A.J. Brown made his return on Thursday night in Nashville and it was an emphatic one.
Back in action for the Tennessee Titans for the first time since Week 11, Brown lifted the Titans offense and ignited a comeback as Tennessee bested the San Francisco 49ers, 20-17, on Thursday Night Football.
Sidelined by a chest injury, Brown was activated off injured reserve Thursday ahead of the game and posted a career-high 11 catches on a career-high 16 targets for 145 yards and a touchdown.
"A.J.'s fantastic," Titans head coach Mike Vrabel stated simply. "We expect those things from A.J."
Indeed, the sensational has come consistently for Brown. Thursday was the wide receiver's 11th career game with 100 yards receiving and a touchdown. Only the Los Angeles Rams' Cooper Kupp (13) and the Green Bay Packers' Davante Adams (12) have more such games since Brown introduced himself to the NFL in 2019, per NFL Research.
On Thursday, a stagnant Titans offense was trailing 10-0 at halftime before Brown keyed a comeback that has Tennessee an Indianapolis Colts loss away from clinching the AFC South.
"It's huge," Tennessee quarterback Ryan Tannehill said of what Brown's return did for his confidence. "A.J. is a heckuva player. I have so much fun throwing the ball to him. He finds a way to get open, he's big, he's physical. He's great with the ball in his hands and he makes plays on the ball. He's everything you look for in a wide receiver and I have a ton of confidence throwing him the football. No doubt it was great to have him back."
It was a resounding return for the former Pro Bowler, who was elated just to be back on the field following roughly a month away.
"It was tough for me just watching," Brown said. "This is what I love to do. I really feel like this is my purpose of living, so it was tough."
During his postgame news conference, Brown admitted it was a tough road back to the field and took plenty of hard work. Perhaps symbolically, Brown's big night didn't come right out of the gates.
The Titans were dominated in the first half, but still trailed by just a 10-0 deficit as the 49ers couldn't cash in their dominance.
In the opening half, the Titans had only 55 yards of offense, with Brown notching 24 of those yards off five receptions and seven targets. Everything changed for the Titans in the second half, though.
"Our motto at halftime was just make a play," said Brown, who had six catches for 121 yards and a TD in the second half. "And then make another one, and then make another one. That's what it came down to, making plays. Just do your job and let the chips fall where they may."
The plays piled up for Brown.
Tennessee marched 55 yards for a field goal on the opening drive of the latter half with Brown hauling in the two biggest plays -- receptions of 18 and 13 yards for third-down conversions. Brown was extraordinary on third down, hauling in eight third-down grabs.
"That's the money down. That's the money down," he said. "You gotta convert and keep these drives going. This is a tough league and that was a tough defense. They welcomed me back. Very physical, especially in the first half."
Then Brown took the spotlight.
First, he hauled in a huge 42-yard deep ball to convert on third-and-23 on the final play of the third quarter. Three plays later, Brown had a 12-yard grab on third-and-10 and then capped it off with a beautiful 18-yard go-ahead touchdown catch.
Ultimately, a clutch Randy Bullock field goal won it for the Titans, but without Brown's return and stellar contributions, it's difficult to imagine Tennessee prevailing on the final 2021 installment of Thursday Night Football.
Tennessee's offense has been listless as of late. Much of that is credited to the loss of running back Derrick Henry. However, the running game by committee has largely fared well.
From Week 11 when Brown departed through Week 15, the Titans were 1-3 and averaged just 14.8 points per game after an 8-2 start with 27.8 per game.
"We understand how important he is to our football team," Vrabel said. "Love him as a person. Glad to have him back."
On Thursday, Brown returned and did so in exemplary form. He was the spark that ignited the Titans' offense and eventually caught fire and took over the game.
"They kept saying welcome back in the middle of the game and keep going, keep going, keep carrying us, keep carrying us," Brown said when asked what his teammates were telling him upon his return. "I was just grateful to be back out there playing the game that I love."