After a great first half, the Tennessee Titans were clinging to a 3-point lead in the fourth quarter Sunday, having allowed the Houston Texans to score 18 unanswered points.
With the AFC’s top seed on the line, veteran quarterback Ryan Tannehill knew he had to do something to rally his team.
“I told the guys: ‘We need to make a play. We need our best right now,”’ Tannehill said.
Tannehill then orchestrated an eight-play, 85-yard drive capped by his fourth touchdown pass of the day, winning 28-25 and clinching that top AFC spot for the first time in 14 years and a first-round bye.
“That was my mindset that we needed our best football,” said Tannehill, who tied a career high for TD passes in a game. “I needed to be great in that critical moment, and we were able to make those plays.”
The 12-5 Titans, who secured their second straight AFC South title last week, have the No. 1 seed in the AFC for the third time since leaving Houston in 1997 and first since 2008.
“These things don’t happen too often,” safety Kevin Byard said. “We’ve got guys in the locker-room who have never been a one-seed and been in the league 10-plus years. We’ve definitely got to relish in this moment and understand that this is big time.”
Tannehill threw three touchdown passes in the second quarter to put the Titans up 21-0 at halftime.
But the Texans (4-13) came alive in the second half to get within 3 before Julio Jones caught his first touchdown pass of the season on a 3-yard grab that made it 28-18 with about seven minutes remaining.
Tannehill’s big day – 23 of 32 for 287 yards – came after he threw a career-high four interceptions in a 22-13 loss the first time Tennessee played Houston this season on Nov. 21.
“He came up with some huge plays,” coach Mike Vrabel said. “I thought he was in command most of the day executing the stuff.”
In the fourth quarter, the Texans capped an eight-play, 82-yard drive with a 7-yard touchdown catch by Danna Amendola early in the fourth quarter. Davis Mills connected with Amendola again on the 2-point conversion to cut the lead to 21-18.
Houston cut the lead to 3 again when Amendola’s second touchdown reception of the game made it 28-25 with 4 1/2 minutes to go. Tennessee got a first down on third-and-2 with about three minutes left and ran out the clock to secure the victory.
Houston coach David Culley was encouraged by how his team finished after a slow start.
“This football team has always played hard,” Culley said. “We haven’t always played smart, but we’ve played hard. Today I think we played hard and we played smart.”
Amendola had seven receptions for 113 yards and two touchdowns in his first game since Nov. 28.
The Titans took a 7-0 lead when Tannehill threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Firkser with about 7 1/2 minutes left in the second quarter. A.J. Brown made it 14-0 when he grabbed a 14-yard pass from Tannehill with about 90 seconds before halftime.
The Titans forced a punt and Lonnie Johnson intercepted Tannehill in the end zone on a long pass on the next drive. But Eric Murray was called for pass interference to negate the interception and move the Titans 45 yards to the Houston 4.
Tannehill’s third touchdown pass came on the next play when he connected with Nick Westbrook-Ikhine for a 4-yard score to extend the lead to 21-0 at the break. It was the first time a Titan has thrown three touchdown passes in a quarter since Steve McNair did it in 2005 against the 49ers.
Vrabel raved about the play of Tannehill to keep the team on track after losing star running back Derrick Henry to a broken foot on Halloween.
“His toughness continues to show up,” Vrabel said. “That’s what you have to have in this league to play quarterback.”
Houston cut the lead to 21-7 when Mills found Chris Moore on a 28-yard pass on a flea-flicker with about 10 minutes left in the third quarter. And the Texans got a 31-yard field goal from Kaimi Fairbairn late in the third quarter to get within 21-10.