NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Atlanta Falcons had first-and-goal at the Tennessee 1, needing a touchdown to get even with 2 minutes left.
When Albert Haynesworth leaped and turned a toss play into an 8-yard loss, Tennessee’s resilient, stingy defense bailed out sloppy Titans quarterback Vince Young.
Vincent Fuller picked off a pass and returned it 76 yards for a touchdown, and Kyle Vanden Bosch sacked Byron Leftwich with 1:01 left, as the Tennessee Titans overcame five turnovers in pulling out a 20-13 victory Sunday over the Atlanta Falcons.
‘‘When you get on the 1-yard line, you assume that your team is going to put the ball in for seven,’’ Atlanta cornerback DeAngelo Hall said.
The win allowed the Titans (3-1) to continue their best start since 2003 when they last reached the playoffs. This is the fourth 3-1 start under coach Jeff Fisher, and they made the postseason the three previous times.
But it couldn’t have been uglier for a team coming off its bye. Young matched his career high with three interceptions and said he knows he made bad decisions by trying to force some balls.
‘‘Our defense saved this game,’’ Young said.
‘‘The obvious reason we won this game was because of the performance, the consistent performance and never-say-die attitude the defense took throughout the game,’’ Fisher said.
Atlanta (1-4) scored only 13 points off the turnovers and botched plenty of chances to win, including three missed field goals.
‘‘The bottom line is their defensive front controlled the line of scrimmage, and we couldn’t make plays when they were there,’’ Atlanta coach Bobby Petrino said.
Petrino replaced a battered Joey Harrington, who threw for 87 yards, with Leftwich trying to spark the offense in the fourth quarter. Leftwich overthrew open Laurent Robinson in the end zone after Demorrio Williams intercepted Young’s pass with 4:15 to go.
Williams gave Leftwich another shot, breaking through and tackling Titans punter Craig Hentrich at the Tennessee 19 with 2:24 left. That gave Atlanta the ball with 2:24 left, and Warrick Dunn, held to nine yards on his previous nine carries, broke loose for 18.
That was as close as the Falcons would get, and Vanden Bosch’s sack on fourth-and-5 sealed the victory.
Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck said this win showed that Tennessee has all it takes to be a good team.
"As a team, we have to come together and start playing like it,’’ he said. ‘‘We’re 3-1, and it could be a lot worse.’’
Part of Atlanta’s problem was trying — and missing — three long field goals despite having the kicker with the most career field goals in NFL history on the team.
The 47-year-old Morten Andersen was short on a 48-yarder. Michael Koenen, Atlanta’s punter and kicker on long field goals, was short on a 53-yarder in the second and was wide left on a 50-yarder early in the fourth quarter.
‘‘We couldn’t get it done offensively,’’ Petrino said.
That forced the Falcons to try to reach the end zone on those final two drives. The Titans, who have not allowed a point in the fourth quarter this season, shut them out on a steamy afternoon when the temperature was 89 at the end. The Titans hadn’t played since beating New Orleans 31-14 on Sept. 24, and the layoff showed.
They had four or fewer plays on six possessions. They turned over the ball twice in their first three possessions, and Hall picked up LenDale White’s fumble on Tennessee’s opening drive and ran it 56 yards for a TD.
Michael Boley intercepted Young’s pass that led to Andersen’s 32-yard field goal. Andersen also kicked a 28-yarder off another interception by Young for a 13-10 Falcons lead in the third quarter.
The Titans also struggled on special teams, giving up a 49-yard run to Artose Pinner on a fake play that set up Andersen’s first field goal. They later gave up a 76-yard kickoff return to Jerious Norwood, but Andersen came up short on his field goal attempt.
Leftwich, signed Sept. 18 as insurance, was no better. A play after missing Robinson, Titans defensive end Travis LaBoy deflected Leftwich’s pass that was then picked off by linebacker David Thornton.
Young and the offense couldn’t run out the clock, going three-and-out again. The defense bailed them out.
Notes: The Titans are 13-1 against the NFC South. ... Atlanta lineman Wayne Gandy Fuller has interception returns for TDs in consecutive games, both coming off tips. This time, the ball bounced off Falcons WR Michael Jennings’ left hand to Fuller. ... The Titans beat Atlanta for the fifth straight time. ... Tennessee improved to 11-8 after its bye.