NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Cincinnati Bengals have a knack for beating the Tennessee Titans at their own game — by playing more physically and forcing the opponent into mistakes at the wrong time.
They did it again Sunday.
Joe Burrow threw a 27-yard touchdown pass to Tee Higgins with 13:42 left to put Cincinnati ahead to stay, and the Bengals held off the Titans, 20-16, on Sunday for their third straight victory and fifth in six games.
“This is the kind of game that great teams win,” Burrow said. “It’s not always going to be pretty. This is the NFL. You’re playing really, really good teams on the opposing end. You’ve got to find ways to win, and we’re starting to do that.”
The defending AFC champion Bengals (7-4) won the rematch of their divisional playoff victory despite not having running back Joe Mixon because he hadn’t cleared the concussion protocol. Also, receiver Ja’Marr Chase, the reigning AP NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, missed a fourth straight game with a hip injury.
Cincinnati has won three straight over Tennessee and five of six. Burrow, sacked nine times in that divisional loss by the Titans, went down only once. Burrow threw for 270 yards, and Higgins finished with 114 yards on seven catches as the Bengals moved into a first-place tie with Baltimore in the AFC North.
“We wouldn’t trade our quarterback for anybody on the planet and so we’re glad to have him,” Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor said.
Evan McPherson kicked a pair of field goals for the Bengals. He connected on a third with 1:53 left, but Titans lineman Kevin Strong was flagged for unnecessary roughness after landing on the long snapper. That nullified the kick but allowed the Bengals to run out the clock.
Titans two-time All-Pro Kevin Byard said it looked like two teammates hit the snapper. Strong said he was “totally shocked” to learn he was flagged, knowing defenders can’t line up on the snapper or hit him in the head.
“Once he hikes the ball and has his head up, you can come through,” Strong said. “I was just trying to get in the A gap. I wasn’t intentionally trying to hit him in the head. I made a mistake, and I take that one and put it on me. I just have to do better for my team.”
The Titans (7-4) equaled their most points allowed since a Week 2 loss at Buffalo as their two-game winning streak ended. This was just the second time since that loss that Tennessee gave up more than 17, matching the 20 points allowed in an overtime loss at Kansas City.
Cincinnati smothered NFL rushing leader Derrick Henry yet again, holding him to 38 yards, his second-lowest total of the season. Tennessee tried to rally by throwing to Henry, and he had a career-best 79 yards receiving.
“We just couldn’t get nothing started in the run game, and I mean they executed,” Henry said. “They played better than we did.”
Taylor credited the Bengals with executing coordinator Lou Anarumo’s plan perfectly.
“They put pressure on him the entire game,” Taylor said of Henry. “They hit the quarterback, and they made play after play to win us back the field position there in the second half and allow us to go win it.”
Ryan Tannehill threw for 291 yards, but the Titans couldn’t score a touchdown in three trips to the red zone. They settled for three field goals in four tries by rookie Caleb Shudak, who made his first NFL start in place of veteran Randy Bullock. Shudak missed a 35-yarder to the right just before halftime.
The Titans played their second straight game without center Ben Jones, a loss that showed as they were flagged twice for false starts on their opening drive.
Bengals running back Samaje Perine scored on a 7-yard TD run that tied it at 10 with 1:55 left in the first half.
McPherson, who won the playoff game in January at Tennessee with a field goal as time expired, tied it up with a 47-yarder early in the second quarter. His 38-yarder gave Cincinnati its first lead, 13-10, late in the third.
Tennessee scored its only TD with a bit of luck. Tannehill tossed a short pass to Henry, who ran 69 yards before Cam Taylor-Britt poked the ball out at the Bengals 6. Rookie Treyon Burks recovered the ball in the end zone for his first career touchdown and a 10-3 lead.