NASHVILLE – It was a good news, bad news kind of day on Sunday for the Titans.
First, the bad news: The Titans went toe-to-toe with the high-flying New Orleans Saints before losing, 38-28, at Nissan Stadium. It was the team's second straight loss after winning four games in a row.
The good news is the Titans are in a win-and-in playoff scenario next Sunday in Houston. A win vs. the Texans and the Titans would claim a Wild Card spot in the AFC playoffs. A win by the New York Jets over the Steelers on Sunday cracked the door for the Titans to kick it in in Week 17.
"It's like mixed emotions," Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. "Losing hurts – I hate losing, and that is kind of what my feeling is right now because we just lost the game. But we understand the situation, and next week we have an opportunity to win and get in."
Yes, for the third year in a row the Titans head into Week 17 with a chance to punch their playoff ticket. In 2017, the Titans beat the Jaguars to advance to the playoffs. In 2018, the Titans lost to the Colts.
The Titans found out their fate in the locker room after Sunday's game.
"Playoff ball starts for the Tennessee Titans next week," defensive lineman Jurrell Casey said. "So we're either going to continue to roll this thing out to the Super Bowl or we go home. I guess we're in the playoffs already."
The Titans dropped to 8-7 with the loss on Sunday, while the Saints improved to 12-3.
Tannehill completed 17-of-27 passes for 272 yards and three touchdown passes vs the Saints, when the Titans played without running back Derrick Henry, who was one of the team's inactives. Receiver Tajae Sharpe caught two touchdown passes, and running backs Dion Lewis (15-68) and Dalyn Dawkins (9-24) combined for 92 yards with Henry sidelined. Receiver A.J. Brown scored on a 49-yard touchdown run for the Titans.
But Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw for 279 yards, receiver Michael Thomas had 12 catches for 136 yards and a touchdown, tight end Jared Cook had 81 receiving yards and two touchdown catches, and Saints running back Alvin Kamara ran for 80 yards and two scores.
"I love the effort of our football team," Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. "I know that they're going to fight, and they're going to compete. We did some things well, but no lead is safe against a team that's got the type of players they have and are led by a quarterback that they have."
The Titans got off to a fast start on Sunday to claim an early touchdown lead, and fought back after later falling behind. But the Saints sealed it late with a big play on defense, and a score.
The Titans took a 7-0 lead in the first quarter on a 41-yard touchdown pass from Tannehill to tight end Jonnu Smith, who raced past defenders.
"I am always looking to make a play with the ball in my hand," Smith said. "I was looking to score."
On the team's next possession, Brown took a handoff and sprinted 39 yards for a touchdown, making it 14-0 barely 10 minutes into the game.
But the Saints rallied, cutting the lead to 14-10 on a 61-yard touchdown pass from Brees to Cook, which followed a 47-yard field goal by kicker Wil Lutz earlier in the second quarter.
It was 14-10 Titans at the half.
The Saints then surged ahead 17-14 on a 40-yard touchdown run by Kamara just one minute into the third quarter. Another Kamara touchdown, this one from one yard out, midway through the third quarter made it 24-14.
A few minutes later, Tannehill found Sharpe open for a 36-yard touchdown pass, which made it 24-21 with 4:25 left in the third quarter.
"I feel like we can stand toe-to-toe with the best of them," Sharpe said. "We came out, jumped up 14-0 early. But we started out slow in the second half and when you are playing against a great offense like that, you can't leave any points on the field."
The Saints responded with a quick scoring drive of their own to reclaim a ten-point lead, going up 31-21 on a 16-yard touchdown toss from Brees to Cook again.
Back came the Titans. Tannehill connected with Sharpe again for a touchdown – this time from seven yards out – to make it 31-28 with 7:27 left in the contest. When the Titans got the ball back, Tannehill connected with receiver Kalif Raymond for a big play across the middle, but the ball was dislodged and the Saints recovered the fumble and returned it deep into Tennessee territory. Vrabel was asked in the post-game press conference about whether officials should have ruled Raymond was a defenseless receiver at impact.
Brees connected with Thomas for a two-yard touchdown to make it 38-28 with 2:10 left and the Saints held on.
"As a defensive captain, I feel like giving up 38 points is definitely not the style of our football, not what we have been preaching all season long," Casey said. "But to still have the opportunity to fight to get in the playoffs, that's all you can ask for."
The Titans travel to Houston to face the Texans in the regular season finale next Sunday.
Kickoff is set for noon.
"We leave here with no regrets, knowing we gave it everything we've got, we just didn't have enough points on the scoreboard at the end of the day," cornerback Logan Ryan said. "But regardless, next week is all that matters. I am excited for this challenge and we'll be ready to go."
Added Sharpe: "It's going to be a playoff situation: Win and we're in. It's going to be the same situation we were in last year, last game of the season and trying to get in."
The Tennessee Titans take on the New Orleans Saints in Week 16 of the 2019 season at Nissan Stadium. (Photos: Donald Page)