It could have been a comeback for the ages, the sort of win a struggling coach and a struggling team needed to keep slim playoff hopes alive. It had a chance, as the Tennessee Titans came back from a 34-17 deficit to force overtime and won the coin toss. It then ended the way it looked like it would in the middle of the fourth quarter, though, with the Arizona Cardinals coming away from LP Field with a victory.
For the first 50 minutes and change, this looked like a typical and unremarkable Titans loss. In yet another installment of Life on the Margins, the Titans and Cardinals both moved the ball with intermittent success. Rob Bironas missed a field goal that would have tied the game, and Arizona got the ball clinging to a 20-17 lead, a lead they held because they got a field goal when the Titans (specifically, Patrick Bailey) muffed the second half kickoff. Then, following that missed field goal, a drive to turn a slim lead into a big one, as the Cardinals became the latest team to march down the field against the Titans and get a touchdown in a key situation. 27-17, and only 6:50 to play in the game. Then, a sack, by Titans offseason target Matt Shaughnessy, followed by Antoine Cason beating Nate Washington to a Ryan Fitzpatrick pass and racing 20 yards for a touchdown to make it 34-17.
A funny thing happened then, though-a Titans offense that had sputtered in fits and starts suddenly started clicking with relative ease. Nine passes, eight completions, 67 yards, and finished off with Mike Preston's first NFL touchdown pass. Still only 34-24, but life. The Cardinals get the ball on offense, wanting to run clock. And Eric Winston false starts, turning third-and-4 into third-and-9, so run, run, run, punt. Still down two scores, out of time outs, only 2:42 to play, starting at the 7, it looks bleak. Arizona's eighth penalty of the day, a roughing the passer, gave the Titans the start they needed, and Fitzpatrick's 17-yard scramble converted on third down. Still, only a field goal, and it was 34-27 with :47 to play. One failed onside kick coming up, and a good moral victory for the Titans. Nope-Jackie Battle dislodges the ball from Larry Fitzgerald, Daimion Stafford falls on it, and the Titans need to go 54 yards. Bang, Kendall Wright for 26. Wright for 20. An incompletion later, Preston is in the end zone for the second time in his career, and the Titans are down 1. Mike Munchak takes the extra point, a defensible call. Arizona is flagged for offside on Bironas's kick-Munchak elects not to try again from the 1-oops.
Still, the Titans win the toss, and Fitzpatrick finds Nate Washington for a big play to get into Arizona territory. The next play, though, the Cardinals bring an overload blitz to the right side, and Fitzpatrick is too slow to fire off the hot. Rather than Preston, his pass finds Antoine Cason for the second time. Needing a big stop after a start near midfield, the defense does what they did early in the game and in so many other losses, namely fail. Four plays, three of them runs, later, the Cardinals are in field goal range. Jay Feely hits, and Arizona walks away with the 37-34 triumph, avenging the Titans' win in a comeback four years ago.
This is a tough game to know just what to think about. Did it stay a Life on the Margins game, decided by the muffed kick and Bironas's missed field goal? How much weight should we place on the comeback, against one of the league's best defenses, and how much on the 54 minutes of sputtering to get anything going? Is Fitzpatrick a hero for leading the comeback and putting points on the board or a goat for the two interceptions, including the one leading to the game-winning points? Is Mike Munchak an inspirational leader whose team kept fighting even though they were down three scores late in the fourth, or a goof who cost his team their best shot of winning the game?
The answer, probably, is all of the above, yet maybe none of it. I really want to dive into the all-22 of this game, and should have the time to do so this week. Yet, with the loss and Miami's win over New England earlier in the day, the Titans were eliminated from playoff contention. To some extent, why what happened happened today becomes a bit of a moot point, important to the Titans brass and the players for deeply personal reasons, yet at the same time irrelevant because things will be different in some way the next time the Titans play a really meaningful game come next September.