NASHVILLE — The Tennessee Titans keep proving adversity simply makes them tighter and stronger with a toughness that helps them win.
After a 15-day layoff in between games while dealing with the NFL's first COVID-19 outbreak, the Titans sit atop the AFC South Division standings and are tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers for first place in the conference. Both are 4-0, with the NFC's Seattle Seahawks (5-0) and Green Bay Packers (4-0) the only other undefeated teams remaining.
The Buffalo Bills were in that group until Tuesday night's visit to Nashville, a 42-16 loss as the Titans put together their most decisive result this season after the first three victories — against the Denver Broncos, Jacksonville Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings — came by a combined six points and were each decided by a field goal in the final two minutes.
Ahead of Tuesday's game — originally set for two days earlier before being pushed back because of continued positive test results — Tennessee was limited to two walk-throughs and one light practice (which was more of a walk-through with coaches filling in as defensive backs) since the Sept. 27 win at Minnesota.
"We went through a lot these last two weeks, you know, dealing with this virus," Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler said. "I just think it made us closer. It made us play for each other and go out there and play hard for each other and just get the win, man. It's all about winning."
Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill said he and his teammates were a little upset at the scrutiny they'd faced from the public regarding the outbreak, but that they stuck together. As for football itself, he said they know they have plenty to clean up.
"We just need to continue pushing the envelope and getting better," Tannehill said.
The Titans showed last season, which culminated in a trip to the AFC title game, that they could put up points in bunches. They have carried that trend over to this season, when they have put up at least 31 points in three straight games and are averaging 30.5 points per game, which ranks sixth in the NFL. Their 122 points are a franchise record for the first four games of a season, breaking by one point the mark set in 1989 when the team was known as the Houston Oilers.
Their scoring is boosted by their execution in the red zone: Tennessee has scored on 82.3% of its trips inside an opponent's 20-yard line, ranking second in the NFL. Against Buffalo, they scored a touchdown on all six trips inside the red zone, didn't have a turnover and also didn't allow a sack. The Titans became the first NFL team to have that combination, with a minimum of six such series, since Week 11 of the 2007 season, when the New England Patriots beat the Bills 56-10.
Defenses have been stacking up to stop Derrick Henry, the 2019 NFL rushing leader, forcing Tannehill to beat them through the air. Henry ranks third in the league with 376 yards on the ground, and he has run for two touchdowns in consecutive games, though his average is just 3.7 yards a carry.
Bills cornerback Josh Norman learned the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Alabama's stiff-arm move is as strong as ever, getting pushed to the ground Tuesday before he could try to wrap up on Henry.
"I've been doing too many curls," the 6-foot-3, 247-pound Henry said with a smile. "I've got to lay off the arms."
The Titans have more work to do on the other side of the ball, though.
They have been without starting cornerback Adoree' Jackson from the start of the season, and he remains on injured reserve; luckily, they got lineman DaQuan Jones back against Buffalo. However, the defense ranks 29th in yards allowed, 27th against the run and last in the NFL on third down. They have avoided breaking, though, ranking ninth in points allowed at 22.5 per game.
Butler has also been a bright spot. The veteran cornerback bounced back after struggling at Minnesota, picking off two passes against Buffalo, including the Bills' first of the game. Butler finished with 97 return yards off those interceptions to set up two short touchdown drives.
The Titans also lead the NFL with a plus-8 turnover margin, having forced nine this season.
On the injury front, left tackle Taylor Lewan exited Tuesday's game after appearing to aggravate the shoulder injury that knocked him out early in the win at Minnesota. The Titans still have seven players on the COVID-19 reserve list, a group including receivers Corey Davis and Adam Humphries and defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons.
They also added offensive tackle Isaiah Wilson, their first-round draft pick, off a roster exemption after the rookie had been on the COVID-19 reserve list since Sept. 6.
Tennessee has little time to prepare for its next game, a return to division play against the Houston Texans (1-4) on Sunday. The Titans will then wrap up a three-game homestand against Pittsburgh, originally a Week 4 game before being rescheduled from Oct. 4 to Oct. 25 due to Tennessee's outbreak.
Coach Mike Vrabel's third season in Tennessee has been a unique test that goes beyond trying to win games, but the fact that the Titans keep doing so says something.
"I learned a long time ago (that) the definition of a pro is they make the hard look easy," Vrabel said. "So whatever situation we're presented with, we've got to all come together and make the best decisions for the team each and every time."