NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee Titans (6-3) have been done a lot of losing over the past several years, but Sunday’s 24-20 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals (3-6) at Nissan Stadium was yet another example of resiliency in a tough situation.
Tennessee quarterback Marcus Mariota led his team 73 yards down the field in 12 plays, culminating in a seven-yard touchdown pass to running back DeMarco Murray, to score the game-winner with :42 seconds to play and give the Titans their first four-game winning streak since 2009.
“That was a good win for our team,” Tennessee coach Mike Mularkey said post-game. “We had to find a way to win. We had opportunities to do it early in the game and we didn’t, but when we had to at the end, we did. I know I use the word resilient a lot, but that’s, I think, the makeup of this team. It’s amazing that they believe in themselves and they just know we always have a chance to win. That’s important in this business”
The final drive for the Titans came after Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton found a streaking A.J. Green, who took it 70-yards for pay dirt to give their team a 20-17 lead with 5:03 to play. The late touchdown by the opposition exasperated the home fans, who were understandably gun-shy considering the depths this franchise has seen.
But, for the third time in these four wins, Mariota delivered a game-sealing last possession for his team when it mattered most. The third-year pro finished 25-of-44 for 264 yards through the air, 51 yards rushing, a touchdown and an interception.
“As a competitor, as an athlete, you want to make the play that helps your team win and it’s fun to be in those situations,” Mariota said. “Obviously, we don’t want to be in them all the time, but it’s exciting to see when it gets down close and it’s go time guys make a play and we’re able to pull it out.”
Mistakes sullied a well-designed game plan by Tennessee’s offensive staff. Receivers Rishard Matthews and Corey Davis both erred on potential scoring plays. The former allowed a sure six points to go right through his hands while the later fumbled trying to make a play across the goal line which resulted in a touchback.
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s unit stood tall once again to prevent the game from getting out of hand, though. Cincinnati was held to 1-of-10 on third-down conversions and the Titans secondary recorded seven pass break-ups and hung on for a final “Hail Mary” from the Bengals with :03 left to play that fell incomplete.
Tennessee scored on it’s opening possession to be the first on the scoreboard, marching with ease against the opposition for a 10-play, 75-yard drive that ended with Murray scoring his first of three touchdowns (two rushing, one receiving) on the day. But Dalton and company answered on the ensuing drive to make it 7-6 on a 37-yard pass to receiver Brandon Lafell. Lafell found the end zone unimpeded due to blown coverage/miscommunication between safeties Kevin Byard and Johnathan Cyprien but kicker Randy Bullock missed the point after.
A Bengals drive in the second quarter was brought to a screeching halt on third-and-11 when linebacker Brian Orakpo came off the edge to sack Dalton and force a fumble that Orakpo’s counterpart Derrick Morgan recovered at the Cincinnati 27. The Titans capitalized on the turnover with Murray’s second rushing score, this one up the middle, from one yard out to make it 14-6.
Tennessee could have widened the margin further before half but the drop by Matthews and a rare missed field goal from inside of 50 yards (48) by kicker Ryan Succop saw the Titans efforts wasted. Succop, who holds the record for most consecutive makes from inside of 50 yards saw his streak end at 56-straight.
Tennessee again forced a Dalton fumble on a botched snap on the first play following the Two-Minute Warning and Morgan, again, pounced on it to give his offense the ball back. Mariota quickly returned the favor throwing an interception to corner Darqueze Dennard on short pass intended for Davis to give the Bengals first-and-goal from the Titans three-yard line.
Running back Joe Mixon toted it the rest of the way on first down to bring the score to 14-13 with 1:42 in the half.
The final play of the second quarter brought Tennessee within field-goal range once more and Succop delivered to make the score 17-13 from 44 yards away.
Both teams were unable to put points on the board in the third quarter but the Titans found themselves back in Cincinnati territory and Mariota completed a 20-yard pass on third-and-four to Davis who lunged past the pylon for what was initially ruled the rookie’s first career touchdown. After official review, the referees determied that Davis fumbled the ball out of bounds while trying to cross the goal line and the result was a touchback.
“That’s a rule, that was the rule,” Mularkey said when asked about the lost score. “The odds of that, it’s never happened to me since I’ve been coaching. So, I’ve never had that play happen until today.”
The Titans, once again, sit tied atop the AFC South with the Jacksonville Jaguars (6-3) but hold the tie-breaker because of a Week 2 road win over their divisional rival.
They travel to Pittsburgh to face the AFC North-leading Steelers (7-2) in prime time on Thursday Night Football.