Titans’ late mistake helps Bengals close out win

AP photo by Gerald Herbert / Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) runs out of the pocket during Sunday's game against the Tennessee Titans in Nashville.

NASHVILLE — The Cincinnati Bengals have a knack for beating the Tennessee Titans at their own game, which means playing more physically than opponents and forcing them into mistakes at the wrong time.

They did it again Sunday at Nissan Stadium.

Joe Burrow threw a 27-yard touchdown pass to Tee Higgins with 13:42 left to put Cincinnati ahead to stay, and the Bengals held off the Titans 20-16 for their third straight victory and fifth in six games.

"This is the kind of game that great teams win," Burrow said after Cincinnati improved to 7-4 and moved into a first-place tie with the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North Division standings. "It's not always going to be pretty. This is the NFL. You're playing really, really good teams on the opposing end. You've got to find ways to win, and we're starting to do that."

The reigning AFC champions won the rematch of their divisional-round playoff victory over Tennessee — the Titans were the conference's top seed when they lost 19-16 to the Bengals on the same field in January — despite not having running back Joe Mixon because he hadn't cleared the concussion protocol. In addition, receiver Ja'Marr Chase, the reigning offensive rookie of the year, missed a fourth straight game with a hip injury.

Cincinnati has won three straight over Tennessee and five of the past six meetings. Burrow, sacked nine times by Tennessee in the January matchup, went down only once this time as he threw for 270 yards.

"We wouldn't trade our quarterback for anybody on the planet, and so we're glad to have him," Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor said.

Higgins finished with 114 yards on seven catches, and kicker Evan McPherson — the Fort Payne, Alabama, native whose last-second 52-yarder made him the hero of January's win in Nashville — made a pair of field goals for the Bengals. He connected on a third with 1:53 left, but Titans lineman Kevin Strong was flagged for unnecessary roughness after landing on the long snapper. That nullified the kick but allowed the Bengals to run out the clock.

Titans safety Kevin Byard said it looked like two teammates hit the snapper. Strong said he was "totally shocked" to learn he was flagged, well aware defenders can't line up on the snapper or hit him in the head.

"Once he hikes the ball and has his head up, you can come through," Strong said. "I was just trying to get in the A gap. I wasn't intentionally trying to hit him in the head. I made a mistake, and I take that one and put it on me. I just have to do better for my team."

The Titans (7-4) equaled their most points allowed since a road loss to the Buffalo Bills in the second week of the season as their two-game winning streak ended. This was just the second time since that defeat that Tennessee gave up more than 17, matching the 20 points allowed in an overtime road loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

Cincinnati smothered NFL rushing leader Derrick Henry yet again, holding him to 38 yards, his second-lowest total of the season. Tennessee tried to rally by throwing to Henry, but his career-best 79 receiving yards didn't do the trick.

"We just couldn't get nothing started in the run game, and I mean they executed," Henry said. "They played better than we did."

Taylor credited the Bengals with following defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo's plan perfectly.

"They put pressure on him the entire game," Taylor said of Henry. "They hit the quarterback, and they made play after play to win us back the field position there in the second half and allow us to go win it."

Ryan Tannehill threw for 291 yards, but the Titans couldn't score a touchdown in three trips into the red zone. They settled for three field goals in four tries by rookie Caleb Shudak, who made his first NFL start in place of veteran kicker Randy Bullock. Shudak missed a 35-yard attempt to the right just before halftime.

The Titans played their second straight game without center Ben Jones, a loss that showed as they were flagged twice for false starts on their opening drive.

Bengals running back Samaje Perine scored on a 7-yard touchdown run that tied it at 10 with 1:55 left in the first half. McPherson tied it again with a 47-yarder early in the second quarter, and his 38-yarder gave Cincinnati its first lead, 13-10, late in the third.

Tennessee scored its only touchdown with a bit of luck. Tannehill tossed a short pass to Henry, who ran 69 yards before Cam Taylor-Britt poked the ball out at the Bengals' 6-yard line. Rookie Treyon Burks recovered the ball in the end zone for his first career touchdown and a 10-3 lead.

The Titans were coming off their best offensive performance this season, having scored a season-high 27 points in a road win against the Green Bay Packers on Nov. 17 that allowed them extra rest ahead of the Bengals' visit. Hours after that win, offensive coordinator Todd Downing was arrested for speeding and driving under the influence, but he called Sunday's game as the Titans wait to hear more from the NFL or the legal process.

Tennessee came in second in the NFL in scoring touchdowns on 74.07% of red-zone opportunities, trailing only the Bengals, but this time sputtered inside the 20. The Titans will try to regroup before visiting the Philadelphia Eagles next Sunday.

"Just got to be cleaner in the red zone," Tannehill said. "That's something we pride ourselves on and put a lot of focus and importance on throughout the season. And today we didn't execute well enough."