This time, there was no need for any late-game miracles, no need for a critical instant replay decision. The Tennessee Titans silenced any doubters with a dominating second-half performance in the AFC championship game today and demonstrated once and for all that three strikes and you're out really does apply to the self-destructing Jacksonville Jaguars.
With quarterback Steve McNair running wild and their defense forcing six turnovers, the Titans found yet another way to win. Their 33-14 rout of the AFC Central champion Jaguars pushed Tennessee into the Super Bowl for the first time in the history of the franchise, which began play in the old American Football League in 1960.
Playing on a sore toe that forced him to miss his team's last practice, McNair scored twice on quarterback sneaks, threw for another touchdown and finished as the Titans' leading rusher with 91 yards on nine breathtaking carries. Those heroics helped lead a flurry of 26 unanswered points that silenced a record crowd at Alltel Stadium and allowed the Titans (16-3) to beat the Jaguars (15-3) for the third time this season.
"All week long, people were saying we couldn't win three in a row from those guys," Tennessee cornerback Samari Rolle said. "We never believed that. No one gave us a chance, except us, and look where we're going now."
The Titans were going back to Nashville to a hero's welcome in a town that has finally embraced them three years after owner Bud Adams moved the Houston Oilers franchise to Tennessee. The Titans depart for Atlanta on Monday to begin preparations to play the St. Louis Rams, another relocated franchise (from Los Angeles).
The Titans got there the hard way. They needed a 75-yard kickoff return with 16 seconds to play to beat Buffalo in the opening round of the playoffs. Last week, a favorable second-half replay review negated a long Indianapolis punt return that ultimately allowed Tennessee to prevail. And today, another key special teams play--an 80-yard kickoff return by Derrick Mason late in the third quarter--broke open the game. It also broke the will of the error-prone Jaguars and the hearts of their disbelieving fans.
Mason's score gave the Titans a 26-14 lead and concluded a strange series of events that began when Titans tight end Frank Wycheck, struggling for extra yards and the end zone with a short pass, had the ball stripped from his arms by Kevin Hardy. It was recovered at the Jacksonville 1 by the Jaguars' Lonnie Marts.
On first down, Jaguars running back Fred Taylor was nearly tackled in the end zone. On second down, quarterback Mark Brunell dropped back to throw, but was swarmed from all sides and dropped for a safety by defensive tackles Josh Evans and Jason Fisk, giving the Titans a 19-14 lead with 5 minutes 13 seconds left in the quarter.
Jacksonville's Bryan Barker punted the ensuing kick, a low line drive, to the Titans 20, where Mason fielded the ball. Jaguars defenders Jason Craft and Brant Boyer both missed tackles, and Mason burst through the middle, got a block from Isaac Byrd on Barker and ran untouched to the end zone for a touchdown with 4:56 left in the quarter.
"I just saw a lot of green grass in the end zone. I made one guy miss and just took it to the hole," Mason said. "Ike Byrd was the last guy with me, and he took out the kicker. Then I cut inside with him. These guys were determined to get me to the end zone. We made up our mind we were going to get it into the end zone by any means necessary."
From there, the Titans' defense took over. On fourth and two at the Tennessee 36, they blitzed Brunell into a hurried pass just beyond the reach of wide receiver Jimmy Smith.
On their next three series, the desperate Jaguars punted once, fumbled, then had a a pass intended for Keenan McCardell intercepted by nickel back Donald Mitchell at the Titans 39--the final blow with 9:12 remaining in the game.
Three plays later, on third and one, McNair took off on the biggest scramble of his life. He was hoping to throw a short pass to Wycheck, but when he saw his tight end covered, McNair dashed down the middle of the field, stumbling the last five yards before going down at the 1 after a 51-yard gain.
"It was just a one-man route for the tight end," McNair said. "We wanted to give the guys a great fake [to running back Eddie George] and hope the defense would bite on it. The cornerback and the safety didn't bite, so I had to make something happen. We wanted to keep the chains moving because we felt if we scored points then, the game was just about over. We wanted to get the first down, but evidently, I got more than that."
The Titans won their 16th game of the season with essentially the same formula they've used all year--a patient running game, improvised plays from McNair, a relentless pass rush, forced turnovers and strong special teams play. They were the only team the Jaguars couldn't beat all season, mostly because Jacksonville gave away 13 turnovers in the three games.
"However it happens, when we play Tennessee, we get a little out of our element and we turn the ball over . . . ," Jaguars Coach Tom Coughlin said. "We always talk about that, and we know it going in. We know the key issues are rushing and turnovers, and we lost the battle of the turnovers."
The Titans, meanwhile, lost two key players today and still managed to prevail. Starting free safety Marcus Robertson broke his ankle in the first half and a few minutes later, wide receiver Yancey Thigpen suffered a hairline fracture of his toe. Robertson won't play in the Super Bowl, and Thigpen will be hard-pressed to make it as well.
But even without them, the Titans rarely missed a beat in the second half in which they outscored the Jaguars 23-0 as Brunell completed only 12 of his 26 passes for 127 yards after halftime.
"When people said there's no way you're going to win three times against the same team, we never batted an eye all week," said Titans Coach Jeff Fisher. "When people said the Jaguars were looking forward to playing us again, nobody batted an eye. . . . When the odds were against us week after week, they kept fighting and found a way."