Titans’ season saved by Kevin Byard, reversed by Marcus Mariota

ARLINGTON, Texas — The idea of a single play saving a season is one typically reserved for unimaginative writers on tight deadlines, but imagine for a moment Titans safety Kevin Byard doesn’t intercept Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott in the end zone to change everything Monday night.

Maybe Prescott lofts the ball perfectly between the bracketing coverage of Byard and cornerback Logan Ryan, into the arms of new Dallas Cowboys weapon Amari Cooper for a 14-0 first-quarter lead at AT&T Stadium. Maybe Byard just can’t handle his sailed pass and the Cowboys get another crack at it. Maybe they score on third down instead, or they’re stopped and at worst they go up 10-0.

Considering all the noise 90,466 fans were making and all the mistakes the Tennessee Titans were making – two lost fumbles, with a third lost fumble overturned and ruled an incomplete pass on replay review – this was headed for “Monday Night Football” carnage. This was a dazed Titans team, overwhelmed by the moment and headed for a fourth straight loss and 3-5 record with New England coming to town next after a short week of prep.

The 6-3 Houston Texans, winners of six straight, were about to be two and a half games up in the AFC South. A Monday night visit in three weeks to Houston was about to be a desperation heave at best. National respect? A step forward in coach Mike Vrabel’s debut season? For the boys? This season was about to be for the birds.

And then Byard rose up and grasped that overthrown pass. The Titans’ sideline came to life as Byard sprinted to the big star at midfield, taking a few seconds to pay homage to a Terrell Owens celebration in Dallas from long ago. Marcus Mariota responded by taking the Titans 80 yards in 15 plays for the tying touchdown.

And even if you aren’t comfortable saying Byard’s interception saved the season, let’s agree that the Titans’ 28-14 win did. For now, with much saving still to do. This season has been all over the place, and with four wins and four losses at the halfway point, it wouldn’t be a shock to see it end up with eight up and eight down. That sounds about right, actually.

But maybe this team can build on 48 minutes of mostly excellent football against Dallas (3-5), and find 60 against New England. Maybe the Titans will be prepared to take on the Texans in a prime-time showdown and pull off the sweep to make this a tight race again. Maybe they’ll get through this month in position to make a December run against a much softer schedule.

Maybe this offense has a chance. Against the No. 3 overall and No. 2 scoring defense in the NFL on the road, it found something after Byard’s pick. It did things it had not done since a 26-23 overtime win over the Eagles on Sept. 30 that improved the Titans to 3-1. The Titans managed 31 total points in the next three games. On Monday they scored 21 in the span of 19 minutes.

Derrick Henry finished the tying drive from a yard out. Dion Lewis then took in a screen pass from 18 yards out on the play after Mariota found Darius Jennings on a gorgeous 36-yard bomb. Malcolm Butler gave that lead right up by getting burned again, this time on a double move from Allen Hurns.

But the Titans defense would play dominant football from there, getting after Prescott and keeping Ezekiel Elliott in check. Jayon Brown’s third-quarter sack and strip of Prescott, recovered by Wesley Woodyard, set the offense up for a 40-yard touchdown drive to take the lead for good – on a crafty shovel pass from Mariota to Jonnu Smith.

Mariota (21 for 29, 240 yards, two touchdowns) was tremendous after his fumbling start, standing in against the Cowboys’ pass rush and completing big throw after big throw. His pass catchers, much maligned as the biggest area of needed help from the just-passed trading deadline, were right there with him.

Corey Davis with six catches for 56 yards. Lewis with 60 yards receiving to go with his 62 rushing. Smith with two catches and a score. Jennings with a big play. Taywan Taylor with two catches before a foot injury sidelined him.

Cameron Batson – yes, Cameron Batson – with two catches for 21 yards and nearly a bomb of his own. Tajae Sharpe appeared to tweak something before the game and didn’t play much, and still the Titans got enough done through the air.

That is, until Mariota missed a wide-open Davis in the end zone with a chance to put the game away. Ryan Succop then missed a 28-yard field goal, off the left post. The Cowboys had a chance. Rookie Harold Landry ended it with a sack of Prescott.

And Mariota finished the next drive of 64 yards with his feet, a 9-yard scramble with 4:38 left to put it away. His teammates mobbed him. Their season had turned again. Two hours earlier in the same end zone, it had been caught and brought back to life.

Contact Joe Rexrode at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @joerexrode.

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