NASHVILLE – The Cincinnati Bengals did a pretty good job of defending Ryan Tannehill in Saturday’s NFL divisional playoff contest at Nissan Stadium.
Afterward, his Tennessee Titans teammates did their best to do the same.
At the center of it all were three interceptions. The last came with 28 seconds to play and led to Evan McPherson’s 52-yard field goal as time expired. The kick doomed the Titans to a 19-16 defeat and ended a season that – at times – held so much promise.
Halfway through the second weekend of this postseason, Tannehill has been picked off more than any other quarterback. Even those who have played two games.
“You know, you can look at the stats or interceptions and things like that but the past three years he’s been here, you look at all-time Titans quarterbacks and things like that, he’s right there at the top,” safety Kevin Byard said. “So obviously, he’s meant a lot to this team and meant a lot to the success and been a huge part of success that we’ve had the past few years.
“Understandably, he’s beating himself up about the interceptions. That’s what comes with being a leader, comes with being a quarterback. … I told him don’t beat himself up about it. These things happen and I know for a fact he’ll come back next year stronger and try to make a run at this thing.”
It did not help that all three of Tannehill’s passes that ended up in the hands of a Bengals player came at terrible times.
The first was on the first snap of the game. A play-action pass intended for Julio Jones – clearly an attempt to take advantage of all the hype surrounding Derrick Henry’s return to the lineup – ended up in the hands of safety Jessie Bates III, who Tannehill said, defended the play in completely unexpected fashion.
The second came as the Titans attempted to answer when Cincinnati opened the second half with a touchdown drive, the only time in the contest its offense reached the end zone. Four running plays got Tannehill and Co. from their own 25 to the Cincinnati 9. That’s when cornerback Mike Hilton batted a short pass and gathered the ball to end the threat.
Finally, there was the last one. The offense was 25 yards from its target, the Bengals’ 35-yard line. Tennessee had 28 seconds on the clock and two timeouts to advance at least that far, and from there – or closer – they were confident they could kick a game-winning field goal. Instead, cornerback Eli Apple broke up a pass intended for Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, and linebacker Logan Wilson came up with the interception.
After that, it took the Bengals just one play – a 19-yard pass completion – to get into field goal range. After that, they snapped the ball twice to run some time off the clock and get the ball on the right hashmark for their kicker.
To recap: Tannehill was intercepted on his first pass of the game, his first pass of the second half and his last throw.
“There is nothing you can do about it now,” Henry said. “Just let it fuel you, just the mindset of getting better the whole offseason. That’s my mindset – come back ready to work. It over with, there is no reason to dwell on it now. Just let it fuel you for the next time.”
Tannehill’s postseason record as the Titans’ starting quarterback is now 2-3 with three consecutive losses. In the two victories (two years ago) he did not throw more than 15 passes or pass for even 100 yards. Instead, it was Henry who carried the days with a record-setting pair of performances on the road against the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens.
By comparison, in nine playoff starts for the same franchise, Steve McNair threw three interceptions once. That was in a 2003 wild card contest at Baltimore, but the Titans won that one 20-17 behind a defense that limited the Ravens to 255 total yards and recorded two sacks and two interceptions.
On this day, Tennessee’s defense sacked Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow nine times and intercepted him once. Yet that same defense allowed the Bengals to convert seven of 15 third-down opportunities and to hold the ball for 33:25 of the 60 minutes.
Whatever its struggles, that unit still mitigated the damage caused by the interceptions. Cincinnati converted those three takeaways into six points, field goals after the first and the third.
“First drive, Tannehill threw a pick. Oh well,” defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons, who had three sacks, said “We went on the field. They kicked a field goal. That is how we have to respond as a defense. We have got to keep getting on the field and making them kick field goals if they get down there. … We have got to keep having our offense’s back.
“That’s part of the game. Sometimes the offense starts slow, sometimes we start slow, and the offense is helping us out. That is the whole part of this game of football. We all got to be good on all three phases especially in the playoffs.”
Tannehill acknowledged during the Titans’ bye week that his goal is to play his “best football late in the season and into the playoffs.”
Saturday was not his best. And it came at a time when most expect so much more from their quaterbacks.
“I don’t blame it on anybody,” running back D’Onta Foreman said. “We just came up short. Each and every guy goes in that locker room and goes out on that field and plays their tail off each and every day, even at practice. We come together to try to find a way to win games, unfortunately we just didn’t get it done.”