NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A defensive stand late in the game helped propel the Cincinnati Bengals over Tennessee 20-16 on Sunday in the Music City.
The Titans (7-4) had the ball on the Bengals’ 25-yard line and trailed Cincinnati 20-13.
Bengals cornerback Eli Apple tripped up Tennessee running back Derrick Henry at the line of scrimmage.
Then Cam Sample stuffed Dontrell Hilliard for a five-yard loss.
Tennessee had to settle for a field goal after Nick Westbrook-Ikhine gained 10 yards on third down, short of the line to gain, and closed the gap 20-16.
Cincinnati held on to the ball and ran the clock out to win the game, and to boost it into a tie for first place in the AFC North with Baltimore, which lost to Jacksonville on Sunday.
“I thought really our red zone defense was excellent,” Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said. “Holding them to field goals, holding them before the half, they missed a field goal. They had a new kicker in there, so you want to make it harder on him and put pressure on him. Our defense did a great job in the red zone, keeping them out of the end zone and keeping them to three points when they needed to.”
Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins had a productive fourth quarter, and made two clutch catches and one touchdown to give Cincinnati the edge.
His first grab came on the first play of the final stanza — when quarterback Joe Burrow and Higgins timed a sideline route for a 24-yard gain.
Then with 13:42 to go in the game, Higgins made a leaping grab in the end zone for a 27-yard touchdown — and the 20-13 lead.
“It’s about the trust that Joe (Borrow) has in me,” Higgins said. “It’s my job to get better each and every season. I think I’ve improved tremendously.”
Higgins finished the game with 114 yards on seven catches and one TD.
“He just continues to make plays in his one-one-one opportunities and if you give him a chance, he is just so big and strong, he is going to go out and make the plays,” Burrow said of his wide receiver.
On the same scoring drive, Burrow found Trenton Irwin on a back-shoulder throw on the sideline for a 16-yard snag on third down that kept the drive alive.
“The biggest play of that drive was the third-and-10 to Trenton — hitting that back-shoulder throw,” Burrow added. “That was a throw we worked on this week with him. He doesn’t get a lot of opportunities and he continues to make the plays when the opportunities present themselves.”
Burrow finished the game with 270 yards passing and completed 22 of 37 attempts with one touchdown, and was sacked only one time.
The Who-Dey defense shut down prolific Titans running back Henry, and held him to 38 yards on the ground on 17 carries.
Henry’s biggest play was a 69-yard reception from quarterback Ryan Tannehill early in the second quarter.
He was stripped of the ball on the six-yard line on the play, but Treylon Burks dove on the loose football in the end zone for his first NFL score, which gave the Titans a 10-3 lead.
“We’ve got the right guys that know that this is a big-man’s league,” Taylor said. “They know you’ve got to step up late in the year.”
Cincinnati’s defense shut down Henry, and tackled him for four losses on the day.
“It’s just a mindset,” Taylor added.
After the Titans cut the lead to 20-16, the Bengals got the ball with 6:07 to play.
They ran out the clock, and relied on hard-nosed football to grind out the win.
Running back Trayveon Williams broke three tackles on the drive on third down to move the ball past midfield.
Cincinnati was going to settle for a field goal with 1:53 to play, but Tennessee was called for a personal foul — which allowed the Bengals to run out the clock for the win.
“This is the kind of game that great teams win,” Burrow said. “It’s not always going to be pretty.”
The Bengals started the game off slow, and worked through penalties and bad field position in the first half.
The team played without Joe Mixon, who was sidelined from a concussion from last week, and Ja’Marr Chase, who worked out before the game but was scratched before the start.
Samaje Perine ran for 58 yards on 17 carries and a touchdown, and added four catches for 35 yards.
Tight end Hayden Hurst had six catches for 57 yards for the Bengals, while Tyler Boyd chipped in with two catches for 16 yards.
“This is when football counts,” Burrow added. “We’re 7-4. We’re in a great spot. I’m happy with our continued improvement throughout the season. Now it’s time to show what kind of championship mentality we have.”
Cincinnati will host Kansas City on Sunday at Paycor Stadium.
Kickoff is set for 4:25 p.m.