NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee's rhythm turned into blues on Sunday at LP Field.
The Titans started strong on offense and defense but staggered during the second half in a 24-17 loss to Cincinnati Sunday. Tennessee (4-4) led 17-7 in the first half, but surrendered 17 unanswered points and failed to score after the break against the Bengals (6-2).
"It's a sick feeling," fullback Ahmard Hall said. "We came out fast and got up on those guys, and we knew it was going to be a tough game and we let everything go in the second half. We could have won this ball game."
Titans players stood in a nearly silent locker room and struggled to identify the game's turning point. They said there were multiple opportunities where they could have prevented the loss.
"The change was we didn't play a complete game," defensive tackle Shaun Smith said. "We've got to play a complete game for 60 minutes. It's a tough one to swallow right now. We've got eight games left, and we've got to take them one-by-one.
"I think we competed the whole game," Smith continued. "We didn't make enough plays. As a young team, and as we continue to grow … you've got to finish games. You can't play for just a half. No team is going to roll down for you. It's very disappointing."
The Titans' offense gained 233 yards and scored 17 points in the first half, but gained just 95 yards in the second half, accumulating 55 yards on their final desperation possession with less than two minutes remaining.
Tennessee found ways to get the ball to Chris Johnson in space early for a 20-yard rush and a 21-yard catch-and-run in the first quarter, but Johnson had five carries for nine yards and two catches for 24 yards in the second half.
"It's crazy cause coming in that half, you've got so much confidence, so much momentum and then come out in the second half and it just be flat again and not making plays, looking like your old self is crazy," said Johnson, who finished with 14 carries for 64 yards.
Tennessee failed to capitalize on its best starting field position early in the third quarter. After the defense forced Cincinnati off the field with a three-and-out, the Titans took the ball at the Bengals' 49-yard-line but Johnson gained one yard, and then a holding penalty against Titans tight end Daniel Graham created second-and-19, followed by a third-and-16 and a punt. Tennessee went three-and-out on its second possession of the second half as well.
"We had plenty of opportunities," guard Jake Scott said. "We had a great opportunity on the first drive of the second half. We squandered that, and it was unfortunate. I don't know if it would have put the game away. They wouldn't have quit if we had scored there, but we had a chance to make it a three-score game and we didn't take advantage of it."
The Titans' defense held Bengals receiver A.J. Green to two catches for 16 yards in the first half, but he broke loose for five catches for 67 yards in the second half and drew a 45-yard pass interference penalty against Jason McCourty to set up Cincinnati's second touchdown.
Cincinnati rookie quarterback Andy Dalton threw three touchdowns for the first time in his career. All three touchdowns occurred on third-down plays. He connected with Colin Cochart from 1 yard, Jerome Simpson from 15 yards, and Andre Caldwell from 5 yards.
LONG GAINS NEGATE PENALTIES: The Bengals overcame a pair of holding penalties with long completions from Dalton to Green during the possession that put them ahead 21-17. The duo combined for a 23-yard gain on first-and-20 from the Tennessee 42-yard-line and for a gain of 20 on third-and-18 from the Tennessee 27.
McCourty and Titans safety Michael Griffin collided during the 20-yard completion and went to the field motionless for several moments before each player caught their breath and got up. McCourty and Griffin walked off the field on their own accord and both returned. McCourty said Green made plays that he had seen on tape, but said he has to prevent future receivers from making similar plays.
"He was able to make plays and that last one, I thought I had a play there and the next thing I know, I'm on the ground. I did a terrible job in the second half of making plays," McCourty said. "When it comes down to winning tough, close games, you've got to have guys make plays. I feel like I had those opportunities and wasn't able to come through."
WASHINGTON BANGED UP: Titans leading receiver Nate Washington suffered a hip injury Sunday and was scheduled for further evaluation after the game.
Washington left the game after a short completion during Tennessee's final possession. He had three catches for 28 yards Sunday and has 36 receptions for 461 yards on the year.
"Something's wrong with my hip," Washington said. "I got kneed in my hip in the first quarter. I was fighting through it the whole game, and when I got tackled at the end, I landed right on my hip, same exact spot."
The Titans also endured injuries do defensive end Dave Ball, who left the game with a concussion, and tight end Jared Cook, who suffered a lower leg injury late in the game, Titans coach Mike Munchak said.
HAWKINS SCORES FIRST TD: Titans receiver Lavelle Hawkins made his first career trip to the end zone Sunday. The fourth-year receiver found a spot in the back right corner of the end zone, and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck delivered a strike from 16 yards that gave Tennessee a 17-7 lead with 14 seconds left in the first half.
Hawkins led the Titans with career-highs of five catches for 63 yards, including a 5-yard reception on fourth-and-3 in the second quarter.
Hawkins suffered a dislocated finger later in the game but returned to the field.
WILLIAMS CATCHES TD: Second-year receiver Damian Williams returned to the end zone for the first time since Oct. 9 at Pittsburgh. Williams jumped in the back middle of the end zone and managed to land both feet in bounds for the difficult, 8-yard catch.
"I knew it was going to be a bang-bang play," Williams said. "We had practiced it all week. We knew how they were going to play it, and Matt told me he was going to put the ball right behind the safety and that's what he did."
SMITH NOTCHES SACK: Smith, a 325-pound defensive tackle that the Titans signed in the offseason to help stop the run, showed Sunday that he can do some running of his own. Smith persisted through a block and caught Dalton from behind with a plunging dive for a loss of 7 yards on a first-down play.
It was the only time the Titans sacked Dalton, who overcame the loss of yardage a play later with an 18-yard pass to Simpson that helped Cincinnati move toward its first touchdown.
Smith had two of Tennessee's four tackles for loss and one quarterback hurry.
OTHER NOTES: Cincinnati won its fifth game in a row — the first time the Bengals have done so since 1988 when they won the AFC. … Tennessee lost for the first time this season when leading at halftime.