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Tennessean writers Joe Rexrode and Jason Wolf break down the Titans’ 24-20 win over the Bengals at Nissan Stadium.
George Walker IV / The Tennessean

They tantalize and they terrify, the Tennessee Titans showing just enough in bursts to stay ahead in all these boring games against AFC North teams, but then self-sabotaging enough to avoid any comfort.

Marcus Mariota throws a perfect pass …

Rishard Matthews drops a sure touchdown.

More: Titans beat Bengals behind Murray’s 3 TDs: 5 quick observations

The Titans score a touchdown after a strip-sack, then force another turnover …

Mariota gives it right back with an interception and the Cincinnati Bengals score on the next play.

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Rookie Corey Davis turns on the jets for a 20-yard touchdown to put his team up 24-13 …

Except he lost the ball short of the goal line, out of bounds for a touchback after replay review.

The Bengals take a 20-17 lead with 5:03 left on a 70-yard A.J. Green catch and run…

And one magical Mariota drive later, all is well again – a 24-20 Titans win Sunday at Nissan Stadium to sit on the mantle next to that 12-9 overtime grinder at Cleveland and that 23-20 escape of Baltimore.

“I’ve been here a long time and we usually wouldn’t win games like that,” Titans linebacker Derrick Morgan said of a team that now makes a living in games like that – 7-0 in games decided by four points or fewer the past two seasons.

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Titans head coach Mike Mularkey and quarterback Marcus Mariota talk about their 24-20 win over the Bengals at Nissan Stadium.
George Walker IV / The Tennessean

“I know I use the word resilient a lot, but that’s, I think, the makeup of this team,” Titans coach Mike Mularkey said. “It’s amazing that they believe in themselves and they just know we always have a chance to win.”

So it’s the same analytical dilemma with these guys that we encounter each week. Love them for finding a way? Hate them for finding a way to make it difficult?

More: Titans’ four-headed rushing monster: Murray, Henry, Mariota, Jackson

At some point you look at a franchise that has four straight wins for the first time since 2009, a team that remains tied for first in an intensifying AFC South race with Jacksonville, a playoff goal that gets closer by the week and a quarterback with all that poise and will and you say: Carry on, fellas.

They won’t beat the top teams in this league with uneven performances like this. They won’t win Thursday in Pittsburgh without a significant uptick. They won’t win a playoff game like this. But the Titans have the ingredients to do all of those things.

And when you can go trial and error in the kitchen and still produce something edible, it’s a lot easier to keep working on it.

More: Titans report card: DeMarco Murray, rushing offense sparkle in victory vs Bengals

“Good teams find a way to win those games, and bad teams find a way to lose them,” Titans linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. “Right now we’re a pretty good team. We’ve just got to continue to get better and peak at the right time, and win the games we should win. Today was a game we should win, and we won it.”

When Green beat cornerback Logan Ryan and took advantage of a bad tackling angle from safety Kevin Byard to give his team its first lead, those outside the Titans’ tree of trust might have had doubts. But Mariota (25-for-44, 264 yards) did his thing. Eight yards to Jonnu Smith. Ten to Eric Decker. A 20-yard bullet to Delanie Walker.

He hit Walker again for 8 yards, then scrambled from a fearsome Bengals pass rush – which sacked him four times and got an additional seven hits on him – for a first down at the Cincy 7 with 50 seconds left. Mariota hurt his left shoulder on the play and, though he said afterward he’s OK, it clearly bothered him during the ensuing timeout. He did not miss a play.

“Marcus, at the end of the day, when his back is against the wall, he’s like a dog,” Walker said. “He’s going to fight. He’s going to fight his way out of it.”

More: Titans 24, Bengals 20: Instant analysis

After two incompletions, DeMarco Murray was the third option on third down and took a swing pass from Mariota just as the pocket was collapsing. Murray juked Bengals cornerback Darqueze Dennard, sneaked under safety Clayton Fejedelem and deftly kept his knees off the grass as he reached the ball past the goal line for his third touchdown of the day.

“Just happiness,” Mariota said of his reaction to the play, and Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan said of his quarterback: “The guy’s unreal.”

He’s had to be, too often.

“That builds character, and to be honest with you, it takes the stress off you,” Woodyard said of all these nail-biters. “Whenever you win a lot of close games, it builds that character and chemistry within your team (so) when you get in that situation you’re like, ‘Hey, I know we’re going to win the game.’”

So, bring on a bunch more like this?

“Heck no.”

Reach Joe Rexrode at jrexrode@tennessean.com and follow him on Twitter @joerexrode.

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