'I play to win games': Confident Ryan Tannehill brushes off critics as Titans begin playoffs

Here's the "Nifty 50s" takeaway after Titans win that clinched AFC's top seed (0:59)

Here's the "Nifty 50s" takeaway after the Titans 28-25 win over the Texans clinched the top seed in the AFC at NRG Park. Video by Turron Davenport (0:59)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Joe Burrow and Ryan Tannehill are the four quarterbacks leading their teams into the AFC divisional round this weekend.

Tannehill and the Tennessee Titans host Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals on Saturday (4:30 p.m. ET, CBS) at Nissan Stadium.

Burrow threw for a total of 971 yards over the final two regular-season games. He's considered to be one of the league's young up-and-coming quarterbacks. Burrow's two touchdown passes fueled Cincinnati's 26-19 win over the Las Vegas Raiders in the wild-card round of the playoffs last week.

Mahomes, the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback, is a former MVP and Super Bowl champion. Allen, who will lead the Buffalo Bills when they take on the Chiefs on Sunday night for the right to play in the AFC Championship Game, has drawn MVP consideration the past two seasons. Both Mahomes and Allen also finished with five touchdown passes apiece in the opening round of the playoffs.

Then there's Tannehill. At 33 years old, he's the oldest of the remaining AFC quarterbacks by seven years but to those outside the Titans' facility, Tannehill's name might not be on the short list of top signal-callers.

There's a much different opinion in the Titans' locker room.

"I certainly believe so," Titans receiver A.J. Brown said when asked if Tannehill is a top quarterback. "He’s not in the top-10 talk, or whatever talk, which to me, it’s nonsense. Somebody has to throw us the ball, and he’s very accurate. Anybody who’s sleeping on him, it’s nonsense."

This season was not kind to Tannehill statistically. His 14 interceptions were three short of the career high from his second season in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins in 2013. Tannehill's touchdown passes also decreased from 33 in 2020 to 21 this season.

The stats don't matter to Tannehill, though.

"At the end of the day, I play to win games," Tannehill said. "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 led the Titans to a 30-15 regular-season record since taking over as the starter in 2019. Tennessee has made the postseason in each season, reaching the AFC championship in 2019.

He also led them to the AFC South division title the past two seasons, including passing for 287 yards and four touchdowns as the Titans clinched the top seed in the AFC, via a 28-25 victory over the Houston Texans, and a first-round bye for the playoffs in the regular-season finale two weekends ago. If it wasn't for late-game heroics from Tannehill, the Titans might not have pulled it out.

The Texans scored 18 unanswered points to pull within three early in the fourth quarter. The Titans were desperately in need of a first down, and Houston's pass rush almost sacked Tannehill to force a punt.

But he managed to break away and find Nick Westbrook-Ikhine for a 36-yard gain on third down.

"That was a hell of a job by Ryan," Titans coach Mike Vrabel said after the game. "I think his toughness continues to show up, and that's what you have to have in this league to play quarterback. He's earned their respect, their trust and their confidence."

The final two weeks of the season marked the first time Tannehill had multiple touchdown passes in consecutive games this season. The Texans game was the third time he had four touchdown passes as a Titan.

The tight-window throws and accuracy Tannehill displayed in his first two seasons with the Titans were apparent in the win over Houston. Coming off his best game of the season, Tannehill's main goal was to spin the success forward to the playoffs.

"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."

A big part of the success Tannehill has had down the stretch is the return of Brown, along with the growing chemistry with future Hall of Fame wide receiver Julio Jones. The Titans are 6-1 in games that both receivers have started.

Most of the attention will be paid to running back Derrick Henry, who is scheduled to make his return after being on injured reserve since early November. But Tennessee will need a big game from Tannehill and their top wideouts if they get into a shootout against Cincinnati's high-powered offense.

As for the Bengals' pass defense, it surrendered 250 passing yards per game (27th) during the regular season. Despite falling in the wild-card round last week, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr finished with 310 passing yards, a touchdown pass and an interception on 54 attempts.

The most attempts Tannehill has in a postseason game is 31, which came in Tennessee's 35-24 loss to Mahomes and the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game two years ago.

Although Tannehill isn't a high-volume passer, he is capable of doing damage in limited opportunities -- as shown by his three touchdown passes on 29 attempts in the Titans' two playoff wins leading to their clash with the Chiefs.

The Titans need that kind of efficiency from Tannehill if they expect to advance in the playoffs.

"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."