Tennessee moves forward

Kickoff lateral play gives Titans stunning 22-16 win over Bills

Wycheck toss ruled legal

Dyson's 75-yard dash foils late Buffalo rally

January 09, 2000|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Seven years after the most ignominious defeat in franchise history, the Tennessee Titans got even with the Buffalo Bills.

It took a tortured relocation, a stunning revival and one of the most controversial finishes in NFL playoff history, but the Titans finally exorcised the ghost of playoffs past.

It took a 75-yard kickoff return by Kevin Dyson off a razzle-dazzle desperation play to knock the Bills out in the AFC wild-card round, 22-16, before a record crowd of 66,782 yesterday at Adelphia Coliseum.

The franchise's first playoff win since 1991 put the Titans in next week's divisional round with a 14-3 record and five straight wins. They'll play at Jacksonville or Indianapolis, pending the outcome of today's wild-card game between the Miami Dolphins and Seattle Seahawks.

The ultimate irony in yesterday's bizarre finish was that it came seven years after the Titans -- then the Houston Oilers -- blew a 35-3 lead to the Bills and dropped a 41-38 overtime decision in Buffalo.

Payback was surreal. It was Buffalo, depleted by injuries and playing a quarterback who had started only one game all season, taking a 16-15 lead with 16 seconds left on a 41-yard field goal by Steve Christie.

But on the ensuing kickoff, the Titans resorted to the kind of gadgetry that almost never works. This time it did.

The play was called "Home Run Throwback."

Lorenzo Neal fielded Christie's short, high kickoff at the 24, ran right for 1 yard and lateralled to Frank Wycheck.

Wycheck pulled up, then threw an overhand pass to Dyson along the sideline. Behind a caravan of blockers, Dyson ran untouched down the sideline. The last man with a shot at him was Christie, and the kicker never got close.

"The only thing left was the kicker," Dyson said. "If I can't beat the kicker, I shouldn't be in the NFL."

The play never should have happened for another reason, however. The lateral from Wycheck to Dyson was dangerously close to being a forward pass that would have negated the run.

While both teams stood in suspended animation, referee Phil Luckett reviewed the play on the sideline TV monitor. He returned to the field to announce the touchdown stood as called.

Later, Luckett defended the call of line judge Byron Boston.

"The line judge's initial ruling was that it was not a forward pass," he said. "We went to the instant replay. Taking from where the pass left the passer's hand right on that yard line, the receiver catches it right there on that yard line [the 25-yard line]. It did not appear to be a forward pass, therefore it is not a foul."

For the second year in a row, the Bills (11-6) were victimized in a wild-card loss by questionable officiating. A year ago, they lost to the Miami Dolphins after a suspect goal-line call.

Yesterday was more of the same. In the first half, officials refused to review a seeming catch by Peerless Price that would have prolonged a drive, but took more than five minutes to overturn another call to give Tennessee a first down. The Titans eventually got a field goal on that drive.

The Bills were too stunned to argue about the game-turning play.

"He caught that ball, but I really can't say where he was at," said Bills quarterback Rob Johnson, who replaced a demoted Doug Flutie for the second straight game. "I hope all their calls were right."

The Titans insisted the kickoff return was.

"I knew I got back," Dyson said. "I made sure I got back."

Dyson wasn't supposed to be on the field for the return. He had not returned a kickoff for the Titans in two years.

But Derrick Mason -- the man who practiced taking the lateral -- had a concussion and was out of the game.

"I was lining up and they're still explaining it," said Dyson, a first-round pick in 1998. "I thought it was going the other way and Ike [Isaac Byrd] said no, it was coming left."

The play was designed by special team coach Alan Lowry, and the Titans practice it once a week, the day before a game.

"You never think you'll actually use it in a game," said Wycheck, a former Maryland star. "But you've got to have it in there."

The Titans expected a squib kick from Christie, but got a pooch kick instead.

"In practice we always run it and the defense knows what we're doing, and it works," said Neal. "Unbelievable."

"But," said Wycheck, "we're not doing it against live competition.

"I've never made a bad throw [in practice]. I've got to get it to him. I can't bounce it. I catch it, sell it, throw it."

One play made up for an afternoon of nondescript offense. The Titans played a conservative field-position game, and turned Eddie George loose on the No. 1 defense in the NFL.

George rushed for 106 yards, averaging 3.7 a carry, while quarterback Steve McNair's passing game went short and flat.

McNair completed 13 of 24 passes for only 76 yards and one interception. He scored Tennessee's only offensive touchdown on a 1-yard bootleg in the second quarter.

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