“The rule of three or power of three is a writing principle that suggests that things that come in threes are funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things.”1
At its most stripped down, the Tennessee Titans’ 25-16 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday came down to three plays. Three awful, catastrophic, and horrifying plays. If you were to remove those three plays, the Titans win the game. I am convinced of that. Of course, many things could have appeared in the vacuum created by the absence of those three plays, but we are not omniscient and do not know what might have been. We can only hypothesize and formulate conclusions based on the data and knowledge we possess.
Here is what we know
Up until the first of those three plays, the Titans were in control of the game. At that point in the game, 1:38 left in the 3rd quarter, the Titans were leading the Vikings, 10-6. The Titans had successfully contained the best running back of the past 10 years, Adrian Peterson, holding him to 31 yards on 19 attempts. They had not allowed a touchdown. Three of the Vikings six points came on a field goal to start the 2nd half when the Vikings returned the kickoff into kicking range.
On the other side of the ball, the Titans had effectively moved the ball up and down the field for most of the game. The running backs were making plays. Marcus Mariota was reading the field well and making good throws. And the receivers were actually catching the ball. The Titans’ offense was not great. They were not putting touchdowns on the board, but their offense was the better of the two teams on this day. At 1:38 left in the 3rd quarter, the Titans were in the process of driving 47 yards down the field, getting in field goal range, and attempting to build their lead.
Then, it happened.
The first of the three plays – the ever-present rule of three – happened. Marcus Mariota rolled out and saw pressure he was not expecting. He threw the ball to Vikings’ defender Eric Kendricks, who returned it 77 yards for a touchdown. It was a momentum killing, crowd deflating, game changing play. But it was only the beginning of the woes awaiting Titans’ nation. The rule of three was just getting started.
Two possessions later, on the very first play of the drive, Demarco Murray and Marcus Mariota botched the read-option exchange and fumbled the ball. The defense quickly picked it up and returned for another touchdown. The unthinkable was happening; the Titans were giving away the game. Talent-wise, they were equal to the task. Unfortunately, talent alone does not win games. Execution and taking advantage of mistakes play a huge role as well. On this day, the Vikings executed and took advantage. The Titans did not.
And still, the rule of three was not finished with the Titans. On their very next possession, Murray fumbled the ball on a second down play near midfield. When all was said and done, the Titans’ defense allowed 12 points – all field goals. The Titans’ offense generated 29 points, only, 13 of those points were for the Vikings. In a league where most teams are evenly matched, one or two plays can be the deciding factor for good or ill. On Sunday, three plays told the story. The rule of three had played its hand and exerted its dominion over the game.