everything I can each and every week just to come away with a win …. It’s gonna be a tall challenge for us. But I like our team and I like our chances.”

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