Halfway home, there seems to be nothing on which the Tennessee Titans know they can rely.
Their Pro Bowl running back, Chris Johnson, remains inconsistent and relatively unproductive. No one has emerged as even a reasonable facsimile of wide receiver Kenny Britt in terms of explosiveness and reliability. The defense, once so solid, has given up way too many points and third-down conversions of late.
One thing that never failed them through the first seven contests was a quality first half. Now, that has been blistered as well.
Tennessee’s 10-point halftime lead Sunday vanished amid a rash of futility on both sides of the ball. The result was a 24-17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals before a sellout crowd at LP Field that left the Titans with an utterly non-descript record of 4-4 at the mid-point of their first season under coach Mike Munchak.
“We thought we’d win the football game — we thought we’d play well and go get it,” Munchak said. “We knew we had to. We didn’t. So we are where we are.
“We’ve earned the 4-4 record with good and bad stuff we’ve done in the first half of the season. We definitely think we should be better than that. No doubt we think that, but we’re not.”
Whatever inconsistencies plagued them prior to this one, the first two quarters never failed to accurately determine their fortunes. The Titans were 4-0 in games they either led or were tied at the half, 0-3 when they trailed.
The reversal against the Bengals (6-2) was as definitive as it was unexpected — that is to say completely.
“It’s crazy because coming in the half we had so much confidence, so much momentum,” Johnson said. “Then we come out here in the second half and just be flat again, not making plays and looking like our old selves. It’s crazy that it plays out that way sometimes.”
Tennessee ended the first half with a 12-play, 81-yard drive capped by Matt Hasselbeck’s 16-yard touchdown pass to Lavelle Hawkins with eight seconds to go. At that point the Titans had plenty of reasons to feel good, not the least of which was their 17-7 lead.
Johnson had rushed for 55 yards on nine carries, two receptions for 22 yards and looked much more like his old self than at any other time. Tight end Jared Cook was a featured receiver for the first time and had a team-best three receptions for 39 yards. The defense had gotten off the field on third down more often than not even though it had not forced a three-and-out.
“When you’re up by 10, there’s no reason you should lose a game,” defensive tackle Shaun Smith said. “… We didn’t play a complete game. You have to play a complete game for 60 minutes. Besides, that … this is a tough one to swallow right now.”
In the second half, Cincinnati’s rookie quarterback, Andy Dalton, not only threw a pair of touchdown passes but he also came through with a first-down completion on third-and-18. Twelve of the Bengals’ 20 first downs and 180 of their 319 total yards came after intermission.
In contrast, Tennessee’s offense managed just three first downs in six possessions before its final drive, which began with 1:55 on the clock and no timeouts remaining. Johnson added just nine yards on five rushes, and Cook set up Cincinnati’s final score — a 36-yard field goal — when he fumbled at his own 20 with 3:49 remaining.
A desperate, last-chance play launched from the Titans’ own 38 ended 32 yards short of the end zone.
“That was a good job [in the] second half, obviously — just playing, not flinching, coming out winning the second half,” Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis said. “… We were able to sustain drives, make first downs and that’s how you have got to play.”
The Titans might just as well have not played the second half at all.
“We played hard,” Munchak said. “I don’t think it changed — how hard we were playing or how badly we wanted to win the football game. You credit to them for making plays. They made plays in tough spots, which normally a team wouldn’t make those plays.
“As bad as things were for us in the second half, we still had plenty of opportunities. It was just a group effort of playing very poorly in the second half.”
• Tennessee’s first touchdown came two plays after Munchak opted to go for it on fourth-and-3 from the 10 rather than attempt a 28-yard field goal. Hawkins moved the chains with a five-yard reception.
Cincinnati had gone ahead 7-3 on the previous possession.
“It was the right time and the right place to go for it,” Munchak said. “… The boys responded and we score on that drive. … I thought we needed that touchdown.”
• Smith recorded his first sack for the Titans when he got to Dalton late in the first quarter. It was just the fourth career sack in 87 games for the 6-foot-2, 325-pounder.
• Cook (lower leg), Hawkins (dislocated finger), defensive end Dave Ball (concussion) and wide receiver Nate Washington (hip) were listed as having been injured during the game.
• The Bengals have a five-game win streak for the first time in 23 years.