The Tennessee Titans looked very much like a team headed for a bitter end.
Their top offensive playmaker, Kenny Britt, went to the locker room late in the second quarter on the back of a cart. They committed too many penalties. The defense stayed on the field for more than eight minutes straight at one point during the third quarter. Heck, even their longest running play of the season — 21 yards — was the result of an error, a wayward snap that forced punter Brett Kern to turn into a runner.
Then came the tight ends.
Craig Stevens and Daniel Graham delivered during a seven-play, 95-yard drive for the game-winning touchdown as Tennessee rallied for a 17-14 victory over the Denver Broncos on Sunday before a sellout crowd of 69,143 at LP Field.
“I think this is the thing about the NFL: You never know when your turn is going to come,” coach Mike Munchak said. “… Once [Britt] is not out there, it’s more opportunities for someone else.”
The Titans did more than overcome the Broncos, who led by four after a 16-play, 80-yard drive that lasted 8:09 of the third quarter, as they improved to 2-1 with their second straight victory at home.
They got a win when it looked like they might beat themselves with penalties (11 for 80 yards) and turnovers (two lost fumbles). Plus their run game struggled again as running backs Chris Johnson and Javon Ringer combined for 15 yards on 19 carries.
The difference on the scoreboard can be traced directly to two fourth-down plays. The defense held on fourth-and-goal from the 1 early in the fourth quarter when Denver elected not to attempt a field goal that could have extended its lead to seven. Tennessee’s only field goal came late in the second quarter on the drive extended by Kern’s fourth-down improvisation.
“We took that as a real slap in the face [when Denver went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1],” cornerback Cortland Finnegan said. “To stop them there was big, and for our offense to move the ball down the field was big.”
Graham’s four-yard touchdown reception came just more than nine minutes later (with 4:24 to play) and was the game-winner. It also was his first for the Titans, who signed him as a free agent in August after he spent the previous four seasons with Denver.
Three plays earlier, Stevens got open in the secondary and took in Matt Hasselbeck’s pass in stride. He continued downfield until he was tackled at the Broncos 25 after a gain of 58 yards. The fourth-year veteran had two receptions for three yards in the previous two weeks and his career-high for a game was 29 yards.
“We ran it in practice and it was open in practice,” Stevens said. “… It was the same coverage in the game and it worked out. It was a great throw.”
All but eight of the yards on that possession came through the air as Hasselbeck threw for 311 on the day and became the first Titans quarterback since Billy Volek in 2004 to top 300 yards passing in consecutive weeks.
This time, though, he did most of it without Britt, who caught just three passes for 18 yards and sustained an injury to his right knee on the third, a development that not only knocked him from the game. It also caused him to fumble at the Denver 20.
“I’m OK,” he said as he walked from the locker room with a bag of ice wrapped around the knee. “My status is I’m limping.”
Minus Britt, 10 others caught passes as Hasselbeck finished the day 27-for-36. Nate Washington led all receivers with eight catches for 92 yards and had a 14-yard touchdown reception that tied it 7-7 early in the second quarter.
The last to join that list were Stevens and Graham.
“Last year was the first year I didn’t have a touchdown,” Graham, a 10-year veteran, said. “To come back and have the game-winning touchdown against my former team feels good.
“… It’s good that [Hasselbeck] has confidence in the tight ends. We work hard in practice, and it’s good when they call our number and we have opportunities to make plays.”