Tennessee Titans learn they can beat anyone in epic win over Buffalo Bills | Estes

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean
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To call this a great victory would be to admit how much the Buffalo Bills had distanced themselves atop the AFC from the Tennessee Titans.

Such an opinion, it seems, wasn’t even up for debate entering this game. Never mind that, one year ago, the Titans routed the Bills in this same stadium. The season before that, the Titans reached the AFC championship game.

But 2021 cares nothing about a prelude. In 2021, the Bills have been the NFL’s best team.

So the Titans just beat the NFL’s best team, 34-31, on "Monday Night Football."

Yeah, I’ll say it: That's a great win.

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It was a timely win. It was a foundational win for a season that didn't appear for five weeks to be going much of anywhere for the Titans (4-2).

"There wasn't a lot of people outside the building that said we had a chance in this game," Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. "But inside that locker room, it was a lot of belief that we were going to win this game. At the end of the day, that's all that really matters."

A performance like this validated much of what these Titans had hoped to become this season but hadn’t yet shown they were — outside of Derrick Henry.

The NFL season is no longer in its introductory phase. By mid-October, things have gotten real. We’ve started to discover teams’ strengths, weaknesses and ceilings.

By now, genuine contenders usually have distinguished themselves from the also-rans.

But not these Titans. Entering Monday night, we had no idea which they were. While a case could be made for either based on the first five weeks, it wouldn’t be very convincing.

Three victories were hardly emphatic or comfortable – even against weak opposition. Their two losses came with worthy excuses. The first was in an always-weird Week 1 and the second came amid a deluge of injuries to key players.

Easy as it has been to say — and many did — that a 3-2 start flattered a shaky team, it also has been fair to note that we still hadn’t yet seen these Titans at full force because of all those injuries.

Then came Monday night. It promised opportunity — and unavoidable transparency. We were going to finally see what these Titans were about.

Nothing would validate — or reject — a team’s credentials like facing the NFL’s hottest team on "Monday Night Football." Julio Jones and Bud Dupree were back out there to face the Bills. No excuses. Either the Titans were going to play better and show they belonged on the same field or they were going to get embarrassed.

No one could doubt the Bills (4-2) were good enough to roll right through Nissan Stadium, just as they had Arrowhead Stadium last weekend. If you whip the Chiefs in Kansas City, you’re for real, period.

OK, how about the Titans?

Henry was superb, as usual. The Titans’ defense wasn’t awful by its standards. The pass rush was good and made things happen, which hasn’t often been the case in recent years.

On the other hand, the offense started terribly by its standards. Even worse, the Titans made silly mistakes — like David Long headbutting Josh Allen — to help the Bills get going.

But the Titans made plays and kept making plays. They stood up when it was time, on both sides of the football. They made a fourth-down defensive stop at the end after the offense had scored on three consecutive possessions after halftime.

“We feel like we can beat anybody in the league," coach Mike Vrabel said. "Whether we do or not, that’s the mentality that we take.”

It wasn’t flawless, but for all the back and forth and twists of this tight game, there was one takeaway that couldn’t be lost on a national television audience: The Titans belonged on the same field as these Bills, an opponent who arrived with the top-rated offense and defense in the NFL.

"We'll probably see them guys again," said Titans defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons.

The Bills were as advertised. They rattled the Titans, but they didn’t overwhelm them.

That's an important lesson. The Titans know they can beat the Bills, which means they can beat anyone this season.

Reach Gentry Estes at gestes@tennessean.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes. 

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