Last week, the Tennessee Titans used a miracle play to win their first-round playoff game against the Buffalo Bills. Today, the Titans returned to conventional earthly means, featuring a 68-yard touchdown run by Eddie George early in the second half and old-fashioned defense, to hold off the Indianapolis Colts, 19-16, and advance to the AFC championship game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
George's touchdown was the only one of the game until Colts quarterback Peyton Manning ran 15 yards on a broken play with 1 minute 51 seconds remaining. But the ensuing onside kickoff was grabbed by the Titans' Yancey Thigpen. Quarterback Steve McNair knelt down on the last two plays as the Colts watched the seconds tick off their exceptional season.
Third-seeded in the AFC playoffs, the Titans (15-3) have beaten the conference's fourth-seeded team, Buffalo, and the second-seeded Colts. Now they will take on top-ranked Jacksonville with its 15-2 record topped by its 62-7 embarrassment of Miami.
Although it hardly could be classified as a "miracle" play to match the short lateral, the cross-field lateral and touchdown run that turned defeat to victory last week over Buffalo, the Titans benefited immensely today by a key referee's decision with 9:25 to play and leading by only 16-9. Instant replay showed that the Colts' Terrence Wilkins had stepped out of bounds on a stirring sideline return that would have gone for 87 yards, to the Titans 3-yard line.
"It was a huge swing," Colts Coach Jim Mora said. "Instead of getting the ball on the 3, we're back on our 34. But our coaches thought he stepped out of bounds. It was a good call."
The RCA Dome, crammed with 57,097 and for most of the afternoon as noisy as the Indianapolis Speedway, fell silent as referee Johnny Grier studied the replay of the run by Wilkins, the free agent rookie from Washington and the University of Virginia.
When Grier announced the reversal, Tennessee's record on critical instant-replay decisions in its last two games went to 2-0--the controversial lateral having been upheld last week at home in Nashville and Wilkins's run that would have set up a potential tying touchdown for Indianapolis reversed in the Titans' favor today.
Jacksonville's only two losses have come against Tennessee, so the Titans may well need more good fortune in Florida to sustain their string of victories, now at six.
"It's really hard to beat the same team three times in a row in the same season," said Thigpen.
But Al Del Greco, who kicked four field goals today, expressed confidence. "We've had success down there, and if history repeats itself we will go to Atlanta," he said of the Super Bowl. "Our plan today was to run the ball a lot and keep their offense off the field."
"You've got to give credit to Tennessee," said Mora, who again failed to record a playoff victory after four previous losses in New Orleans. "They outplayed us. Not by much, but they outplayed us.
"Their defense played well against our offense. They give you a lot of different looks and we had a hard time getting anything going, running or passing. Our defense played pretty well, except for that one run by George.
"I'm proud of our team, to win 13 games and win the AFC East. We'll be back. I'm confident of that. We'll be back."
The 6-foot-3, 240-pound George carried 26 times for 162 yards, but the Colts' outstanding rookie, Edgerrin James, was held to 56 yards on 20 attempts. Manning completed 19 of 43 passes for 227 yards, his lowest percentage of the season, as Tennessee's pass defense contained him almost as well as the front line checked James.
George's big burst was a run of beauty as he darted over left tackle and into a gaping hole, charging straight forward to the goal line on the third play from scrimmage in the second half. He even checked out the replay screen en route to see if anyone was catching up to him.
His performance particularly satisfied Titans Coach Jeff Fisher.
"Ten minutes before we went out for warmups, Jeff pulled me aside and he asked me to relive draft day back in 1995," George said. "He told me to remember why he drafted me, and that was because he felt I could lead this team to the brink of where we are now. He challenged me to live up to those expectations."
The dramatic run gave Tennessee a 13-9 lead after Indianapolis had held a 9-6 advantage at halftime in a conservative battle resulting only in field goals. The Colts' Mike Vanderjagt hit two from 40 yards and another from 34, while the Titans' Del Greco connected from 49 and 37.
After George's touchdown, Del Greco added two more field goals, of 25 and 43 yards. A weary George turned over the ball on a fumble with 3:11 to play at the Colts 39-yard line, but by the time Manning moved the Colts to their lone touchdown they needed a "miracle" of their own on the onside kick. It was not to be.
"We had some spurts, but we never put a whole drive together," said Manning, who spent the afternoon faced with an unfriendly pursuit led by rookie end Jevon Kearse. "They mixed it up well on defense--blitzes, playing some man-to-man, playing some zone.
"I don't know that it was one thing that we didn't do, but it certainly it wasn't our best day. I felt as confident as ever coming into this game. But we never had that big play that you need in these playoff games."