Titans host Bengals, aim to continue AFC North mastery (Nov 12, 2017)

For the Tennessee Titans, it’s another week of their month-long tour through the AFC North.

When Tennessee hosts the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday at Nissan Stadium, it will mark its third straight game against its former rivals from the AFC Central of 20 and 30 years ago. The Titans are 2-0 in their excursion through their old haunts, surviving Cleveland 12-9 in overtime Oct. 22 and edging Baltimore last week 23-20.

Tennessee (5-3), winners of three straight games, enters Week 10 tied with Jacksonville for first place in the AFC South. The season’s second half doesn’t appear to be particularly daunting, either. The Titans might be favored in every game but two — a trip to Pittsburgh on Nov. 16 and a Christmas Eve matchup at home with the suddenly good Los Angeles Rams.

What’s more, Tennessee has learned to win at home. After going 3-17 in Nashville from 2014 through Oct. 23, 2016, the Titans have won seven of their last eight in front of cheering crowds. That includes last year’s rout of NFC finalist Green Bay, as well as a come-from-behind decision over Seattle in Week 3 this year.

“That’s what you have to do to win the division, that’s what you have to do to be a playoff team, you have to win at home,” Tennessee coach Mike Mularkey said. “We’re trying to get our fans back, we’ve been trying to do that for a while now. I think it’s been loud and it’s louder and louder for each game that we’re playing. It’s been fun to have them back.”

Winning tends to keep fans coming back, and the Titans have learned how to do that. Last week’s game was a prime example, featuring a key fourth-down stop at their 17 to start the fourth quarter, then a game-sealing touchdown drive late in the game after the offense managed just one first down in its first four drives of the second half.

Tennessee’s offense hasn’t been quite as explosive this year as it was over the second half of 2016, but the defense has carried its share of the load lately. It went nine quarters without permitting a touchdown until Baltimore found the end zone on its final two drives last week.

A secondary in need of an impact player has found one in safety Kevin Byard. He’s picked off five passes in the last two games and can become the fifth player in the Super Bowl era to bag six interceptions in a three-game span.

“When I see the ball in the air, I’m going to get it,” Byard said after pilfering two Joe Flacco passes in the win over Baltimore.

While the Titans chase NFL milestones and a division title, Cincinnati (3-5) is already fighting for survival. Last week’s 23-7 loss at Jacksonville dropped the Bengals three games behind Pittsburgh in the AFC North, meaning they probably need to go 6-2 to harbor even long-shot hopes at a playoff spot.

A lack of offensive punch has been Cincinnati’s biggest problem. The Bengals enter Week 10 tied for 28th in points per game, last in total yards and rushing yards per game and 28th in passing yards per game.

“We need to play better, and it starts with the mentality of knowing that you’re going to play better, and telling yourself, and trusting the guy next to you,” quarterback Andy Dalton said. “That’s all we can say right now, is we’ve got to put our head down and work.”

Dalton and his teammates got one break Monday when the NFL declined to suspend wide receiver A.J. Green after he was ejected for attacking Jacksonville’s Jalen Ramsey late in the first half. With 39 catches for 578 yards and four touchdowns, Green is basically the only deep threat opponents have to worry about on this team.

Cincinnati will have to play without right tackle Jake Fisher for the year’s remainder after he was placed on injured reserve Wednesday with an unspecified illness. It moved to beef up a shaky offensive line by signing Eric Winston, an 11-year veteran the team cut just before the season.

“He comes in being able to lineup and understand what to do and how to do it right away,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said of Winston.

Tennessee might be without left guard Quinton Spain (toe) for a second straight game. But running back DeMarco Murray, who was limited against Baltimore with a knee injury, was able to practice fully Wednesday and could be able to contribute more than his 41 scrimmage yards last week.