I’m glad I’m not a Titans fan today.
That was an ugly one. It was one of those football games where the play devolved into something resembling mud wrestling. In the end, the match was decided by a technicality on special teams - a Technical Knockout, if you will.
In hindsight, expecting fireworks in this one was probably foolish. The Cincinnati Bengals were missing star wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase for the fourth consecutive game and running back Joe Mixon was also absent after suffering a concussion against the Pittsburgh Steelers the week prior. The Tennessee Titans were on a roll after starting the season 0 - 2 (like the Bengals), winning seven of their last eight, but the majority of credit went to their defense.
It was also a rematch from the AFC Divisional Round of last year’s playoffs, in which the 4th-seeded Bengals upset the top-seeded Titans despite quarterback Joe Burrow taking nine sacks in the contest. It was a bitter playoff-ending to a storybook regular season for the Titans - and this was their opportunity to bury the past once and for all.
Instead, the Titans will be left kicking themselves for the second time, and the Bengals are happy to escape back to Cincinnati with a win.
It certainly wasn't an offensive showcase, but it was another complete team effort from a Bengals team that keeps finding contributors. Backup running back Semaje Perine continued to step up in Mixon’s absence, and Tee Higgins, the yin to Chase’s yang, continued to excel as the featured wideout. Burrow continues to make tight window throws look frighteningly casual. But this win belonged to the defense.
Derrick Henry, the Titans incredible half-man, half-steamroller running back, was utterly stymied in the run game and apart from a fluke 69-yard gain on a screen pass, was almost entirely invisible. For Tennessee, Henry is more than just their heart and soul - he’s their everything. Without his typical contributions on the ground, quarterback Ryan Tannehill and the passing game just couldn't pick up the slack.
It was an incredible performance by the Bengals defense. On the day, they allowed a Titans squad that was averaging 129 yards-per-game on the ground to just 63 yards. It felt like every time Henry took a handoff, he was either meeting a wall of Bengals defenders at the line of scrimmage or was being tripped up by slot corner Mike Hilton in the backfield.
In the end, though, this game hinged on two often-overlooked factors: the referees and special teams.
Let’s start with the refs. At the start of the game they were, you could say…flag-happy? In the first half alone, the Bengals were called for three penalties on punt returns, crippling their field position and ultimately leading to a Titans field goal at the start of the second quarter. Shockingly, it was the Titans who would make the biggest special teams blunder of all.
Fast forward to the two-minute warning and the Bengals were lining up for a field goal to go up seven. The Titans had used up all their timeouts to ensure they would get the ball back, but they were looking at a long field just to tie the game. Bengals kicker Evan McPherson drilled the field goal, but the keen observer might have spotted some conspicuous yellow laundry in the backfield.
It was a personal foul on the Titans for roughing a defenseless player. During the field goal attempt, two Titans players had run into long snapper Cal Adomitis, a protected player, drawing the game-ending penalty. From there, the Bengals would run out the clock.
It was a close call, but the Bengals won’t complain - not with another challenging matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs looming next week. It’s survive-and-advance season, and the Bengals succeeded.
This was an important win. With so many difficult games on the horizon for Cincinnati, it was necessary to make the most out of this critical opportunity. They might not have been at their absolute best versus the Titans, but the Bengals continued to demonstrate the very same resolve that propelled them past this very same adversary last year - and catapulted them all the way to the Super Bowl.