AFC South slipping away from Titans with last-second loss to Chargers

This Titans season continues to spiral into disaster.

And there are no answers, or comfort, in sight. 

“Nothing I can tell [the players] that’s going to make them not be disappointed, upset,” coach Mike Vrabel said. “They’re spilling their guts out there.”

Tennessee (7-7) lost its fourth straight game Sunday, falling 17-14 to the Chargers (8-6) on the road at SoFi Stadium. With Jacksonville (6-8) upsetting Dallas at home, the Titans — who were running away with the AFC South early in the season — are now in an all-out battle for the division. 

The reigning back-to-back AFC South champion, the Titans now hold just a one-game lead over the ascending Jaguars. So it’s possible that the Tennessee-Jacksonville Week 18 matchup will decide the AFC South champion. Considering the trajectory of both teams, it feels likely. While Tennessee has unraveled, Jacksonville has won four of its past six games. 

A Titans win Sunday would’ve staved off the Jaguars in the heated AFC South race. But Justin Herbert and the Chargers had other plans, fighting for their own playoff berth. 

It came down to the very end. The Titans tied the game at 14 with a 74-yard touchdown drive, but Herbert connected with receiver Mike Williams for a 35-yard gain on the ensuing Chargers possession, setting up placekicker Cameron Dicker‘s game-winning 43-yard field goal with eight seconds left. 

But you can’t blame the Titans defense for the loss. Playing without its best pass rusher (outside linebacker Denico Autry), its best cornerback (Kristian Fulton), its best nose tackle (Teair Tart), its best inside linebacker (David Long Jr.) and its No. 2 safety (Amani Hooker), Tennessee held a Herbert-led offense to 17 points. 

The pass rush, which has struggled over the past month, had three sacks and eight quarterback hits on Herbert overall. And for all the issues in the secondary, the Titans’ efforts in coverage against an offense that has two No. 1 receivers in Keenan Allen and Williams was encouraging. Tennessee gave up 291 net passing yards, the fewest it has allowed in three weeks. 

It’s the Titans offense that’s most responsible for the team’s continued implosion — and what makes this team so hard to believe in. 

Tennessee, which entered the game boasting the worst second-half offense in the NFL (a league-low 70 points after halftime through 14 weeks), again showed few signs after the first two quarters.

In its first five plays of the third period, the Titans offense had already punted and registered an interception. In field-goal range at the Chargers 24 early in the fourth quarter, quarterback Ryan Tannehill (15-of-22, 165 yards, INT) was sacked for a loss of nine yards, creating a fourth-and-18. That forced a 51-yard field goal, which placekicker Randy Bullock missed. Tennessee also converted just three of 11 third downs. 

The Titans defense held the Chargers to seven points through their first six possessions of the second half and the offense responded with nothing. 

Tennessee’s offense doesn’t score enough. It can’t protect Tannehill. The offensive line can’t consistently run-block. Titans receivers don’t get enough separation. And the injuries continue to mount. Tannehill, for example, was carted to the locker room after getting his ankle rolled on, though he returned to the contest at far less than 100 percent. 

It’s the same story week in and week out. 

“We all make it tough,” Vrabel said of the offense. “There are times where the quarterback had time, no one was open. There were times when the quarterback didn’t have time and there were guys open. That’s how this thing goes. … It’s a cumulative operation. 

“It’s not just one guy.” 

The Titans have been able to hang their hat on the fact that they control their division, but not even that is certain anymore.

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Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for SeattlePI.com for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur


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