Marc Mariani had one thought on his mind: “High point.”
As a wide receiver, he’s trained to go for a pass that’s in the air at the highest point possible.
This was a kickoff, one that had bounced off the LP Field turf and was, therefore, up for grabs. The first rule for any return man in that situation is to field the ball, and having failed to do so initially, the Tennessee Titans’ rookie resorted to the receiver’s rule.
His leap was disrupted when Denver’s David Bruton slammed into him, and the ball came down again where it eventually was recovered by the Broncos’ Cassius Vaughn.
Thus, the moment was reduced to the final low point on a day filled with emotional turns as the Titans fell 26-20 before a sellout crowd of 69,143.
“I wasn’t going to let it come down,” Mariani said. “I went up in the air to try to get it. … I should have made the play.
“Just a helpless feeling watching that ball roll away.”
The muff led to Denver’s fourth field goal of the day – this one with 28 seconds to go – and effectively cost the Titans any chance to rally in a contest they led twice in the second half, the first time after Mariani’s own personal high point, a 98-yard kickoff return that made it 17-13 with 10:19 to play in the third quarter.
Tennessee’s defense recorded a season-high six sacks, but also committed the majority of the 10 penalties assessed to the team as a whole. A pass interference call against safety Chris Hope gave the Broncos’ possession at the 1-yard line and set up the game-winning score – Correll Buckhalter’s 6-yard reception with 1:33 remaining.
The offense racked up 242 yards in the first half, capped by a 26-yard drive that set up a game-tying field goal in the final 23 seconds. That same bunch managed just 46 total yards and three first downs throughout the whole of the second half.
“The worst way to lose in sports is in the end,” defensive end Dave Ball said. “An even worse way to lose is in the end after we beat ourselves. … Once we get all that stuff ironed out, the sky’s the limit.”
One quarter of the way through this season it’s difficult to tell whether or not things actually are looking up for the Titans.
This defeat left them 2-2 and tied with Indianapolis and Jacksonville, one game behind first-place Houston in what suddenly looks like one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL.
Their featured player, running back Chris Johnson, again failed to deliver a big play and was held to 53 yards on 19 attempts. That was paramount to the fact that the defense was on the field for 20:56 of the second the second half.
“You know, we threw the ball well,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “You get a kickoff return for a touchdown, which is great, but your defense goes right back on the field. So we just didn’t get the (offensive) snaps.”
Of course, the same is true when you get a muffed kickoff and the other team recovers.
By the time the defense got off the field following that one, the deficit was six points, the Titans were out of timeouts. Mariani returned the ball to the 23, and from there quarterback Vince Young threw three desperate passes, none of which were completed or drew a penalty.
“We had three or four plays that changed the whole game,” Mariani said. “That’s the NFL. … We were on a lot of highs (Sunday). At the end of the day we’re on lows.”