Tennessee Titans, Ryan Tannehill have hit their ceiling -- and it's not the Super Bowl

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- After the Tennessee Titans fell 19-16 to the Cincinnati Bengals on Saturday at Nissan Stadium -- which wasted a golden opportunity to make another deep postseason run -- there is one question that must be asked.

Can the Titans win a Super Bowl with quarterback Ryan Tannehill?

The Titans' AFC divisional game against the Bengals was an example of why it doesn't seem likely. The table was set perfectly for the Titans to advance to the AFC Championship Game, which they would have hosted, and maybe beyond.

The return of star running back Derrick Henry to help boost the rushing attack? Check.

Healthy top wide receivers Julio Jones and A.J. Brown? Check.

A home game as the top seed in the AFC? Check.

A defense that is playing at a high level? Check.

All Tannehill had to do was manage the game and not turn the football over. Unfortunately for the Titans, Tannehill's very first pass attempt resulted in the first of three heartbreaking interceptions.

Offensive coordinator Todd Downing dialed up a play-action pass on the Titans' first snap. Not a bad call considering how Cincinnati had given up the fifth-most passing yards on play-action.

"The safety made a heck of a play," Tannehill said. "We got Julio switch release there going vertical with a lot of space right there. He squatted on it. I didn’t feel like there was a throw right there to go over the top, so he squatted and drove on it. Usually, the safety is not in that position against that coverage against that play."

The interception was the third time, including the playoffs, that Tannehill was picked off on the opening offensive possession, joining Drew Brees (2018) and Aaron Rodgers (2009) as the only quarterbacks to throw an interception on the first play of the first drive of a playoff game.

That one throw drained the energy out of what had been an electric atmosphere up to that point. The Titans' defense was able to salvage things by holding the Bengals to a field goal on the ensuing drive, despite Cincinnati taking over at the Tennessee 42-yard line.

Tannehill's second interception came after D'Onta Foreman broke off a 45-yard run to advance the football to Cincinnati's 9-yard line. It was Tannehill's fourth red zone interception this season, the most in the NFL including the playoffs.

Tennessee overcame the first two interceptions to march back from a 10-point deficit and had a chance to drive for the winning field goal. It would have been the eighth time Tannehill led the Titans to a double-digit comeback. Tannehill is currently tied with Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady for the second-most double-digit comebacks (7) since 2019.

Instead of finding a way to get into field goal range, Tannehill threw his final interception -- which was the ultimate backbreaker. Tannehill attempted a tight-window throw to Nick Westbrook-Ikhine that was tipped by Bengals defensive back Eli Apple and intercepted by linebacker Logan Wilson. A 52-yard field goal a couple of plays later ended the Titans' season.

"I don't think Ryan or myself or anybody did enough to win the game," Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. "Obviously, the guy pulling the trigger is going to get blamed. I mean, that's just what happens. But we all have to do a better job of taking care of the football."

The ending to the game was eerily similar to last season when the Baltimore Ravens beat the Titans 20-13 that was sealed by a Tannehill interception on the last offensive snap.

It's only fair to place some blame on Tannehill for the playoff losses the Titans have suffered. In short, he didn't get the job done.

Mind you, the Ravens' offense averaged 29.3 points per game during the 2020 regular season, so the defense was able to slow them down, but Tannehill was able to lead the Titans to only 13 points.

As for the Bengals, they averaged 27.1 points per game in 2021.

The Titans' defense was able to yet again slow a high-scoring offense, and they sacked quarterback Joe Burrow nine times to tie an NFL postseason record, but despite being harassed all game, he still managed to complete 28 of his 37 pass attempts for 348 yards -- including a 19-yard completion to Ja'Marr Chase to set up the winning field goal.

Burrow was able to overcome a dominant performance from the opposing defense and lead his team to a win. Tannehill hasn't shown that he can do that.

Therein lies the difference.

It seems as if the Titans might have hit their ceiling with Tannehill at quarterback. The team tried to elevate the talent around Tannehill by trading for Jones. Tannehill even agreed to a restructure of his contract to accommodate Jones' $15.3 million salary.

Tannehill's $24.5 million salary was converted to a signing bonus and will spread over the next three years. His cap hit is $38.6 million, but there's a $57.4 million dead cap hit if Tennessee releases Tannehill.

The restructure makes it difficult to move on from Tannehill after this season. Barring some kind of unusual deal, the Titans are likely stuck with Tannehill for at least one more season.

Tannehill got plenty of praise for making a couple of clutch throws in Tennessee's two playoff wins in 2019 and for leading the team to the AFC Championship game. The playoff run came after Tannehill threw 22 touchdown passes with only six interceptions and finished the season with the highest passer rating (117.5) of all starting quarterbacks.

There were multiple reports during the offseason two years ago that Brady was interested in joining the Titans via free agency. The Titans instead signed Tannehill to a four-year extension worth $118 million ($62 million guaranteed) early into the free-agency period.

Brady ended up signing with the Buccaneers and led them to the Super Bowl the next season. At 44 years old, Brady finished with 5,316 yards and 43 touchdowns this season.

After a two-year career resurgence, Tannehill's 14 interceptions this season were the second-highest total in his career. Tannehill threw a career-high 17 interceptions during his second NFL season with the Miami Dolphins.

When asked about his regression this season, Tannehill said there were "a lot of things that he can grow from and learn from."

“We want Ryan to be our quarterback for a long time,” Vrabel said before the Titans' 34-3 win over the Dolphins in Week 17.

Tannehill, who will be 34 heading into next season, has pretty much shown that he is a solid, complimentary quarterback. But he's also shown that he's not a quarterback who will put a team on his back and take them to the Super Bowl. Leading the Titans to only 29 total points in the past two divisional-playoff losses at home is the evidence.