NASHVILLE – The Tennessee Titans made it six in a row Sunday when they defeated the New Orleans Saints 23-21 at Nissan Stadium.
The run of victories, which is now the longest under fourth-year coach Mike Vrabel and the franchise’s longest since 2008, includes five straight over teams that were in the playoffs last season.
At 8-2, Tennessee is at least two games up in the win column over every other team in the AFC and appears well on its way to a third straight playoff berth.
“It’s awesome to be 8-2,” left tackle Taylor Lewan said. “… Finding a way to win, that’s all that matters. To keep working and keep improving, because there was a lot of stuff (Sunday) we could have done better out there on that field. That was not perfect by any means, so although our record is really good, we could be a lot better.”
Here are the moments that mattered in the latest Titans victory.
The failed two-point conversion: With 1:15 to play, the Saints had a chance to force overtime following Marquez Callaway’s 15-yard touchdown reception. To do so, they needed a two-point conversion, which became more difficult when they were flagged for a false start prior to their first attempt. Once they finally got the ball snapped successfully, quarterback Trevor Siemian’s pass to running back Mark Ingram fell incomplete.
Of course, New Orleans would not have been in that position had it accomplished anything after its two earlier touchdowns. Kicker Brian Johnson, who has had the job for four games now, missed his only two PAT attempts. Had he made those, Callaway’s touchdown would have tied the score and he would have had the chance to put his team up by one.
It was a worst-case scenario for a team that has now come up empty the last eight times it has gone for two. It was a game in which every point counted, and New Orleans did not get all that it could have.
Johnson gets going: With 3:47 to play in the first quarter, Ryan Tannehill connected with wide receiver Marcus Johnson on a short pass that he turned into a 50-yard reception. Six plays later, the Titans scored the first points of the game on Randy Bullock’s 28-yard field goal.
Julio Jones was placed on injured reserve a day before the game, and A.J. Brown struggled from the outset (he dropped the first ball that came his way) and finished with one catch on four targets for 16 yards. That meant someone else needed to emerge in order to keep the passing game going.
Enter Johnson. He became the third Titans’ player with a reception of 50-plus yards this season (Jones and Brown are the others), and when all was said and done, he had five receptions for 100 yards. The number of catches tied his career-high, and his 10-yard reception on third-and-2 from the New Orleans 11 led to Tennessee’s final touchdown – and a 14-point lead at the time – two plays later.
Big Jeff keeps going: Four plays into the Saints’ first offensive possession, Siemian was sacked for a loss of eight yards. It was defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons who got him, and the play effectively ended that drive (New Orleans gained a combined six yards on second and third down).
It was the first of four sacks on the day for the Tennessee defense, a notable number given that New Orleans had allowed just four in its previous three games combined and no more than two in any of its last five contests. Simmons and Harold Landry got two on consecutive plays just before halftime, and every Saints’ possession that included a sack ended with a punt.
Simmons had three sacks a week earlier against the Los Angeles Rams, and he followed up with two of the four against New Orleans. The 2019 first-round draft pick now has seven and a half sacks for the season (he had five total in his first two years), second on the team to Landry, who has 10, and has started to show that he is a consistently disruptive force and not just someone who occasionally causes problems.
The big hit: New Orleans got the ball to start the second half, and return man Deonte Harris fielded the kickoff at the 4-yard line. He returned it as far as the 23. That’s where Titans linebacker Dylan Cole hit him and knocked the ball loose. Tory Carter recovered, and Tennessee’s offense got the ball at the 19-yard-line.
The Titans led 13-6 at the half. So, with a touchdown, New Orleans could have tied the score and set up a toe-to-toe second-half struggle. Instead, Tennessee converted the takeaway into a touchdown four plays later and forced the Saints to play catch-up the rest of the way, which they ultimately could not do.
Cole was named a standard elevation to the active roster off the practice squad a day before the game, and this was his Tennessee debut. In fact, he was signed to the practice squad on Nov. 6, which meant he had been with the team for just over a week. This Titans team continues to find ways to overcome injuries and get contributions from just about everyone. They have used a league-high 82 players so far this season, and Cole is the latest to step in and make his presence known.