By Ron Wynn
The Tennessee Titans and Buffalo Bills rivalry includes some extraordinary games, most notably the “Music City Miracle” of 1999. Sunday’s battle wasn’t nearly as epic, but the Titans secured an important 23-17 win that kept them in the playoff hunt. They also didn’t let a 13-point second half lead get away, putting aside any memories of the 1991 Bills/Oilers game simply called “The Comeback.” That time the Houston Oilers, headed for the AFC championship game, somehow blew a 32-point second half lead and lost to the Bills 41-38 in overtime. When Buffalo scored a fourth-quarter touchdown, cutting the lead to 23-17, then regained the ball with a little over a minute remaining, some fans got nervous. But Tennessee stopped Buffalo from that point, winning their second straight game for the first time this season.
It also marked the third time in four games that Chris Johnson delivered the knockout punch at running back. He again displayed impressive speed, cutting ability and intensity while gaining 153 yards on 23 carries. His long runs included a 48-yard first quarter scoring burst. Johnson added a second four-yard TD run, plus several other big plays that either resulted in first downs or kept drives alive. After the worse stretch of his four-year career, Johnson has rushed for 486 yards over the last four games. He had only 366 with one touchdown for the first eight. Against Tampa Bay and Buffalo the last two weeks he’s gained 343 yards and scored twice. He’s now at 852 yards for the season and is back on pace for a Pro Bowl, even possibly an All-Pro campaign.
“In the beginning of the season, the passing game carried us,” Johnson told the Associated Press. “And now it’s time for the running game to step it up. The offensive line and everything is hitting on all cylinders right now, and hopefully we can continue to keep this momentum going.’ “Yeah, that’s the CJ I know,” added Titans safety Alterraun Verner.
The Titans got an efficient game from QB Matt Hasselbeck, one without either big highlights or costly mistakes. He completed 16 of 25 passes for 140 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. The offense, despite Johnson’s glittering rushing yardage, had its problems maintaining consistency. They converted only two of 11 third downs, and failed on their first seven times. Kicker Rob Bironas bailed them out on three occasions, hitting field goals of 48, 27 and 44 yards despite a stiff breeze that steadily increased through the afternoon. Punter Brett Kern also had a strong game. He had a 57-yarder late in the second half and averaged a healthy 47.8 yards per kick on five punts. While the new kickoff rules continue to limit Marc Mariani’s effectiveness, he’s become a breakout threat on punt returns. He averaged 24 yards per return on three tries, helping the Titans repeatedly win the field position battle. Titans special teams limited Bills returners to 10 yards on punts and 12 on kickoffs, Bironas constantly booming the ball out of the end zone.
“A lot of these guys are growing confidence that wasn’t there from the beginning,” Titans receiver Nate Washington said. “We are starting to realize we have a good chance at being a great football team here – not just good, but great.” Washington earned a lot of praise and respect from the coaching staff for gutting out a second half injury. Twice he limped off the field, then quickly returned. That helped an already short-handed Titans receiving corps. Washington and Damien Williams each caught four passes, with Williams averaging 15.5 per catch and Washington 10.5.
Another element was the blocking and occasional running of fullback Ahmard Hall. He had 14 yards in two carries, but was far more important as the lead blocker during several of Johnson’s lengthy runs. Hall even caught a couple of passes for another 12 yards. As the change-of-pace back, Javon Ringer had 21 yards rushing on five carries.
Defensively, the Titans kept Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick in check, though he had nearly 300 yards (288) in passing. While Fitzpatrick completed 29 of 46 with no interceptions, the Titans made key stops down the stretch at the end of each half. During Buffalo’s desperation comeback, the Titans clamped down on wide receiver Stevie Johnson (five catches for 52 yards and a touchdown). Running back CJ Spiller hurt them on cutback runs in the first half, but they nicely adjusted in the final two quarters. Spiller gained only three of his 83 yards in the second half. Buffalo won the time of possession (31:46 to 28:14) and had more total yards (379-317), but were never able to close the gap after the Titans went ahead 23-10.
Rookie middle linebacker Colin McCarthy continued his stellar play. He had nine tackles to lead both teams, while recovering two fumbles. Safety Michael Griffin twice stripped the ball from Bills receivers, although the first time things didn’t work out so well. Spiller recoverd the ball in the end zone. Initially the play was ruled a touchback, with the Titans getting possession on the 20. Later that call was overturned and Spiller awarded a TD. That gave Buffalo a short-lived 7-3 lead, but Tennessee roared back with a field goal and Johnson’s first touchdown to take a 17-10 halftime advantage. Though outscored 7-6 in the second half, the Titans prevailed.
It was Buffalo’s fifth straight loss, dropping them to 5-7. They are now only at best a long shot for any playoff possibilities. “Extremely shocked and disappointed: all those words,” Fitzpatrick said. “The way we’ve played lately hasn’t been good enough.”
Meanwhile , Tennessee returns home Sunday to face the New Orleans Saints, one of the NFL’s most potent offenses. They rolled over Detroit 31-17 Sunday night. They come to town leading the NFC South with a 9-3 mark. However they are only 3-3 on the road, compared to being undefeated (6-0) in the Superdome. Their racehorse offense thrives in perfect conditions, but can be slowed down by the climate and rigorous defensive pressure. Drew Brees has already surpassed the 3,000-yard mark, and is considered number two among NFL quarterbacks to the Green Bay Packers Aaron Rodgers. He was 26 for 36 Sunday night, gaining 342 yards and throwing three TD passes.
With Houston defeating Atlanta 17-10, the Titans trail the Texans by two games with four remaining. They have already surpassed last year’s victory total, and realize that they could easily be 9-3 had they not let games against Jacksonville and Cincinnati slip away. But with Houston on the road Sunday (at Cincinnati), if the Bengals can give them some help and the Titans find a way to beat New Orleans, they can narrow the gap.