The Tennessee Titans running game has awakened just in time for what the Titans hope will be a playoff run.
That notion is still in the distance at 7-5 with four games to play, but at it is still alive after Sunday's 23-17 victory over the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
At two games over .500 with four to play, the Titans find themselves in the middle of a logjam for the final AFC playoff spot. Tennessee, Cincinnati, Oakland and the New York Jets are all 7-5 in vying for the second wild-card spot in the AFC.
Chris Johnson ran for 153 yards for the Titans, and scored two touchdowns, doubling his season total as the Titans won for the second straight game riding Johnson and the running game.
Johnson scored from 48 yards out to give the Titans a 10-7 with 5:50 still to play in the first quarter. Johnson would later add a 4-yard touchdown in the second quarter as the Titans scored on their first three possessions of the game to take command 17-7.
“To get the running game going right off the bat was good. Chris' long run was huge for us,” Titans coach Mike Munchak said. “Like we've been saying for a long time, if we can run the ball that well, then we become a tough team to stop, and it makes you feel good about what you're doing.”
Throughout much of the day, the Titans appeared to be in control of the game but could never put the pesky Bills away.
Tennessee built the 10-point lead after Johnson's second TD run with 13:48 to go in the half, but the Bills answered back, scoring on a 27-yard Dave Rayner field goal before the half to make it a one-score game again.
The rest of Tennessee's scoring game on a pair of second-half field goals from Bironas of 27 and 44 yards to again give the Titans a two-score lead and allowing them to exert a bit of control in the game.
But Buffalo crawled back into the game on a fourth-down TD pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Stevie Johnson to pull the Bills within 23-17 with 2:58 to play.
On the ensuing possession, but the Titans managed one first down, then after punting the ball back to Buffalo, held when Jason Jones deflected Fitzpatrick's fourth-down pass to snuff out the Bills' final chance and most of Buffalo's remaining playoff life.
While Johnson starred for the second straight week on offense, rookie linebacker Colin McCarthy was again a big spark on defense with a pair of fumble recoveries, one in each half.
McCarthy continues to star since entering the starting lineup for an injured Barrett Ruud and making big plays. It was his forced fumble and fumble recovery against Fitzpatrick that set up the Titans' final touchdown drive in the first half.
And it was his recovery of a Scott Chandler fumble in the third quarter that helped turn momentum shortly after the first half.
In the passing game, Matt Hasselbeck was quietly efficient, hitting 16 of 25 for 140 yards on a windy day for Tennessee. There weren't a lot of big plays because of the wind, but the Titans had no turnovers either.
“We felt like we could run the ball and we were able to run,” Hasselbeck said. “With the windy conditions, we threw the ball adequately. It could have been better, but it was good enough to get it done.”
The importance of the win was not lost on the Titans, who now host the New Orleans Saints in another important game next Sunday.
“Buffalo is a tough place to come and get a win. They were 4-1 at home this year,” Hasselbeck said. “We knew the importance of it. It was not only that challenge, but how tough it was going to be to try and get two in a row.”
Johnson said he wanted to make sure that the remaining games are meaningful down the stretch.
“We know we've got to continue to win I we want to stay in the playoff hunt,” Johnson said. “Houston right now is in control (at 9-3 in the AFC South) and in order for it to be a showdown in the last game of the season, we've got to handle our business.”