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NFL countdown: Titans staying grounded

This is the 17th in a series of 32 NFL team betting previews in 32 days leading up to the league’s Sept. 10 season opener. We’ll count down the teams from the lowest season win total to the highest.

For a moment, it appeared the Tennessee Titans might ground and pound their way to the Super Bowl last season.

After beating Tom Brady in his final game in New England and stunning 14-2 Baltimore in the divisional round, the Titans had a 17-7 lead over Kansas City with 6:39 remaining in the second quarter of the AFC championship game.

The Titans eventually lost 35-24 to the Chiefs, who went on to win the Super Bowl, but Tennessee had found its identity with a solid defense, bruising running back Derrick Henry and revived game manager quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

Now the Titans have to prove that style is replicable.

Sunset Station sportsbook director Chuck Esposito thinks they can, and he likes Tennessee in a tight AFC South race with Indianapolis and Houston.

“They’ve won nine or more games each of the last four years. That’s quality,” he said. “You’re talking about a team that’s really good.”

Henry emerged as a star in his fourth season with a league-leading 1,540 yards (5.1 per carry) and 16 touchdowns. He then dominated in the playoffs, running 34 times for 182 yards in a 20-13 victory over the Patriots, then 30 times for 195 yards in a 28-12 win over the Ravens. He managed only 69 yards on 19 attempts against Kansas City with the Titans trailing throughout the second half.

Henry was rewarded with a four-year, $50 million contract extension with $25.5 million guaranteed.

The Titans’ most important move last season was giving up on former first-round pick Marcus Mariota and turning to Tannehill at quarterback. The former first-round pick by Miami went 7-3 in the final 10 games of the regular season, throwing 22 touchdowns with six interceptions.

“No one thought Tannehill would be the answer to the problem,” Westgate vice president of risk Ed Salmons said.

Tannehill then mostly kept a steady hand on the wheel as Henry ran over the Patriots and Ravens in the playoffs, throwing for less than 100 yards in each game.

Tennessee committed to Tannehill in the offseason with a four-year, $118 million deal with $62 million guaranteed.

Esposito and Salmons agree that the Titans’ strength is coach Mike Vrabel, who won three Super Bowls as a linebacker with New England. He has shown an ability to motivate his players and change strategies when needed in his first two seasons as a head coach.

“He’s not afraid,” Salmons said. “Good coaches find ways to compete.”

The Titans are charting their own course in an NFL that becomes more pass-happy by the season. Maybe their formula will keep working, and maybe it won’t.

“The top three teams in the AFC South,” Esposito said, “any one of them can win it, and anyone can come in third.”

Contact Jim Barnes at jbarnes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0277. Follow @JimBarnesLV on Twitter.

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