Titans step past Colts

19-16 win in Indy sets up AFC title game with rival Jaguars

George gains 162 yards

Tennessee slows down Manning, James

January 17, 2000|By PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER

INDIANAPOLIS -- It's time to rewrite the cliche. Modern football is a game of inches, as well as videotape.

The Tennessee Titans advanced to next week's AFC championship game with a 19-16 victory yesterday over the Indianapolis Colts. All it took was Eddie George, tough defense and a little help from technology.

"We won it our way," Titans coach Jeff Fisher said. "It wasn't pretty, but that's the way we do things."

Tennessee will travel to Jacksonville, Fla., next week to decide the AFC representative for the Super Bowl in Atlanta. For the Titans, it's an opportunity to play the biggest game in franchise history against a team they defeated twice during the regular season. Tennessee (15-3) beat the Jaguars, 20-19, in September, then routed its AFC Central rivals, 41-14, in Nashville last month.

Despite those defeats, the Jaguars won the division title, and the Titans had to settle for a wild-card berth. Jacksonville humiliated Miami, 62-7, Saturday to earn the right to play host to the championship game.

"We've been playing catch-up with their team all year," Fisher said. "The records don't mean anything now. This will be a game against two teams who know each other very well."

"Beating a team three times in one year isn't easy," Titans offensive tackle Bruce Matthews said. "But then, there have to be some seeds of doubt planted there, too."

The Titans wouldn't know easy if it walked up and introduced itself. They won their wild-card game against Buffalo with the now-famous "Home Run Lateral" kickoff return in the final seconds. This time, all they had to do was shut down Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison.

"I didn't think 19 would win it coming in," Fisher said. "I thought we'd need somewhere in the neighborhood of 24 or 27 points."

The lasting images from this game will be of George and of Fisher, both dealing with the confluence of basic football and its high-tech accessories.

George completed his pretty 68-yard touchdown run with help from the giant video monitor high above the end zone. He looked up at the screen as he ran toward the end zone, using it like radar to track incoming Colts defenders.

"I looked up to see if guys were behind me and where they were coming from," George said. " I decided I'd better put my head down and trust my speed."

It worked. George's third-quarter touchdown was the first of the game for either team and gave the Titans a 13-9 lead. Tennessee got the ball back and drove down for a field goal to make it 16-9. After that, it was a matter of trying to protect a one-score lead over the most explosive offense in the AFC.

The Titans held James to 56 yards on 20 carries, a 2.8-yard average. They challenged Manning and held the young star to 19 completions in 43 attempts for 227 yards.

"We wanted to be close when they caught the ball and limit the run after the catch," said Fisher.

They succeeded, but it all came within inches and seconds of falling apart. In the fourth quarter, after going three-and-out, Tennessee had to punt from near midfield. The desperate Colts put out an all-out effort to block the punt. Normally, the punt returner will fair-catch such a kick because his blockers have been deployed as rushers.

But there was nothing normal about this play. Indianapolis' Terrence Wilkins fielded the punt at his 10-yard line, while running toward his end zone.

Wilkins turned upfield and ran straight down the right sideline. To get there, he made a nifty move to get outside on Titans linebacker Barron Wortham. Wilkins returned the ball all the way to the Tennessee 3-yard line, an 87-yard return.

But Tennessee players along the sideline thought Wilkins had stepped out of bounds long before that. Fisher frantically pressed the pager that is supposed to signal officials for a replay review.

"My pager didn't work," Fisher said. "I didn't have the alternate red flag in my pocket."

Finally, with the Colts offense lining up to snap the ball, the Titans called time. Referee Johnny Grier watched a replay that clearly showed Wilkins' right foot grazing the sideline way back at the Colts' 34. Grier moved the ball -- and the Colts' chances -- 63 yards farther from the end zone.

"Our coaches felt the call was right that he stepped out of bounds," Colts head coach Jim Mora said. "There is nothing we could do about it."

After Al Del Greco made his fourth field goal of the game to give Tennessee a 19-9 lead, George fumbled the ball away. Indianapolis took advantage, driving down for a touchdown on a 15-yard keeper by Manning.

But Tennessee got the onsidekick and was able to run out the clock.

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