Posted: 2:45 a.m.
Kevin Kaesviharn seals the game with a late pick. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
"The Laffy Taffy," said Thurman of his little shake moves after his game-turning interception that also stands as his NFL first. "At the end, you've got to throw your head back. Nah, I didn't check with Chad. Maybe he'll do it next."
Thurman could have put his head down after he let running back Chris Brown bounce off him for the game's first touchdown on a four-yard run. Instead, he breathed life back in the Bengals with 1:01 left in the third quarter when he corralled cornerback Tory James's tip and took it 30 yards to tie it at 17.
James himself could have folded the tent after Titans quarterback Steve McNair dropped a 25-yard pass over his shoulder on third-and-two to set up Tennessee's go-ahead field goal with 4:54 left. But two and a half minutes later, James popped Brown and stripped the ball away all in the same motion and returned it 26 yards to the Tennessee 1 to secure the win.
"That's football," James said of the 25-yard completion to wide receiver Brandon Jones that put the ball on the Bengals 16 with 5:54 left in the 17-17 game. "Oh man, (McNair) was doing that all day. I mean, you can't even give this guy a window. I felt like I had good coverage on him, he just got the ball in there. That's what he does. He's a good quarterback. He did a good job controlling the offense."
McNair, the long-time Bengals nemesis, didn't throw his 21st career touchdown pass against Cincinnati. But when the Bengals dared him to throw with eight men in the box that often featured four linebackers, he hit 26 of 41 passes for 259 yards as the Titans put up a season-high 377 yards on the Bengals. But the Bengals, who forced just two turnovers in the last two games, waited until late to pick off two of his last passes, and James ripped another away from Brown that could have been an interception but was ruled a fumble.
A minute after the Bengals took a 24-20 lead with 4:19 left, safety Kevin Kaesviharn read wide receiver Drew Bennett's body and stepped in front of McNair's pass over the middle for the Bengals' league-leading 14th pick. Less than a minute after that, James made his play on Brown to set up Rudi Johnson's one-yard touchdown run on virtually the defense's second return touchdown of the day, and marking the Bengals' 70th point off a turnover.
BENGALS TURNOVERS SINCE '98:
- 1998: 13 Ints, 7 fumbles for 20 1999: 12-15 27 2000: 9-12 21 2001: 13-15 28 2002: 9-11 20 2003: 14-10 24 2004: 20-16 36 2005 14-7 21
"He wasn't expecting me to be there," James said of Brown catching a ball over the middle on a check-down pass from McNair. "When he turned, he was holding the ball out there, so I hit him and at the same time I stripped the ball out and it popped right out. We practice that all the time."
But James's play at the end of the third quarter was even bigger than that. The Bengals had just spent the quarter shooting off both feet with penalties that wiped out at least seven points, the Titans had just rolled to a fairly easy touchdown drive to take a 17-10 lead with 4:32 left in the third quarter, and here they were second-and-eight from their own 24.
McNair tried to hit wide receiver Tyrone Calico on one of his patented quick throws over the middle, but James was draped on him and tipped the ball in the air. Thurman grabbed it, and steamed outside and took it down the sideline.
"I'm looking at Odell running coming up for that big hit," James said. "The ball popped right into his hands, and he made a huge play. There are guys that are our big-play guys, and that's what we expect out of him."
Thurman, September's NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month, now has to be considered a frontrunner for the Bengals' first ever NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. He added six tackles, two passes defensed, and drew the postgame praise of Titans head coach Jeff Fisher who called Thurman "a gifted middle linebacker."
Linebacker Brian Simmons, the eight-year veteran, helped the Bengals jack their NFL-best turnover total to 21. When he was a rookie, the Bengals had 20 turnovers the entire season and he's been on three teams that finished with 21 or less. Simmons agreed with everyone else that Thurman's play tipped the game. "(It's nice to have) guys that go out there and make plays. We have them now," he said.
"We were down and that put the game back at zero-zero. For the defense, that was definitely the shot in the arm we needed. We needed something big to happen and that was it. The turnovers are big, but the key is getting the first one because they come in bunches and pairs."
Thurman, who grabbed a tip in Cleveland in the opener said he was lucky because it bounced right to him. He says he hasn't really done anything yet to get a pick because, "I haven't snagged one yet." But he did agree it came at a perfect time.
"Anytime you get a turnover," he said, "you get momentum on your side." Of rebounding off the Brown missed tackle, he laughed and threw his head back like his dance. "I always keep my head up. I don't think I've ever looked at the floor," he said.
But sure tackling was a theme for the defense after missing so many during the loss in Jacksonville last Sunday night. James, who missed one for a touchdown against the Jags, said it was a point of emphasis all week. "If (the cornerbacks) tackle, we're going to win."
At least one cornerback felt Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis was still making the point after the game. Lewis insisted the game's turning point wasn't Thurman's return, but that it came on the very next snap when McNair hit wide receiver Courtney Roby in the flat at the Tennessee 33. Cornerback Deltha O'Neal came up with help from Simmons to cut down Roby for a two-yard gain.
"Deltha's tackle in the flat," Lewis said of his turning point, and O'Neal smiled.
"It was just Marvin's way of saying that the defensive backs didn't tackle very well last week," said O'Neal, who also had a missed tackle for a touchdown in Jacksonville. "He was just trying to mess around with me."
Bengals defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan messed with the Titans enough that he got them out of their running game in the second half. Early in the game, Brown threatened to do what Jags running back Fred Taylor did to the Bengals last week and he ended up with 55 yards on 12 carries in the first half. Plus, the Titans were trying to smash it, using, at times, three tight ends, or a tight end as a fullback. The Bengals responded by taking out a defensive back and adding Hannibal Navies as a fourth linebacker.
Brown carried just six times in the second half and finished with 84 yards as the Titans decided it was easier to throw against the Bengals eight-man front. And three of those passes turned into game-changing plays.
When Titans guard Zach Piller took a cheap shot and plowed into James on the Tennessee sideline out of bounds well after the interception, James thought he hurt his neck. As Pillar sauntered back to his bench, James made a move to follow him, but his teammates got in his way.
"I didn't say anything to him," James said. "There was nothing to say."
He and his defense had already done their talking.