ATLANTA (AP) — Marcus Mariota and the Tennessee Titans enjoyed a surge in confidence after returning to .500 and a share of the AFC South lead.
For Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons, there is only frustration and despair at the bottom of the NFC South.
Mariota threw three first-half touchdown passes, two to A.J. Brown, and the Titans defense had three fourth-down stops to beat the Falcons 24-10 on Sunday.
Tennessee (2-2) used Mariota’s big first half and strong defense to snap a two-game losing streak.
“If we can continue to get better and ascend, we’ll like where we are at the end of the year,” Mariota said after completing 18 of 27 passes for 227 yards. He still has not thrown an interception this season.
Derrick Henry ran for 100 yards to keep Tennessee’s offense balanced.
The Falcons, held to only a field goal in the second half, were unable to maintain drives despite Ryan’s 397 yards passing.
Ito Smith’s 1-yard touchdown run in the first quarter pulled the Falcons (1-3) even at 7-7. Tennessee outscored Atlanta 17-0 the remainder of the half, and the Falcons heard boos as they left the field.
“We’re a quarter way through the season and we have not played to our standard, that’s for sure,” Ryan said.
It was a disappointing loss for Falcons coach Dan Quinn, who is under pressure following a 7-9 finish in 2018.
“It is a tough loss, and we’re as disappointed as our fans are,” Quinn said.
“You better believe we’re going to look at everything. When you’re sitting at 1-3, you want to make sure you’re finding the answers.”
The Falcons were stopped on three fourth-down plays.
Devonta Freeman, who was held to 28 yards on 12 carries, was stopped by Jurrell Casey on a fourth-and-1 run in the second quarter. Ryan was sacked on two fourth-down plays in the second half.
“Those are like turnovers, especially when they’re behind,” said Titans coach Mike Vrabel. “They were going to be going for it and they were aggressive. I thought our guys responded really well.”
Mariota faced growing criticism after managing only one touchdown pass in two straight losses.
Mariota enjoyed a resurgence against the Falcons. He connected with Brown for a 55-yard touchdown pass on Tennessee’s second possession. Brown beat Desmond Trufant and then outran Kemal Ishmael and Deion Jones.
Brown beat Trufant again for an 11-yard scoring catch in the first quarter. Mariota’s 23-yard touchdown pass to Corey Davis late in the half followed the fourth-and-1 stop by Casey on Freeman’s run.
With the game tied at 7-7, Mariota completed a third-and-15 pass over the middle to Corey Davis for 16 yards. The play kept the drive alive that finished with Brown’s second scoring catch, giving the Titans the lead they would never lose.
“It was a huge momentum shift and something that really got us going,” Mariota said.
The Falcons, who trailed 24-7 at halftime, have been outscored 65-10 in the first half of their three losses.
“I wish I had a clear answer to that, but the fact is that’s the truth,” Quinn said. ”… I addressed that last week, but we obviously still have work to do.”
Atlanta’s Matt Bryant missed a 32-yard field-goal attempt late in the first half when the kick hit the left upright. Bryant was good from 42 yards to cap the Falcons’ opening drive of the second half.
Falcons right guard Jamon Brown suffered a concussion in the first quarter and did not return. Wes Schweitzer replaced Brown in the lineup. The line suffered another loss when center Alex Mack left with a left elbow injury in the third quarter. He returned later in the quarter with the elbow heavily wrapped.
Tennessee outside linebacker Cameron Wake and Falcons cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson suffered hamstring and groin injuries, respectively, in the fourth quarter.
PROTECTING THE QB
Mariota praised the protection provided by his offensive line after he was not sacked. It was a dramatic turnaround for the line after Tennessee allowed 17 sacks in its first three games — almost six per game.
“Those guys up front did a great job,” Mariota said.
BOOING THE BIRDS
The announced paid attendance was 72,108, but there were thousands of empty seats. Some Falcons fans booed at halftime and at other points of the game.
“It’s part of it,” Ryan said. “When you’re playing poorly, you’re not giving them much to cheer about. We want to give them something to get loud about. We’ve got to find a way to make plays to get energy in the building going.”
Falcons tight end Austin Hooper had nine catches for 130 yards. Mohamed Sanu had nine catches for 91 yards, but Julio Jones was held to four receptions for 52 yards.
Davis and Brown each came close to 100 yards. Davis had five catches for 91 yards and Brown had 94 yards on three receptions.
Tennessee returns home next Sunday to host the Buffalo Bills. The Titans lead the series 28-18, but Buffalo has won the past two, including a 13-12 home win in 2018.
The Falcons play the first of two straight road games when they travel to Houston to face the Texans. The series is tied 2-2, including Atlanta’s 48-21 home win in 2015.