Wiedmer: Fort Payne may be only town in Tennessee Valley happy that Titans lost

AP photo by Mark Humphrey / Cincinnati Bengals kicker Evan McPherson points his finger as he celebrates after kicking a 52-yard field goal to beat the Tennessee Titans 19-16 in a playoff game Saturday in Nashville. McPherson, a rookie who is from Fort Payne, Alabama, played at the University of Florida and was the only kicker taken in the 2021 NFL draft.

The vast majority of the Tennessee Valley that cares about such things probably fell into a huge football funk Saturday night, when the Tennessee Titans lost 19-16 to the Cincinnati Bengals in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs.

Fort Payne might be the exception to that sadness, however, because Bengals rookie kicker Evan McPherson - who hit the winning 52-yard field goal as time expired - grew up in the north Alabama community before playing his college ball for the Florida Gators.

"Ice in his veins," said winning quarterback Joe Burrow, who led LSU to the national championship in the 2019 season. "You could see it from the first day of training camp."

Burrow soon added that even before his kick, McPherson told his teammates: "Ahhh, it looks like we're going to the AFC championship game."

Ever since their camp began, the Titans had been putting Band-Aids on a roster decimated at various times by COVID-19 outbreaks and injuries. Ninety-one players held a Tennessee roster spot at one time or another, an NFL record for a regular season without a strike. Yet by Saturday, the Titans looked as healthy as they had all season as they attempted to make the most of their hard-earned No. 1 seed.

Alas, much like the 2008 season - when they had last secured the AFC's No. 1 seed - they lost, and in eerily similar fashion to that 13-10 defeat at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens, with it coming on a 43-yard field goal with 57 seconds left.

This one could be blamed on several things - play calls and time management were both awful - though not the outstanding performance of the Titans' defensive line, which sacked Burrow a stunning nine times to tie an NFL playoff game record.

Yet all that good defensive work wasn't enough to overcome three Ryan Tannehill interceptions, including the final one with 20 seconds to go at the Bengals' 47-yard line. A single 19-yard pass from Burrow to Ja'Marr Chase got the Bengals in field-goal range, and McPherson - who's now tied with Stephen Gostkowski for most postseason field goals by a rookie kicker (eight) with at least one more game to go - did the rest.

This in and of itself shouldn't come as surprise to anyone familiar with McPherson's past. Known as "KickPherson" and "Money Mac," he booted both a 60-yard field goal and an 84-yard punt during his Fort Payne High School days, both kicks falling one yard short of the Alabama high school record.

Taken by the Bengals in the fifth round with the 149th overall pick last year, he was the only kicker selected in that entire NFL draft. As with almost every other draft selection Cincinnati has made of late, it's turned out perfectly for the franchise long known as the "Bungles."

Instead, it was the Titans who bungled what seemed to be a perfect opportunity to reach their first Super Bowl since the close of the 1999 season, when they came up a yard short against the St. Louis Rams of forcing overtime inside Atlanta's Georgia Dome.

Though current coach Mike Vrabel guided Tennessee to the AFC title game two years ago, that team had to do it the hard way, winning road games against the New England Patriots and Baltimore. This team was going to have home-field advantage until the Super Bowl.

Moreover, in Vrabel's four previous games after a bye week since he became head coach in 2018 - the Titans were off last weekend because of their No. 1 seed - Tennessee was not only 4-0, but its average margin of victory in those four games was 20.5 points. Give such history and the fact that likely future Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Derrick Henry would be taking the field for the first time since breaking his right foot in a game on Halloween, the Titans seemed all but certain to advance.

That they did not, that Tannehill threw interceptions - and somewhat awful ones at that - on his first pass of the game, his first pass of the second half, and the win-killer with 20 seconds to go, will surely cause some to wonder if this is the guy to build a promising future around.

Opportunities to win it all can fade quickly in the NFL. Just ask Dallas Cowboys fans today. Last season's team of the future can become this season's fire sale. There's a reason some people say NFL stands for Not For Long.

Much as the Titans are to be highly commended for overcoming so many injuries and so much illness to grab that No. 1 seed this season, failing to win even one home playoff game with everything going your way should lead to some serious examination into what went wrong when it mattered most.

To be fair, it could be nothing more than rust. Having the vast majority of your roster together for pretty much the first time all season is not the same as having them on the same page. Chemistry takes time. Tennessee's starters didn't have much time together on either side of the ball, but especially on offense.

Still, throughout the Tennessee Valley - especially everywhere save Fort Payne - this one will surely sting for a bit.

"All day we were just shooting ourselves in the foot," Titans wideout AJ Brown said.

And when it mattered most, "Money Mac" McPherson's lethal right foot made them pay dearly for those mistakes.

photo Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.