NASHVILLE — Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel warned his players that back-to-back losses had their season at a crossroads.
At least on this given Sunday, the team took a turn in the right direction.
Ryan Tannehill threw two touchdown passes as the banged-up Titans avoided extending their skid, bouncing back from their recent downturn by never trailing while beating the Chicago Bears 24-17.
The Titans (6-2) stayed atop the AFC South standings going into Thursday night's division showdown against the Indianapolis Colts, who fell to 5-3 with Sunday's 24-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
Still, Vrabel clearly wasn't very happy after his team failed to build on a 17-0 lead after three quarters.
"We just have to finish games better," he said. "We're up, dominating the football game, and make it too close."
Amani Hooker recovered the Bears' onside kick attempt for Tennessee with about a minute left to seal the victory after Chicago's Nick Foles made it interesting with a pair of late touchdown passes.
Tennessee got a big boost from an undermanned and struggling defense missing three-time Pro Bowl linebacker Jadeveon Clowney due to a knee injury, just days after linebacker Vic Beasley Jr. and starting cornerback Johnathan Joseph were waived.
Cornerback Desmond King picked up a fumble and ran 63 yards for a touchdown less than a week after the Titans picked up the 2018 All-Pro from the Los Angeles Chargers for a sixth-round pick in next year's draft. King didn't join Tennessee until Saturday after clearing the COVID-19 testing protocol, but his big play put the Titans up 17-0 late in the third quarter.
Once he picked up the ball, King said he knew he had to score. It was the third defensive touchdown of his NFL career.
"I knew I had a short week of getting this down and not letting it be a distraction and using it as motivation, knowing I have to get this done to go out there and play and have my teammates trust me while I'm out there," said King, who studied his new playbook and met with his new team virtually from his hotel room.
The Bears (5-4) came in trailing Green Bay in the NFC North and are dealing with their own roster challenges due to injuries and COVID-19. Foles passed for 335 yards behind an offensive line missing center Cody Whitehair, who is on the COVID-19 reserve list.
Chicago lost for the third straight game despite the defense coming up with three sacks and holding the NFL's fifth-best offense — the Titans had averaged 407 yards a game entering Week 9 — to a season-low 228 yards.
"When you're sitting 5-1, to be 5-4, it hurts," Bears coach Matt Nagy said. "But now we've got to make sure, whatever those issues are, we just at some point in time get this thing back on track."
This was the first game for punter Ryan Allen in Tennessee, reuniting him with former New England Patriots teammate and current Titans kicker Stephen Gostkowski after three-time Pro Bowl punter Brett Kern was placed on injured reserve Saturday. Matt Overton took over at long snapper after Tennessee also made a change at that position.
Tennessee came in as the NFL's worst third-down defense by a big margin, but the Titans stopped the Bears on their first nine third downs. The Titans also were among the NFL's worst at sacking the quarterback, but they got Foles three times. They also recovered two fumbles.
The Titans' defense got a big confidence boost on Chicago's first drive. Foles hit Allen Robinson II for a 4-yard pass, but Robinson was marked out at the Tennessee 34, just shy of the first-down marker. The Titans stopped David Montgomery for no gain, sparking a big celebration by the defense.
That gave the NFL's sixth-best scoring offense time to shake off a sluggish start. Tennessee settled for a 40-yard field goal by Gostkowski in the first quarter, then started its best drive by giving the ball to Derrick Henry five straight times. The Titans converted four third downs on a 12-play, 91-yard drive.
Tannehill capped the drive with a perfectly thrown ball to A.J. Brown, who scored by reaching the ball out to the goal line. Tannehill also found Jonnu Smith wide open for a 2-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.
"I'm proud that we got a win," Tannehill said. "I think it wasn't pretty. We didn't execute well enough. Too many missed opportunities offensively. The defense came out and played stout from the jump and kept us in it, and the offense was able to make enough plays to get the win."
The Titans came in having allowed opponents to convert 61.8% of their third downs, but Tennessee held Chicago to 2-of-15 for a 13% rate that was easily their best this season. They did allow the Bears to convert three of four times on fourth down after the first stop on Chicago's opening series.
Tennessee linebacker Jayon Brown, who had a team-high 10 tackles and a sack, said the Titans made sure to make communication a priority.
"When it came down to third down," Brown said, "we made the plays to get off the field and give our offense back the ball."
Titans tight end MyCole Pruitt injured his right knee late in the first quarter and had to be helped off the field, offensive lineman Rodger Saffold had a shoulder injury in the second quarter and went to the locker room and defensive back Dane Cruikshank injured a groin muscle.