NASHVILLE – And, just like that, the 2021 season is over for the Tennessee Titans.
It wasn't supposed to end like this – with the Bengals celebrating at Nissan Stadium, after their field goal on the final play of the game sent them to the AFC Championship, while ending Tennessee's season.
"It's the same thing you always say: 31 teams are going to be pissed off," Titans coach Mike Vrabel said after his team's 19-16 loss to the Bengals. "You don't show up to the stadium planning postgame conversations with your team about losing and about having the finality of the season and about when you're going to meet and all those things. So, it's disappointing because I know they fight, and they compete.
"I'm disappointed for (the players) because I think they all believed obviously that we would win the game, that we were just getting started, that this was a second season, that the preparation and everything that we put into it was there. The execution wasn't. It's disappointing, but always hurt a lot more for them than I will myself."
Yes, the Titans lost in excruciating fashion in the Divisional Round of the playoffs on Saturday, as the Bengals won it on a 52-yard field goal by kicker Evan McPherson on the final play of the game.
The Titans had every reason to be upset with themselves.
Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill was picked off three times, including an interception in the final seconds that set up the game-winning kick. The Titans squandered opportunities, made mistakes, and they couldn't capitalize on an incredible performance by the team's pass rushers.
"It was a frustrating day all the way around," Tannehill said. "A great opportunity and we didn't make the plays we needed to win. The defense played a heck of a game, really dominated. It was really fun to watch them play. We didn't make enough plays to win it. This hurts, hurts bad. I didn't think we would be having this conversation right now. It was not my vision for the game at all."
The Titans' pass rushers played their tails off.
The defense recorded nine sacks of Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow in the contest, a franchise record in the postseason. It also tied an NFL postseason record.
Jeffery Simmons tallied three of the sacks, and Denico Autry and Harold Landry added 1.5 sacks each.
"It sucks (to lose)," Simmons said. "It hurts. We work day in and day out, and we just came up short. Props to (the Bengals), they made more plays than us at the end."
Yes, it wasn't enough, as the AFC's No.1-seeded team went down after a 12-5 regular season, and some impressive wins.
"We didn't get the job done," said Titans receiver A.J. Brown, who had five catches for 142 yards and a touchdown in the game. "We're not here to see how good the regular season can be. We're trying to win the Super Bowl.
"That's not my job to try to pinpoint what's missing and what's not. But I think collectively as a group, we have more than enough talent in that locker room. It comes to execution, and today we just fell short. We had opportunities and we didn't get it done."
The Titans trailed 16-6 in the third quarter before rallying.
Late in the third quarter, Titans kicker Randy Bullock made a 34-yard field goal to cut the lead to 16-9.
Then came a big play, as Titans safety Amani Hooker intercepted a pass from Burrow at the Cincinnati 27-yard line with 1:19 left in the third quarter.
Two plays later, Tannehill connected with Brown for a 33-yard touchdown catch to make it 16-16 with 15 seconds left in the third quarter. The Nissan Stadium crowd was fired up, and in a frenzy.
But what happened next was a gut-punch.
Tannehill was intercepted with 20 seconds left, and the Bengals got into position for the game-winning kick.
"Playoff football, turnover margins hurt," Titans center Ben Jones said. "It sucks. We were in situations where we have to be better as a whole offense. We have to execute better, and we can't make those kinds of mistakes in these kind of games."
Things didn't start out well for the Titans, as Tannehill was intercepted on the team's first offensive play of the game.
The turnover led to an early field goal by the Bengals, who jumped ahead 3-0.
After another stalled drive from the Titans, McPherson made it 6-0 with 2:11 left in the first quarter on another field goal.
The Titans tied the game at 6-6 on a three-yard touchdown run by running back Derrick Henry, who lined up in the Wildcat and ran into the end zone after taking the snap. The run capped a nine-play, 84-yard drive that was jumpstarted with a 43-yard catch by Brown. The ensuing two-point try failed.
But the Bengals reclaimed the lead 9-6 with a 54-yard field goal by McPherson to make it 9-6 with 1:35 left in the first half.
The second half started in ominous fashion for the Titans, as the Bengals drove the field and took a 16-6 lead on a 16-yard touchdown run by running back Joe Mixon.
Just when it looked like the Titans would trim the lead after a 45-yard run by D'Onta Foreman gave the team a first-and-goal at the 9, Tannehill was intercepted by blitzing Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton, who tipped the pass, and then intercepted it.
But the Titans kept swinging, rallying to tie it.
Ultimately, however, the game ended in disappointment.
"We felt like this was our year," Titans safety Kevin Byard said. "We felt like this was the year we were going to put it all together and go win a Super Bowl, but, you know, it didn't happen that way. Like I said, it's hard to kind of put everything in perspective right now, but at the end of the day, just grateful. Just grateful for the guys, grateful for the opportunity to just play with these guys. Some of the guys I won't be able to play with again, so just appreciative."
In his first game since October 31, Henry finished the contest with 62 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries.
Tannehill threw for 220 yards and a score, along with the three interceptions on a day when the Titans were just 1-of-8 on third down.
"Everybody is just stunned," Henry said after the game. "We all didn't expect this and didn't want it to happen. We enjoy being around each other, enjoy playing and being a team. We go out there and fight each and every week and came up a little short today. Just stings, it hurts."
Burrow managed to throw for 348 yards despite being under pressure most the game, and his late throw helped put the Bengals in a position to break Tennessee's heart.
Now, the Titans head into the offseason.
"It is super shocking," Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan said of the abrupt ending. "None of us expected this. I don't think any of you guys expected this. Even during the week, the intensity in practice, you would have thought it was Week One. Everyone seemed so fresh and ready to go. In those games, you just have to give credit to the team that won. They won. August is a long way away. Hopefully, we bring back as many guys as possible. Jon (Robinson) and (Mike) Vrabel know what is best for this team and they are going to do that. I am excited to see how it all unfolds."