NASHVILLE – On their first 72 offensive plays Monday night at Nissan Stadium, the Buffalo Bills piled up 417 total yards, averaging almost six yards every time they snapped the football.
So, what were the odds that on No. 73, the Tennessee Titans were going to stop one of the NFL’s best offenses from picking up less than 36 inches – one measly yard? That’s all the Bills needed for a first down on fourth-and-1 at the Titans’ 3-yard line, with 22 seconds remaining in the contest.
Once that was achieved, Buffalo – trailing 34-31 and still with a time-out to burn – would have had multiple cracks to get into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown. It was shaping up as a heart-breaking defeat for a Titans team that had gallantly traded punches with a juggernaut, one that had won four straight games – by a combined margin of 156-41.
Tennessee’s defense broke the huddle with a secondary that looked little like the one envisioned before the season began, one that had been thinned by multiple injuries against the Bills.
Starting cornerback Kristian Fulton? He’d been placed on injured reserve earlier in the day. His replacement, first-round draft pick Caleb Farley had been helped from the field earlier in the contest, reportedly lost for the season due to a torn ACL. Farley’s replacement, Chris Jackson, had been lost by then as well following a foot injury, one that he tried to battle through unsuccessfully.
Where might the remaining defenders draw inspiration to make one last unlikely stand against Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, Emmanuel Sanders and the rest of the Bills’ high-scoring offense?
Well, how about some history?
It was only a week earlier the Titans put together their most recent goal-line stand, when Teair Tart burst through the Jacksonville line, allowing Jackson to drop Carlos Hyde for a three-yard loss on fourth-and-goal from the Tennessee 1-yard line. That stop turned momentum as the Jaguars never got closer than the 31-19 deficit they faced at that moment.
“Honestly that was the message throughout the week,” safety Kevin Byard said of the big stop against the Jaguars. “We brought up the play in Jacksonville, (when we) made the goal-line stop. We said if things go bad or things don't go our way in this game, just remember that play.”
That, of course, was just one of the several notable defensive stops the Titans have produced in recent years, whether the opponent was Baltimore or New England or – perhaps the one that stands out most in the minds of many players – the Los Angeles Chargers.
On a night almost two years ago to the day, the Titans stoned the Chargers twice from the 1-yard line, preserving a victory in which former safety Kenny Vaccaro proclaimed his team had defended “every blade of grass, every bug, every piece of dirt, every piece of paint that’s in the ground.”
And just in case the Titans defenders needed any added inspiration on that final play against Buffalo, how could they not have been energized by the efforts of teammate and wide receiver A.J. Brown?
Brown had survived a stomach-churning previous 48 hours after eating a Chipotle meal that didn’t sit well, one that caused him to lose eight pounds in a couple of days – and one that required him to get 3.5 IV treatments on Monday. But there was Brown in the second half against the Bills, rebounding from a sluggish first two quarters by making all seven of his receptions – for 91 yards – over the final 30 minutes. Brown’s play complemented yet another outrageous performance by Derrick Henry (20 carries, 143 yards, three touchdowns), allowing the Titans to score 34 points on their final six possessions of more than one play.
“Third quarter it got a little better for me, then the fourth quarter it hit me all over again,” Brown said. “I was definitely just trying to fight through it.”
This is where the Titans’ defense found itself on that final play as well, trying to fight through everything for just one more stop against Buffalo, one more stuff to send the majority of the 69,419 home happy.
The Bills did exactly what they should have done, putting the football in the hands of their big athletic quarterback – the 6-foot-5, 237-pound Allen – and letting him drive straight ahead on a sneak.
Allen clearly lost a little traction on the chewed-up turf, but the Bills’ quarterback had little room to operate. That’s because monstrous Jeffrey Simmons, one of the heroes of that goal-line stand against the Chargers, had crashed through the Buffalo line in similar fashion. The 6-foot-4, 305-pound Simmons beat Buffalo tackle Dion Dawkins and knifed inside, managing to stifle Allen for no gain.
“We know if the quarterback is coming out under the center like that, we anticipate that he was going to run, and they did,” Simmons said. “So, I was inside of the tackle, got my head on the tackle, quarterback right there, tried to get low, just try to put my big arms around him so he was short.”
Bedlam in Nashville as the defense celebrated a victory in front of a national television audience.
“I mean, honestly once I saw (Allen) go down, I was just running on the field,” Byard said. “I was so excited. Like I said, electric atmosphere. It was definitely movie-like for sure.”
Added quarterback Ryan Tannehill: “As soon as they stopped it, yeah, I kind of lost my mind a little bit, started celebrating, jumping around. I don't even know who I was with on the sideline. But definitely having a good time.”
Will the good times last for the Titans?
It’s hard to say, considering the team’s healthy cornerbacks – not including the practice squad – currently consist of Jackrabbit Jenkins, Elijah Molden and Breon Borders. That trio will log some serious snaps next week against Pat Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and company when Kansas City comes to town, not to mention a few weeks down the line against Matt Stafford and the Rams in Los Angeles.
But for the time being, celebrate the moment, Titans fans. Celebrate a night when the Titans wouldn’t surrender a single inch, let alone 36 of them.