NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A season of peaks and valleys ended on a low point for the Tennessee Titans when they suffered a disheartening 19-16 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals at home in the divisional round of the playoffs.
"I'm disappointed for them [Titans players] because I think they all believed that we would win the game," Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. "They believed that we were just getting started. This was a second season. The preparation and everything that we put into it was there. But the execution wasn't. It's disappointing and I'll always hurt more for them than I will for myself."
The top-seeded Titans had dreams of hosting the AFC Championship Game, but the Bengals and quarterback Joe Burrow had other plans. Burrow overcame constant harassment from the Titans' defensive front, which sacked him nine times. He managed to complete 28 of 37 pass attempts for 348 yards and no touchdowns.
Ryan Tannehill's three interceptions didn't help. Tannehill was picked off on the opening play and later in the third quarter after a 45-yard run by D'Onta Foreman had Tennessee in scoring position. His final interception came with 20 seconds left in the game, giving the Bengals the ball at their 47-yard line.
The loss wasted the nine-sack effort from the Titans' defense. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the sack total tied the previous playoff record held by four teams: Buffalo Bills vs. Kansas City Chiefs (1966), San Francisco 49ers vs. Chicago Bears (1984), Cleveland Browns vs. New York Jets (1986) and Chiefs vs. Houston Oilers (1993).
The loss to the Bengals is the Titans' third consecutive postseason defeat at Nissan Stadium. The Baltimore Ravens came to Nashville last season and beat Tennessee 20-13.
The Titans are now 2-3 in the postseason with Vrabel as their coach. Tennessee finished with a 12-5 record and the top seed in the AFC despite battling injuries, including to marquee players such as Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown, Julio Jones and Bud Dupree, and rostering an NFL-record 91 players this season.
"It's tough man," left tackle Taylor Lewan said. "There's a lot of talent on this roster. We worked through a lot of adversity this season. It's hard. There's not a lot you can say. There's no more games. It's over."
Jones was acquired along with a 2023 sixth-round pick in exchange for a 2022 second-round draft pick and a 2023 fourth-round selection. The Titans had hopes of creating a potent one-two pass-catching tandem with Jones and Brown.
Unfortunately, neither player finished with 1,000 or more receiving yards. A hamstring injury limited Jones to 31 receptions for 434 yards and a touchdown in 10 games this season. Brown dealt with knee and chest injuries that caused him to miss four games. He finished with 63 receptions for 869 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Brown and defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons will enter the final year of their rookie contracts next season. The Titans can exercise the fifth-year option for Simmons in April.
Simmons already has his mind on what the defense needs to improve upon next season.
"We just came up short," Simmons said. "This won't stop us. We're going to keep this team tight. Nothing is going to split us up or come between our team. Going into this offseason, something we have to focus on is creating turnovers. How could we get more strip-sacks? That's a thing going into the offseason we have to build on, trying to get more turnovers."
However, the Titans are set to have 28 players become free agents. Tennessee will have big decisions to make regarding outside linebacker Harold Landry III, center Ben Jones and inside linebackers Jayon Brown and Rashaan Evans.
The championship window is still open for the back-to-back AFC South Division winners. But this heartbreaking loss will sting for the duration of the offseason.
"It's brutal," Tannehill said. "This is going to hurt for a long time. It'll be on my mind for a long time. This is going to take a long time to get over. You don't look forward to this situation. We had a great opportunity. This is one of those things that only time will heal."