Titans embrace spoiler role with much left to play for

Whiteboard Wednesday Wk. 16 Titans  vs. Seahawks. Here's how Seattle has schemed (2:20)

Whiteboard Wednesday Wk. 16 Titans  vs. Seahawks. Here's how Seattle has schemed up opportunities to get DK Metcalf the football using Tyler Lockett to clear the way. Video by Turron Davenport (2:20)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- As Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel stepped to the podium Wednesday, it was clear the losing was bothering him. Vrabel's Titans officially were eliminated from playoff contention Sunday with three games left, and their 5-9 record guarantees a second straight losing season.

Still, if one were to think there isn't much left for the Titans to play for, they would be mistaken.

Tennessee's remaining games are all against playoff contenders. The next game falls on Christmas Eve. Several of the Titans' players would love to play the role of Grinch when they face the Seattle Seahawks.

Titans rookie quarterback Will Levis mentioned how it would be nice to play the spoiler role, and his teammates have echoed those sentiments.

"We want to come and ruin parties," outside linebacker Arden Key said. "We're going to fight until the end. It's about going on the field and putting your best football out there. It's pride."

The final three games have a different meaning to several other players.

"Every snap means something to somebody," Vrabel said. "We're always trying to evaluate."

There will be plenty of players to evaluate, as Tennessee has 20 players set to be free agents in 2024.Some will be playing for a new contract, even if it means with another team.

The biggest question mark surrounds three-time Pro Bowl running back Derrick Henry. Henry is in the final year of a four-year, $50 million contract.

The percentage of offensive snaps (53.4%) with Henry on the field this year is the lowest since he became a full-time starter late in the 2018 season. The 29-year-old is on pace for another 1,000-yard rushing season and ranks sixth with 884 rushing yards, and he's tied for fourth among running backs with 10 rushing touchdowns.

Not bad for what by Henry's standards can be considered to be a down year.

Even though the postseason is out of the picture, Henry still is motivated to play ball.

"I ain't laying down," Henry said. "I'm sure nobody else is trying to lay down. It's football. Something that we've been playing since we were kids. If you don't get ready for the next game or you are not excited to play, then I don't know what to tell you."

Veteran quarterback Ryan Tannehill is another higher profile player set to become a free agent. Both Henry and Tannehill were key parts of the Titans' three consecutive playoff appearances including back-to-back AFC South Division titles in 2020 and 2021.

At 35 years old, Tannehill still feels he has plenty of good football left. But he was relegated to the backup role after a high ankle sprain in Week 6 thrust rookie Will Levis into the starting role while Tannehill recovered. The Titans were 2-4 when the switch was made.

Levis' four-touchdown debut in a 28-23 Week 8 win over the Atlanta Falcons propelled him into the starting role, but Levis suffered a similar ankle injury Sunday to the one Tannehill had that eventually landed him on injured reserve last season.

Vrabel said Wednesday that Tannehill would be the starter if Levis is unable to play Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS) when the Titans host the Seattle Seahawks. If he were to start, it would give Tannehill the chance to prove he's still capable, but he's not only looking at it like that.

"I just want to go out if I have the opportunity and play well to get a win," Tannehill said. "You have to find some reason to go out there and bring passion and bring energy. Right now, I play for my teammates, my family and myself."

Like Tannehill, inside linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair is playing for his teammates. But Al-Shaair added individual pride to the list of motivating factors.

"Everything that we do on Sundays will be put on tape," Al-Shaair said. "I'm not going to let nobody whoop up on me just because we're eliminated from the playoffs."

Not playing beyond the regular season is new to Al-Shaair, who saw the postseason in three of his four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers. Having been through the free-agent process last offseason, Al-Shaair learned to not get overly concerned about it and to let it work itself out.

The same can be said for pass rusher Denico Autry, who signed a three-year, $21.5 million contract with the Titans in 2021 after the Indianapolis Colts let him walk. The rejection stung Autry because he thought he at least earned the right to field an offer from the Colts.

Now he's set to potentially test the market after posting a career-high 11 sacks so far this season. Autry said he's playing "for the love of the game" and admits he wants to remain with the Titans -- since he believes the scheme is an ideal fit for him -- but he wants to continue putting plays on film, as well.

The scheme on the other side of the ball has clearly shifted in the first year under offensive coordinator Tim Kelly, leaning more on the passing game with Levis at the helm. Levis has 38 or more pass attempts in eight starts this season. Tannehill has four games with the same amount of attempts in the last three seasons.

Despite his status Sunday being uncertain, Levis remains eager to gain valuable playing experience.

"To be able to build momentum over the next three weeks to gain confidence into next year," Levis said of playing again this season. "I just want to put good tape on, go out there and play good ball, and help our team win games."