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A Dominant Defensive Effort Wasted

The Tennessee Titans are not the first team to record nine sacks in a playoff game. They're just the first to lose when doing so.

NASHVILLE – Mike Vrabel said he would rather have interceptions or fumble recoveries, which is understandable. It has been well-documented that nothing has a more consistent and profound effect on the result of a football game than turnovers.

That said, it is possible to pile up enough sacks to guarantee victory in the postseason. Or at least it was until Saturday when Vrabel’s Tennessee Titans lost 19-16 to the Cincinnati Bengals in a divisional playoff contest at Nissan Stadium.

Tennessee tied an NFL postseason record with nine sacks but was done in by three turnovers – all interceptions thrown by Ryan Tannehill – the last of which led to Evan McPherson’s decisive 52-yard field goal as time expired.

“(People) somehow think that sacks lead to victories,” Vrabel said following the contest. “They're great, … but I like turnovers and interceptions and caused fumbles.”

The truth is, though, nine sacks in a playoff game always had led to victory. The Titans joined the 1984 San Francisco 49ers, 1986 Cleveland Browns and 1993 Kansas City Chiefs as the only teams with nine sacks in a playoff game. Unlike Vrabel’s bunch, the other three won and continued their postseason runs.

Even teams that have gotten close to nine have come out on top much more often than not.

Before Saturday there were 17 playoff games in which a team recorded seven or more sacks. Those teams were 14-3 (an 82.4 winning percentage) – and two of the losses were in overtime. One was the Titans’ 35-14 divisional round loss at New England when Marcus Mariota went down eight times in what was the final game for Vrabel’s predecessor, Mike Mularkey.

And it is not as if Tennessee distorted the final statistical picture with a cluster of sacks or one particular mismatch. Seven different players had at least half a sack led by defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons, who had three. Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow went down the first time he dropped back to throw and for the last time on the final snap the Bengals’ next-to-last possession. He was dropped at least once in every quarter, at least once on first, second and third downs and multiple times on either side of midfield.

“We knew (the Bengals) O-line was going to struggle,” Simmons said. “We knew the type of matchups the coaches were putting us in great situations with everyone on the same page. When guys beat their guys inside, the quarterback tried to scramble outside, he had nowhere to go.”

Here is a rundown of the Titans’ nine sacks against the Bengals on Saturday:

FIRST QUARTER

• 14:53: First-and-10, Tennessee 42 – Naquan Jones/Denico Autry, 3-yard loss

• 9:57: Second-and-10, Cincinnati 31 – Harold Landry, 8-yard loss

• 3:45: Second-and-8, Tennessee 28 – Denico Autry, 6-yard loss

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SECOND QUARTER

• 2:00: First-and-10, Tennessee 20 – David Long, 0 yards

• 1:47: Third-and-14, Tennessee 24 – Jeffery Simmons, 12-yard loss

THIRD QUARTER

•11:34: First-and-10, Tennessee 28 – Jeffery Simmons, 6-yard loss

FOURTH QUARTER

• 12:13: Third-and-3, Tennessee 32 – Bud Dupree, 16-yard loss

• 7:16: First-and-10, Cincinnati 37 – Harold Landry/Kyle Peko, 7-yard loss

• 3:38: Third-and-8, Tennessee 48 – Jeffery Simmons, 10-yard loss

Those sacks amounted to 68 yards in losses, which was more than the Bengals gained with their run game (65 yards on 18 carries). Burrow threw for 348 yards, the third-highest total thus far in the postseason, but officially Cincinnati finished with 280 net passing yards.

But the Bengals kept coming. Four of their five scoring plays (three field goals, one touchdown) came on drives that included at least one sack of Burrow.

“They had a great rush plan,” Burrow said. “They made it tough on us, made it tough on me, disguising coverages and blitzes and everything. They switched it up the whole game. They didn’t stick to one thing. If one thing didn’t work, they moved on to the next thing and that kept us on our toes.”

It was an exemplary performance by Tennessee’s defensive front. All the sacks were attributed to defensive linemen and linebackers, and the total nearly doubled the franchise high in the four seasons under Vrabel, which was five, a number the defense reached four times – all in the regular season – including this season’s Week 9 victory over the Los Angeles Rams. The Titans won all four of those games.

“The whole front four … played phenomenal,” safety Kevin Byard said. “Best I’ve ever seen.”

Yet – somehow – not good enough to win.