By: Luke Worsham
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — “Too little, too late” was the theme of the day for the Tennessee Titans (8-6) in their crucial matchup with the Houston Texans (9-5) on Sunday.
Despite a 14-0 run at the start of the second half to tie the game and a quick touchdown drive in the final three minutes, the Titans ultimately fell by a final score of 24-21.
The loss puts the Titans in a hole when it comes to their chances to win the AFC South. If the Texans win either of their next two games (at Tampa Bay, vs. Tennessee), then the division is theirs.
“It’s hugely disappointing,” QB Ryan Tannehill said. “I was excited about the opportunity, I think our entire team was. We didn’t come out and play well early.”
Things looked to be getting off to a good start for the Titans early in the game following a diving Kenny Vaccaro interception near the endzone on the Texans’ first possession and a methodical drive that gave the Titans the ball at the Houston 5-yard line.
Then, disaster struck.
A Tannehill pass intended for TE Anthony Firkser was deflected by safety Justin Reid and intercepted by Texans LB Whitney Mercilus, who sprinted down the right sideline for 86 yards to put the ball at the Titans’ 12. Texans QB Deshaun Watson capitalized quickly with a 12-yard TD strike to WR Kenny Stills.
The Titans offense followed that up with a three-and-out, and the Texans again took advantage with a touchdown drive to take a 14-0 lead that they took into halftime.
“Finding ways to go down 14-0 would be one of those things that get you beat,” head coach Mike Vrabel said. “It’s just hard to overcome that in this league.”
To open the second half, the Titans went on a 14-0 scoring run to tie the game. Tannehill finished off the first scoring drive with a 1-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-goal, and Brown scored from five yards out on the second drive.
But it wasn’t enough.
Houston responded by going on a scoring run of their own. Watson led the offense down the field for a seven-play, 75-yard TD drive. After a Titans three-and-out, the Texans marched down the field and kicked a 29-yard field goal to go up by 10.
Tannehill led the Titans on a 1:22 touchdown drive to get back within three points of Houston’s lead, but Titans K Ryan Santoso’s onside kick was unsuccessful, allowing Houston to essentially run out the clock.
Because the Titans went down by 14 points early in the game, they spent the majority of the afternoon trying to play catchup.
The hole proved to be too much to overcome, though, and the Titans were forced to resort to measures that would have required near-miracles to be successful.
“It was too little too late,” Tannehill said. “We kind of needed a hope and a prayer.”
“I don’t think we made plays early,” safety Kevin Byard said. “Against a good team like that, you can’t get down early. That’s what happened today.”
FAKE PUNT FEAUX PAS
Near the end of the first half, Vrabel made a questionable decision to run a fake punt on fourth down from Houston’s 37-yard-line.
Instead of allowing Tannehill or another offensive player to control the play, Vrabel opted to let P Brett Kern throw a pass down the right sideline to S Dane Cruikshank.
The pass was incomplete, and the Titans turned the ball over on downs.
Vrabel explained after the game that he believed running a fake punt gave the Titans the best possible chance to score a touchdown before halftime.
“Just trying to get something there that long field goal range,” he said.
“I thought that had as much of a chance of converting fourth-and-10 as there was. At that point in time, it was 14-0. We were trying to get something late in the half.”
After this loss, the Titans no longer control whether they will be AFC South champions at the end of the season.
They would also need help from other teams in order to secure a playoff spot as a wildcard team.
In the midst of the uncertainty, the Titans are remaining focused on controlling the things that they can control.
“I don’t focus on that,” Vrabel said. “I try to focus on winning games, which we didn’t do today.
“That’s what my focus is, it’s not trying to determine what the scenario is or who we’re rooting for. We need to all be rooting for the Titans.”
The Titans have a home matchup with the New Orleans Saints next week. They’ll be hoping that the Texans lose on their road trip to Tampa Bay.
If they come away victorious, the 2019 AFC South race would officially be in the books.
Cover image: Christopher Hanewinckel/USA Today