By Steve Keating
(Reuters) – If anyone has an idea of what is going on right now inside the Tennessee Titans dressing room as they prepare for Sunday’s showdown against the Kansas City Chiefs for a spot in the Super Bowl it would be Keith Bulluck.
It has been over a decade since the three-time All-Pro linebacker suited up for the Titans but Bulluck clearly recalls what it was like in 2002 when Tennessee, after a horrific 1-4 start, made an unlikely run to the AFC championship game before losing to the Oakland Raiders.
The Titans have followed a similar fairytale script this season, but with a lot more suspense after stumbling out of the gate with a 2-4 record.
In 2002 the Titans righted the ship in spectacular style winning 10 of their next 11 games.
This year they needed a win over the Houston Texans in their final regular season contest just to make the playoffs and have made the most of their opportunity, knocking off Super Bowl champions Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the wildcard game then seeing off the top-seeded Baltimore Ravens.
“You’re in it together,” Bulluck told Reuters. “As team you don’t hear everything about what’s going on at that moment but when things are bad you hear that stuff loud and clear.
“We knew the players we had on that team and we knew we just had to figure it out.”
The first sixth-seed in a decade to reach a conference final, the Titans are penning the feel-good story of the NFL playoffs.
But every good fairytale requires a happy ending and for that to happen the Titans will have to go into Arrowhead Stadium and leave with a victory over the explosive and heavily-favoured Chiefs.
The winner will earn a trip to the Super Bowl in Miami on Feb. 2 where they will take on the winner of the NFC championship between the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers.
“Their mission is bigger than everything being created in the media,” said Bulluck, who recently launched a podcast ‘The Outside Game’. “I never played in a Super Bowl – the farthest I got was the AFC championship but you know what is on the line.
“They went to the playoffs with momentum, that always helps,” he said of this year’s team.
“They had to win some games to get in but they did it.”
Momentum and a confidence boosting regular season win over the Chiefs will bolster Titans hopes but a ticket to the Super Bowl will require another big day from the NFL’s leading rusher Derrick Henry and backup quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who took over in October from struggling starter Marcus Mariota.
Head coach Mike Vrabel’s switch to Tannehill was risky and unpopular but proven correct, with the Miami Dolphins castoff leading the team to a 9-3 record as a starter.
“Anytime you make the decision to go away from your franchise quarterback as a second-year head coach it has got to be a tough decision,” Bulluck said.
“As a coach you have to do what you have to do.
The key to Titans playoff success, however, is Henry, who is harder to tackle than a tank, rushing for 377 yards in two playoff contests.
“You mix in a 240 pound running back you have to make a business decision if you want to tackle that big guy,” assured Bulluck.
“Going into the game they have that confidence on their side and have nothing to lose because everyone is picking against them.
“But I like their chances.”
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Toby Chopra)