Playing with no margin for error, fatal mistakes doomed the Tennessee Titans to a 26-20 loss to the Denver Broncos on Sunday at LP Field.
The Titans clung to a 20-16 lead until the final 1:33 when the Broncos miracle finish then finished off the Titans, benefiting from a pass interference call on a second-and-25 pass and a later fortuitous bounce on a kickoff that denied the Titans their next possession.
When it was over, players in a stunned Tennessee locker room could only shake their heads over what had slipped through their grasp.
“It's tough. There's so many different ways you can lose in this league, but six years in and I can never remember feeling like this,” nickelback Vincent Fuller said.
The Titans' unraveling began on the second-and-25 pass from Kyle Orton, who heaved the ball 50 yards from midfield to the end zone toward Jabar Gaffney. Just before the toss, Orton dodged Titans defensive end William Hayes, who appeared to have a direct hit on him.
“I should have had him. I ain't got no excuse. I guess I didn't corner good enough. I don't know what it was. It was a guaranteed sack there. … I just missed it. I ain't got no excuses,” Hayes said.
And so the chain reaction of plays going against the Titans had begun.
Titans safety Chris Hope made contact with Gaffney on the play, and pass interference was called, putting the ball at the 1 for the Broncos. After a false-start penalty, the Broncos then took the lead on a 6-yard pass from Orton to Corell Buckhalter with 1:33 to play.
“With the offense and that play is called now, any offense can just pretty much throw a Hail Mary desperation pass, and when you hang the ball up in the air long enough, there's going to be some tangling between the offense and the defensive guy,” Hope said. “I felt like I was in great position. He wasn't behind me. The ball hung up in the air so long that he had a chance to draw the pass interference.”
The Titans still had an opportunity to rally – or so they thought.
On the ensuing kickoff, the ball took a high bounce in front of returner Marc Mariani. As he leaped to get the ball, Denver's David Bruton hit him and the ball squirted free, where Cassius Vaughn recovered it at the Titans' 17 with 1:31 to play.
“We knew it was gonna be short. I didn't really expect it to be that short, but it's my job, and it's my responsibility to make the call and to get it done,” said Mariani, who earlier had a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. “I think I should have made the play. It's a [expletive] feeling.”
That muff allowed the Broncos to milk the clock and kick another Matt Prater field goal for the final margin. It left the Titans with 23 desperate seconds to throw three long incompletions before time expired. One, a ball that traveled 60-yards in the air to Kenny Britt fittingly slipped right through the receiver's hands at around the 13-yard line with eight seconds to play.
“I definitely thought I had a shot it it. That's why I probably over-thought it. Instead of staying focused on the ball, I'm over there saying, 'Hey, we've got a chance at this,' and it got away from me,” Britt said. “I feel like I should make every catch. My job is to make the quarterback look good. He put it in a perfect spot and the thing fell right through my hands.”
Similar to the way the game did for the Titans, who may have begun to lose control in the second half, thanks in part to an offense that went cold and conservative after halftime.
Vince Young was sharp in the first half, completing 13 of 18 in the first half for 138 yards and a touchdown from four yards out to Britt. In all, the Titans gained 242 yards in the first half.
In the second half, however, Tennessee's offense sputtered, managing just 46 yards and three first downs on just 20 snaps.
Did the Titans get too conservative in the second half?
“That's not my call,” receiver Nate Washington said. “It's on the coaches. I don't really know what the logic of the play calling, but it's something we have to run and we have to do a better job of closing out.”
Young, who finished 17 of 28 for 173 yards, steered clear of that thought as well.
“You've got to talk to the offensive coordinator [Mike Heimerdinger] and Coach [Jeff] Fisher on that one,” Young said. “My job is to go out there and try to do whatever it takes, when the play is called, to execute it, get first downs and move the ball.”
It was also another frustrating day for Chris Johnson, who was being keyed on by the Denver defense. He finished with 53 yards on 19 carries. Backup Javon Ringer ripped off a 54-yard run on his first carry and finished with 50 yards after a 4-yard loss on his only other carry.
Whatever the reason for the offensive's second-half sagging, it left the defense on the field to defend 70-plus plays and 300-plus passing yards for the second straight week. This time, they succumbed to Orton, who hit on 35 of 50 throws for 341 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. The Broncos quarterback won with the aid of only 19 yards rushing, 11 of which he generated himself.
“It just becomes a little tense when you have to play perfect defense the entire game. Again, I don't know how many snaps we played on defense ,” Hope said. “You play 70 snaps and you have to play a perfect 70 snaps. You never know what missed tackle, what slant that you missed or what time you get out of a gap is doing to beat you. That's kind of tough to do.”
Cornerback Cortland Finnegan was asked similarly if the Titans' defense played too many snaps, and replied, “
“That's a wonderful question, and I'm going to tell you no – with a smile,” Finnegan said.
It was about the only thing the Titans could smile about on Sunday.