It was wet and sloppy with nine turnovers between the two teams.
But to the Tennessee Titans, who needed a victory to boost their sagging playoff hopes, Sunday's 23-17 win over Tampa Bay looks like a thing of beauty in the standings.
The victory improved the Titans to 6-5 on the season, thanks in large part to Chris Johnson's 190 yards rushing on 23 carries.
“At this part of the season, certainly we should be playing our best football. Despite the way the game went, and the ups and downs throughout the game – obviously we didn't expect that – we were victorious,” said safety Jordan Babineaux, who forced one of the five turnovers that Tampa Bay surrendered. “I don't care what it looks like. It could have been a 6-3 game, but if you win the football game, at the end of the day, that's all that matters.”
The Titans did manage to make it hard on themselves, trailing 17-10 after Tampa Bay's Aqib Talib returned a Matt Hasselbeck interception 27 yards for the go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter.
But Tennessee rallied for 13 fourth-quarter points with the deciding score coming on Damian Williams' 2-yard TD catch on a fourth-and-goal. Williams twisted his left foot after catching the football to make sure he did not land on the back line to void the catch. The play withstood a replay review, giving the Titans the lead for good and eventually the victory.
“You've always got to be cognizant of the back line, even in just running your route, because if you step out and come back in and catch it, it's dead,” said Williams, who was waving his arms frantically beneath the goal post trying to get Hasselbeck's attention. “When the I saw the replay, it did kind of scare me, but in the game, I knew that I was open. I was fortunate that it worked out.”
For Williams and Hasselbeck, the play represented a little bit of impromptu work on their part as the Buccaneers stayed in a soft zone rather than a cover zero blitz like Hasselbeck and the Titans expected.
“We were really anticipating it, just based on our film study and everything we had prepared for and knowing them, we thought we were going to get it,” Hasselbeck explained. I”t was kind of a max protection, two-man route, but Nate (Washington) is supposed to score on that. Nate scored on the play last week; Jake (Locker) hit him for his econd touchdown. It's a bread and butter play for us, but they just came out and played a soft zone and Damian did a really nice job of working the back line.”
That score with 3:01 left was punctuated by rookie Colin McCarthy's interception of a Josh Freeman pass on the ensuing Buccaneer drive. Rob Bironas added a 38-yard field goal to cap the scoring for Tennessee with 1:44 to play.
Tennessee's defense then hung on and stopped a final Buccaneers drive at the 25-yard line when Freeman fumbled on fourth-and-1 and was stuffed, turning the ball back over to the Titans to kneel in the victory formation.
Sunday's game played in a steady and sometimes heavy rain, was far from a highlight reel, with the Titans turning the ball over four times and the getting five takeaways from the Bucs.
“One thing we talked about, that our coaches talked about a lot this week, was finding a way to win the game. It wasn't pretty, it was pretty ugly at times, but we found a way to win,” said Hasselbeck, who had his share of struggles as well, including a pick six by Tampa Bay's Aqib Talib that put the Bucs up 17-10 in the third quarter.
In fact, other than the fourth-down hookup from Hasselbeck to Williams, all the Titans' scoring had come courtesy of special teams with three Rob Bironas field goals and a kickoff return reverse that Tommie Campbell carried 84 yards to the end zone for the game's first TD.
In between, there was a lot of Chris Johnson, who had his best game of the year, with 190 yards on 23 carries. That total represented not only a season high for CJ, but also the third highest of his career.
“It felt good to finally get out there and get to some open space and make some plays,” Johnson said.
And the Titans made just enough of them to pull out a win and keep their playoff hopes alive.
“It is infinitely better than 5-6, but we need to get it done and we still need to prove we can win multiple games in a row,” guard Jake Scott said. “If you want to make a run in the playoffs, you've got to win more than one in a row. We've been back and forth, and we need to go forward next week and win two in a row and go from there.”