DETROIT — This is what losing football looks like. It’s a broken play, a quarterback drifting left and throwing back right, a cornerback in position to make a play but a 35-year-old receiver discarding him and scoring anyway.
It’s a simple run to the right from your own 5-yard line, the right side of your line beaten so thoroughly that your running back is tackled in the end zone.
It’s another blown-up run to ruin one promising drive, a personal foul to stall another. It’s a starting corner getting trucked by a quarterback, blowing an open-field tackle to give up a 47-yard gain and getting flagged for interference at the goal line — all in one 7-minute stretch.
And this is what winning football looks like. It’s the same side of that offensive line, opening up a hole for the same back to sprint through and gain 67 yards.
It’s a young quarterback, rebounding from an interception to fire a 30-yard touchdown pass on the next possession. It’s a defense that hangs in there against a loaded passing attack, giving up just the early touchdown, giving its team a chance in the end.
It’s that line protecting and that quarterback, Marcus Mariota, making clutch throws to that running back, DeMarco Murray. It’s Mariota, on fourth down, somehow getting the ball to his own 35-year-old receiver, Andre Johnson, for a 9-yard touchdown to lead for the first time with 73 seconds to play.
And it’s Titans cornerback Perrish Cox, his nightmarish first-half stretch behind him, sealing the deal by picking off Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford with 22 seconds left.
On Sunday at Ford Field, winning football looked like Tennessee Titans football — somehow, in the end, on a day of miscues and missed opportunities and penalties. The Titans’ comeback from a 15-3 deficit to the fourth quarter for a dramatic 16-15 victory was the kind of thing that can leave a mark, on both teams.
“To come in here and get a victory being down like we (were) … it’s been a whole minute since we’ve really just won a game,” said Cox, whose pick was the first turnover forced by the defense this season, on a day that also saw it get its first four sacks.
“They thought they could, and they did today,” Titans coach Mike Mularkey said of his players after they rebounded from last week’s late gaffes and season-opening loss to Minnesota. “They came back, they finished a game on the road, a lot of circumstances were tough at the end there. And I was real proud of the grit this team showed.”
And though it does not change the fact that the Titans need more playmakers to be a team that wins much more than it loses, the ones they have just took a step forward together.
Detroit is not a great team, and Detroit was missing its best defensive player (linebacker DeAndre Levy) and lost its second-best defensive player (defensive end Ziggy Ansah) early in the game.
Detroit has juice on the other side of the ball, though, and it looked like Stafford might be in for a big day after he found 35-year-old Anquan Boldin for an early touchdown with Brice McCain in close coverage. That was after one of three Lions touchdowns called back on the day, the second two on consecutive plays in the second quarter, that drive ending in a field goal.
And those were among 17 penalties for 138 yards the Lions, combining with 12 for 83 for the Titans — to Mularkey’s surprise, not an NFL record for combined penalties. That honor goes to a 1951 game between the Browns and Bears, which featured a total of 37. Neither game will rate an NFL Films retrospective at any point.
But the Titans will remember this one fondly. They tightened up on defense and got after Stafford, Brian Orakpo (two sacks) and rookie Kevin Dodd (one sack) and Jurrell Casey (constant pressure, at least one hard hit) leading the way.
The offensive line recovered from the early mistake (Mularkey said the safety was actually on him for changing that play call at the last second, not on right guard Chance Warmack and rookie right tackle Jack Conklin) to keep Mariota clean in the late stages. They smashed some mouths, opening holes for 139 yards on 24 rushes.
And Mariota made big pass after big pass in the fourth quarter, starting with his rope to Delanie Walker to make it 15-10. A week after his pick for a touchdown served as the losing play against the Vikings, he served up several winning ones.
“It’s going to be a huge confidence booster for us this season,” said Mariota, and though left tackle Taylor Lewan said he “cannot stress enough how we cannot overreact to this win,” it could last beyond Sunday.
Winning football can do that. So can losing football. Both organizations know this well, as do the paying spectators who filed quietly out of Ford Field.
Follow Joe Rexrode on Twitter: @joerexrode.