NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — The stage was all set. Nissan Stadium was packed at full capacity for a playoff game for the first time in 13 years, Derrick Henry was back and the Titans were fresh off their bye as the No. 1 seed in the AFC. All that stood between them and the franchise’s first-ever home AFC Championship game was the Bengals.
But it wasn’t meant to be, as Cincinnati took advantage of Tennessee’s mistakes early and late to win its first-ever road playoff game. Joe Burrow’s 20-yard pass to Ja’Marr Chase in the final minute setting up Evan McPherson’s fourth field goal of the day, this one from 52 yards, as time expired to give the Bengals a 19-16 win.
The crowd of 69,202 was electric even before Derrick Henry emerged from the tunnel for his comeback with one of the most memorable player introductions of all-time. Those cheers quickly turned to stunned silence when Ryan Tannehill was intercepted by Jesse Bates on the very first play from scrimmage to set up a field goal and put the Titans in an early hole.
This Titans offense, which has battled through far more injuries than just Henry’s right foot this year, struggled all season with slow starts, turnovers and missed opportunities. It was a theme that carried into Saturday’s AFC Divisional round game.
Tannehill completed just three of his first seven passes, missing A.J. Brown on a third down slant that would’ve been good for a first down and then on a first down bomb that would’ve gone for a touchdown if the pass wasn’t overthrown. The Titans finally got going with a nine play, 84-yard drive in the second quarter in which Brown, Henry and Julio Jones took their turns having a starring role in the way fans envisioned the trio could before injuries derailed the seasons of the latter two. Henry’s 3-yard touchdown run out of the King Cat tied the game 6-6.
But after a Cincinnati penalty, the Titans elected to take the try from the one and go for the two-point conversion only to have Henry stopped inches from the goalline. It was a costly decision and a point the Titans would miss later in the game.
The defense kept Tennessee in the game, sacking Burrow five times in the first half alone and forcing the Bengals to settle for three field goals. But Burrow and the Bengals were able to steadily move the ball, converting seven of 15 third downs with well designed plays getting Chase and Tee Higgins open in the Titans’ secondary.
Burrow, who went 2-0 in the College Football Playoff while leading LSU to the national championship and is now 2-0 in the NFL playoffs, converted two third downs on Cincinnati’s only touchdown drive. A pass to Higgins for 12 yards and then a gutsy third and five scramble. On the next play Joe Mixon cut back and found open space for really the only time all day, outrunning everybody to the end zone for a 16-yard score and a 16-6 lead.
The Titans wouldn’t pack it in. Brown came up with several big catches, seemingly to take the Titans off of life support, on the way to a franchise playoff record 142 yards receiving. His 40-yard reception set up a field goal and his 33-yard touchdown grab just inside the pylon against tight coverage tied the game just plays after Amani Hooker’s incredible snag of an interception on a deflected Burrow pass.
Hooker’s pick was the only turnover the Titans forced, but they recorded a NFL playoff record-tying nine sacks, forcing field goals and ending drives. And Jeffery Simmons made a statement to all those people who snubbed him for the Pro Bowl with three sacks of his own as the defense once again gave this team a chance to win when the offense wasn’t at its best.
But victory in this game required the offense to push the team across the finish line and it couldn’t deliver. Two missed chances in the fourth quarter will leave players and fans alike scratching their heads for a long time to come.
The first came with the Titans facing third and one at the Cincinnati 35 with 8:06 left. Tannehill lined up in the shotgun with Henry at his side to run one of the team’s favorite plays; a short yardage zone read concept which Tannehill’s run adeptly dating back to his days with the Dolphins and in college at Texas A&M – both places where he was coached by Bengals coach Zac Taylor. Cincinnati was more than ready for it and Tannehill was stopped for no gain. Then on fourth down they predictably tried to punch it forward with Derrick Henry who was stuffed for a loss, leaving the Titans with nothing.
Still there came one more opportunity when the Titans got the ball back at their own 16 with 2:43 to play and all three timeouts. But instead of coming out aggressive, the Titans seemingly played not to lose. Running Henry for three yards and the letting the clock run down to the 2:00 warning. A 16 yard pass to Julio Jones seemed to spark the drive, but the Titans ran just two plays for eight yards in the next 1:20, setting up the nightmare finish.
On third and five with 28 seconds left Tannehill tried to force it into coverage with Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, the ball was batted in the air and intercepted by Logan Wilson just on the Cincinnati side of the 50. Burrow hit Chase on the next play on a well-designed route against the soft spot in the Titans’ zone to set up McPherson’s game-winning kick.
Credit to the Bengals. They made the plays they had to to win the game and advance to their first AFC Championship since 1988. But this loss will linger for the Titans because of the missed opportunities, the coaching decisions and because once again the quarterback failed to come up with the goods in the playoffs.
The debate of Tannehill’s ability to lead the Titans to the Super Bowl will only intensify after this performance. He’ll be back next season with all eyes on him to see if he can prove the growing number of critics wrong.
But in this season full of so much success, through so much adversity, the Titans just never could put it all together. And on Saturday it all came crashing down in an abrupt end that no one saw coming.
The first AFC Championship game to be played in Nashville will not come next weekend, nor will a possible Super Bowl trip to Los Angeles. And it is a long, long wait for training camp in August.