The red zone had been a danger zone all season for the Tennessee Titans.
But on Sunday, Tennessee’s much-maligned offense finally found the end zone, scoring four touchdowns en route to a 28-20 victory over the Houston Texans at LP Field.
In the process, the Titans stopped a three-game losing streak, improved to 7-5 and also bolstered their sagging hopes for an AFC wild-card berth. Arizona also provided the Titans help on Sunday, knocking off Cleveland 27-21, leaving the Browns 7-5 as well.
The Titans turned all three of their trips inside the Texans’ 20 yard line into touchdowns, then added a 43-yard touchdown pass from Vince Young to Roydell Williams as well. All this was no small feat for a Titans team that had previously scored just 12 touchdowns in 40 red zone visits and had just 18 trips to the end zone in its first 11 games.
“When we got in the red zone, we took it to heart, knowing that the red zone has been our toughest point this year. That’s something we’ve got to focus on, and we got it corrected today,” said receiver Justin Gage, whose 11-yard touchdown catch gave the Titans a 21-10 lead in the game.
Defensively, the Titans weren’t dominant, but were good enough, knocking Texans quarterback Matt Schaub from the game in the first quarter, then getting a late interception by Michael Griffin from backup quarterback Sage Rosenfels late to ice the victory.
At the outset, it looked like more of the same, as the Texans drove 74 yards in nine plays to take a quick 7-0 lead. In each of Tennessee’s previous three losses, the Titans never led.
Linebacker Keith Bulluck said there was no sense of panic on the sideline, despite the quick deficit.
“You come home and play a game in front of your home crowd, and even when you do get down, it’s a little bit easier to fight back,” Bulluck said.
Suprisingly, the Titans fought back with offense, countering with a touchdown of their own on their opening series. The Titans marched 72 yards in 12 plays, with LenDale White capping the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run.
After falling behind 10-7 at halftime, the Titans responded with perhaps their best offensive half of football this season. Tennessee sputtered on its opening series of the second half, but after forcing a Houston punt, needed just two completions from Young to take the lead. After reaching the Texans’ 43, Young pumped then hit a wide-open Williams in stride for the go-ahead touchdown.
“Our intention was to come out in the second half and actually open it up a little bit,” Titans coach Jeff Fisher said.
Young, who completed 21 of 31 passes for 248 yards, said he and his receivers took the challenge put before them in the second half, making the Texans’ defense pay with big plays downfield.
“They’re basically telling us, ‘Vince you can’t make that throw and receivers can’t make that catch.’ We’re going to have to show them, receivers can make that catch and I can make that throw,” Young said.
Young and the Titans added another third-quarter touchdown on Gage’s reception before the Texans cut the lead back to four points on Rosenfels’ 28-yard TD toss to Andre Johnson.
But again, the Titans answered the call, this time thanks to special teams, followed by the rushing of Chris Brown.
Tennessee had been forced to punt, and Houston’s Jacoby Jones disdained the fair catch, only to be stripped of the ball by the Titans’ Eric King. Teammate Donnie Nickey fell on the ball at the Texans’ 29.
“I just wanted to put my team in position to where we could win a game,” King said. “As I was running down the field, I kind of saw that the returner hadn’t made a fair catch signal, and after that I just kind of wanted to unload, and the ball was on the ground, and we came up with it.”
From there, Brown took a handoff and went 22 yards, including a nice spin move for extra yardage, reaching the Houston 7. Brown took the ball on the next play and turned the corner around the left side for the touchdown that again gave Tennessee a two-score advantage with 9:49 to play.
After that, the Titans allowed a 50-yard field goal to Kris Brown but sealed the game late on Griffin’s interception.
“The quarterback was trying to throw it, but he couldn’t make a good pass because he got hit. You have to make the plays when they come to you,” Griffin said.
On Sunday, the Titans did that and it helped them take a step back in the right direction.
“It’s not a matter of being back or anything,” Bulluck said. “We’ve just got to keep playing. It’s a matter of getting there now, and there is the postseason.”