NASHVILLE -- Former Mr. Football in the state of Tennessee, Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins, came home Sunday to put the Bengals in a state of euphoria and tie for first place in the AFC North with a dominant fourth quarter in a 20-16 win over the AFC South leading Titans at Nissan Stadium.
The Bengals vaulted to 7-4 with their third straight victory when Higgins' 24-yard touchdown with 13:42 left broke a 13-13 tie and his overpowering 29-yard catch with 2:59 left kept the clock running as he finished with 114 yards for his second straight 100-yard day. Quarterback Joe Burrow had another strong road outing with 270 yards and no interceptions. Burrow, who came in with a 96.5 career passer rating on the road, offered a solid 91 with a touchdown on 22 of 37 passing. It was good enough to lift his record against Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (91.7 rating with 291 yards on 22 of 34 with no touchdowns and no interceptions to 3-0.
The Bengals took a 20-13 lead with 13:42 left on Burrow's play-action jump ball floater to Higgins, who won a rebound battle at the goal line with rookie cornerback Roger McCready. When Higgins came up with the brilliant juggling catch, it was a 27-yard touchdown play that marked the first time in eight games the Titans had allowed 20 points in regulation.
But it was only possible because on the snap before on third-and-12 Burrow went with a back-shoulder throw and wide receiver Trenton Irwin made a stupendous diving catch on the right sideline for his first catch of the day and second straight week he had a huge play in the touchdown drive.
Meanwhile, the defense was bending and not breaking in a stunning effort that held NFL rushing leader Derrick Henry to 38 yards on 17 carries. When the Bengals held Tennessee to another field for a 20-16 lead with 6:07 left, it was left to Burrow and the offense to put together a clock-eating drive. They did just that, marching 68 yards (29 on the Tee ball) to set up an Evan McPherson chip shot that would have given them a touchdown lead after the Titans burned all three timeouts. But Tennessee defensive end Kevin Strong was tagged for unnecessary roughness on the kick, gifting Cincinnati a game-ending first down.
The Bengals came into the game with the third fewest penalties in the league and fewest penalty yards. But going into the fourth quarter they had nine for 80 yards and they took potential double-digit points off the board.
Wide receiver Tyler Boyd got his first catch with 5:55 left in the third quarter and it, quite naturally, converted a third-and-five with one of his patented leaping catches in traffic for a seven-yard gain. But it was costly because he was led off the field and he didn't get back on until the last play of the drive. It was too late for that drive because another crushing penalty forced them to take McPherson's 38-yard field goal with 2:35 left in third quarter that gave the Bengals a 13-10 lead.
Bengals running back Samaje Perine, who was the guy that looked liked the NFL rushing leader, clicked to 54 yards on 11 carries in that drive that got them a first down the Tennessee 16. But on that play Burrow was called for intentional grounding when he hung in the pocket until the last instant.
Just like last week, the defense opened the second half with a three-and-out. Holding Henry to 17 yards on his first eight carries, they stonewalled him here on first down and then got an alert pass break from cornerback Eli Apple on second down before left end Sam Hubbard leveled Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill for the Bengals' only sack of the game.
But the Bengals couldn't take advantage. Perine pounded out two carries to give them third and less than a yard inside the 50, but right tackle La'el Collins was called for a hold on Perine's successful third-down run.
After converting two 90-yard touchdown drives last week in Pittsburgh, the Bengals needed another one of those to get Sunday's first touchdown and it didn't come until the play after the two-minute warning in the first half. Burrow converted two third downs on the 92-yard march, one on a third-and-four to tight end Hayden Hurst (who had his Bengals high of 57 yards) over the middle and another on third-and-12 where he scrambled out of trouble in the pocket to his right and shot-putted a 24-yarder to running back Trayveon Williams to put the ball on the Titans 7.
With extra tackle Hakeem Adeniji on the field along with tight ends Mitchell Wilcox and Devin Asiasi, Perine got enough room to run over safeties Kevin Byard and Amani Hooker for a seven-yard touchdown run that tied the game at 10 with 1:55 left in the half. It was another productive day for the Bengals running backs playing without Joe Mixon (concussion). Perine ignited the drive with another one of his screen pass specialties, this one a 32-yarder for his longest play of the year.
The Bengals caught a break at the end of the half when kicker Caleb Shudak, in his NFL debut, missed a 35-yarder wide right, after rookie cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt broke up a pass on the goal line.
Henry took the game over, but it wasn't because of the run. He had 12 yards on his first five carries when Tannehill started a drive at his 25, flipping a screen pass to him on his left side. The Titans got a hat on a hat and the Bengals didn't get near him until the 247-pound Henry chugged inside the Bengals 5, where Taylor-Britt chopped out the ball. The ball rolled away from free safety Jessie Bates III and rookie wide receiver Trey Burks fell on it for the game's first touchdown and a 10-3 Titans lead with 11:15 left in the second quarter.
After the Bengals had one running play in the first quarter, Perine bolted up the middle for 14 yards on the first two plays of the second quarter and that set up Hurst's 29-yard fingertip catch down the seam for his longest play as a Bengal. Higgins, wide-open at the Tennessee 15 for a first down, had a rare drop and they needed McPherson's 47-yard field goal to tie it up three minutes into the second quarter.
The defense came out hot despite the big play. They forced a three-and-out when rookie safety Dax Hill's zone blitz broke up a third-down pass after ends Sam Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson took turns stopping Henry on first and second down.
But penalties killed them. They came in averaging fewer than five penalties per game but picked up six in the first quarter and they were plagued all day with them before the game ended, ironically enough, on a Titans penalty.
On the game's first drive Higgins' 22-yard in-stride slant split the safeties and put the ball on the Titans 23. But running back Chris Evans' offensive pass interference penalty wiped it all out and blew up a drive that featured the Titans winning two contested catches with Hurst and with Irwin. The Bengals dropped back on all seven plays and got a 13-yard scramble from Burrow as Perine picked up the blitz.
The Bengals came into the game with the third fewest penalties in the league and fewest penalty yards.
Then they went three-and-out backed up, a victim of Tennessee's ability to use field position as a strength. Perine got three yards up the middle on first down from the Bengals 4, McCreary was draped all over Higgins on the sideline for a second-down incompletion and Burrow overthrew Boyd at the first-down sticks on the left.
Drue Chrisman got off a 62-yard punt, but the Bengals couldn't take advantage of a Titans touchback on their fourth penalty of the game in the first 10 minutes when linebacker Markus Bailey was called for a hold. That put them on their 10 instead of their 20 and it was a second straight three-and-out. On second down, linebacker David Long Jr. blitzed late on Perine as Burrow got sacked.
Another monster punt by Chrisman (55 yards) couldn't stop Tennessee from finally cashing field position. But it wasn't because of Henry as the Bengals, using five linemen at times, were running downhill and held Henry for 12 yards on four carries. Tannehill had to convert two third-down passes to a get a 33-yard field goal on Shudak's first NFL field goal try.