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Fourth quarter decisions burn Mike Vrabel and Titans in AFC Divisional playoff loss to Bengals

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Fourth quarter decisions burn Mike Vrabel and Titans in AFC Divisional playoff loss to Bengals

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Mike Vrabel is one of the best head coaches in the NFL, but his Titans, the No. 1 seed in the 2022 AFC playoffs, were upset by the Bengals on Saturday due to several poor decisions at the end of the fourth quarter.

Tennessee did well to erase a 16-6 third quarter deficit to tie Cincinnati at home. It didn’t matter when the Titans’ last two disastrous possessions saw the Bengals come away with a 19-16 Divisional Round victory on a game-winning field goal by rookie Evan McPherson.

BENGALS-TITANS: Score updates, highlights

The Titans’ last two practices started promisingly, only to find themselves empty on both and, worse, also positioning the Bengals to produce the winning runs.

Vrabel likes to win attrition battles with physical play and his offense is fueled by running play. Here’s how it backfired, twice, in the fourth quarter:

1. The Titans get too cute with the running game – and use their QB

The Titans defense fired Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (which they did nine times in total) to knock their opponent out of basket reach and return the ball to them with 11:18 left in a game from 16-16. Derrick Henry’s backup D’Onta Foreman – who probably should have started – opened the course with 9 and 10 yard runs. Wide receiver AJ Brown stayed hot and made another big play to keep the chains moving.

But after two short completions to wide receiver Julio Jones, the Titans completely missed a third-and-1 at the Bengals 35-yard line. Instead of running Foreman or Henry to get the necessary inches, they tried to convert by keeping the ball in the hands of quarterback Ryan Tannehill on a low-percentage outside rush from the shotgun rather than a Traditional QB sneaking under center.

MORE: Terrier for unprecedented start in Cincinnati

Tannehill has lost ground. Then the Titans returned to a predictable run midway through the fourth-and-first. Henry, not his usual explosive self after a serious foot injury (which was evident in most of his previous races), was stuffed. If Foreman had touched the ball every time, chances are the Titans would have moved the shackles. Instead, they returned the ball on downs at the edge of basket range.

2. The Titans show horrible clock management – and fail their QB

The Titans, despite the failure above, were able to win the ball back with the game still tied 16-16 following another big sack from Burrow. With just 2:43 remaining, they had the necessary added advantage of two timeouts remaining as they began operating from their 16.

Instead of throwing with Tannehill on first downs to start a quick march to the basket, they threw the first 43 seconds before the two-minute warning via a 3-yard dust cloud from Henry. The next play was a lot smarter, a 16-yard pass to Jones. They were lucky that just 14 more seconds had passed on the play, as the Bengals were forced to call a timeout with defensive end Trey Hendrickson injured.

But with 1:46 remaining, there was another run from Henry, this time without a win. The Titans didn’t call a timeout despite being only 35. Until 1:08 left on the second and long, they settled for an unnecessary 5-yard drop at the third running back Dontrell Hilliard on the next play.

MORE: Titans tie Bengals after officials uphold Tennessee interception call

On the resulting third and 5 of their 40, the Titans were suddenly back in aggressive passing mode with less than half a minute to go. Unfortunately for them, officials didn’t see Bengals coach Zac Taylor try to help the Titans by calling another timeout. Tannehill forced a throw into coverage that tipped for an interception, his third pick of the game. Three offensive plays later, the Bengals had won.

Vrabel and offensive coordinator Todd Downing will think a lot about what could have been a bad night for Tannehill when he wasn’t pitching to Brown. But they still could have rewarded their defensive effort against Burrow with better late decisions. While that was a boost to get Henry back and give him 20 carries, they would also have to be guessed at not featuring the much healthier supersub Foreman, who edged him 66-62 with just four carries. The Titans also lost a key point when they failed to convert an early two-point attempt with Henry.

“Well, I don’t think Ryan or myself or anyone did enough to win the game,” Vrabel said in his postgame press conference. “That’s how it goes. It’s never going to be one person, not while I’m the head coach, which will take some time.”

PLAYOFFS: schedule of divisional rounds, results

Under Vrabel, the Titans are trying to win games with the right situational mix of aggressive and conservative, which has worked a lot during his tenure, and should continue for many more seasons. They were caught somewhere in between against the Bengals and fell into a big Tennessee trap.

Fourth quarter decisions burn Mike Vrabel and Titans in AFC Divisional playoff loss to Bengals

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