It was third-and-15 on the opening drive of the game and Kerry Collins threw to tight end Jared Cook on an underneath route for a seven-yard gain.
At that moment, anyone in the sellout crowd at LP Field, watching on television, listening on the radio or following the proceedings online had reason to believe this was the Tennessee Titans’ offense they had seen so often. Conservative. Cautious. Hardly compelling.
None of those people in the stands or anywhere else heard what coach Jeff Fisher told Collins and offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger prior to that play, though.
“I gave them warning in advance, early on third down and said, ‘You have two shots,’” Fisher said. “We took advantage of it.”
Collins completed a fourth-down pass to rookie Damien Williams for 39 yards, and two plays later the Titans scored the first of three first-quarter touchdowns. The second of those scores came on another fourth-down completion.
That unusually aggressive approach was the impetus for another, more important, change. The Titans snapped their six-game losing streak with a 31-17 victory over the Houston Texans.
With just two road games remaining (Dec. 26 at Kansas City and Jan. 2 at Indianapolis), Tennessee remains alive in the chase for the AFC South title and a playoff berth. With victories in those final two and a pair of losses by the Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars, the Titans would do something that seemed unimaginable in recent weeks.
“It feels like we hadn’t won in about two years,” safety Chris Hope said. “To go out and play well, being that it’s our last game here at home, with an impressive showing on both offense and defense is a good feeling.”
Surprising as it might have been for Tennessee to attempt a pair of fourth-down plays early in the contest, particularly one at the Houston 42, the fact that both attempts were passes were equally obvious.
The Texans have been ranked last in the NFL in pass defense every week of the season except one. They improved to 31st after a 20-0 victory over the Titans on Nov. 28, when they intercepted three passes and limited rookie quarterback Rusty Smith to 138 yards on 17 completions.
Collins, nearing the end of his 16th season, is no rookie. Plus, he had the benefit of big-play threat Kenny Britt, who missed the earlier Houston game with a hamstring injury.
“I liked the plan,” Fisher said. "[Collins] felt good about what we were doing. [Heimerdinger] felt good about it.”
The Titans threw the ball 11 times and ran it eight in the first quarter, which ended with them in front 21-0. At halftime, the pass/run ratio was 4:3 with 16 throws and 12 handoffs.
Britt finished with 128 yards on six receptions. His longest gain was for 59 yards on a ball that Houston safety Troy Nolan tipped away from cornerback Glover Quin, who was in position for an interception. Quin had all three picks in the prior meeting.
“We should have picked [that] pass and it gets tipped,” Houston coach Gary Kubiak said. “I could sit here and talk about those things all day, but the bottom line is 21-0. … When you’re down by three touchdowns in the National Football League, it’s very, very difficult.”
Conversely, things become much easier for the team in front.
The Titans had not led at halftime since Oct. 31 at San Diego, which turned out to be the first of their six straight losses. Even in their last victory before Sunday, Oct. 24, vs. Philadelphia, they rallied with 27 points in the fourth quarter.
The last time they were up on anyone by as many as three touchdowns was a Monday night victory at Jacksonville on Oct. 18.
“I think we disrupted their game plan by getting that big lead,” said rookie cornerback Alterraun Verner, who had a second-quarter interception. “They probably were thinking, ‘We’re just going to run the ball, run the ball.’ … When they got down 21-0 they really couldn’t run the ball because it would take too much time. They had to throw the ball and we were able to do what we do on defense.
“… It played to our advantage when we got out to that lead.”
Houston’s Arian Foster, the NFL’s leading rusher at the start of the day, was limited to a season-low 15 yards on 11 carries.
One of those attempts — on the Texans’ opening possession and fewer than three minutes after Collins’ fourth-down connection with Williams — came on a fourth-and-1 from the Tennessee 35. Foster was topped for a loss of four yards.
Five plays later the Titans were in front 14-0 on a 1-yard touchdown pass from Collins to Justin Gage — on fourth-and-goal.
“It was great,” Collins said. “We were down there and we had opportunities to keep drives alive and capitalize on drives with the two fourth downs. I love the aggressive play call — I thought that fourth-and-7 … was the perfect call at that time.
“It’s been frustrating the last six weeks. … Our guys stood up [Sunday] and came out playing like we were leading the division.”