Fourth-quarter decisions burn Mike Vrabel, Titans in AFC divisional playoff loss to Bengals

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Mike Vrabel is one of the NFL's best head coaches, but his Titans, the No. 1 seed in the 2022 AFC playoffs, were upset by the Bengals on Saturday because of several bad decisions late in the fourth quarter.

Tennessee did well to erase a 16-6 third-quarter deficit to tie Cincinnati at home. That didn't matter when the Titans' disastrous final two possessions allowed the Bengals to walk off with a 19-16 divisional round victory on a game-winning field goal by rookie Evan McPherson.

BENGALS-TITANS: Scoring updates, highlights

The Titans' final two drives started out promising, only to come up empty on both, and, worse, also position the Bengals to produce the winning points. 

Vrabel likes to win battles of attrition with physical play and his offense being fueled by the running game. Here's how that backfired on him, twice, in the fourth quarter:

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

The Titans' defense sacked Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (which they did nine times total) to knock their opponent out of field goal range and get the ball punted back to them with 11:18 left in a 16-16 game. Derrick Henry's backup, D'Onta Foreman — who probably should have started — opened the drive with 9- and 10-yard runs. Wide receiver A.J. 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 blew a third-and-1 at the Bengals' 35-yard line. Instead of running Foreman or Henry to get the needed inches, they tried to convert by keeping the ball in quarterback Ryan Tannehill's hands on a low-percentage outside rush from the shotgun rather than a traditional QB sneak from under center.

MORE: Burrow off to unprecedented start in Cincinnati 

Tannehill lost yardage. Then the Titans went back to a predictable up-the-middle run on fourth-and-1. Henry, who was not his usual explosive self coming off a major foot injury (which was obvious on most of his prior carries), was stuffed. Had Foreman touched the ball either time, there's a good chance the Titans would have moved the chains. Instead, they turned the ball over on downs on the fringe of field goal range.

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

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

Instead of throwing with Tannehill on early downs to begin a quick march into field goal range, they threw away the first 43 seconds ahead of the two-minute warning via a 3-yard cloud of dust from Henry. The next play was much smarter, a 16-yard pass to Jones. They got lucky that only 14 more seconds elapsed on the play, because the Bengals were forced to call timeout with defensive end Trey Hendrickson injured.

But with 1:46 left, there was another Henry run, this time for no gain. The Titans didn't call timeout despite being only on their own 35. Down to 1:08 left on second-and-long, they settled for a useless 5-yard dump-off to third running back Dontrell Hilliard on the next play.

MORE: Titans tie Bengals after officials uphold close call on Tennessee interception

On the resulting third-and-5 from their 40, the Titans suddenly went back into aggressive passing mode with less than half a minute left. Unfortunately for them, the officials didn't see Bengals coach Zac Taylor trying to help the Titans by calling another timeout. Tannehill forced a throw into coverage that was 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 be thinking a lot about what could have been on what was a bad night for Tannehill whenever he wasn't throwing to Brown. But they still could have rewarded their gritty defensive effort vs. Burrow with better late decisions. Although it was a boost to have Henry back and give him 20 carries, they also should be second-guessed for not featuring the much healthier supersub Foreman, who outrushed him 66-62 with only four carries. The Titans also threw away a key point when failing to convert an early two-point attempt with Henry.

"Well, I don’t think Ryan or myself or anybody did enough to win the game,” Vrabel said in his postgame press conference. "That’s how it goes. It's never going to be about one person, not as long as I'm the head coach, which will be a while."

PLAYOFFS: Divisional round schedule, results

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

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