Can Titans pass toughest test?

Wild-card Tennessee looking for more magic against Jacksonville

Championship Sunday

January 23, 2000|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

The Tennessee Titans beat the Buffalo Bills with a 75-yard kickoff return on a cross-field lateral in the final minute.

They beat the Indianapolis Colts with an instant-replay reversal that wiped out an 87-yard Terrence Wilkins punt return to the Tennessee 3.

What's next, a 99-yard interception return on a carom off the goal post in the waning seconds to earn the franchise's first Super Bowl berth?

If nothing else, the Titans have shown the grittiness to survive as an NFL wild card this postseason. Now comes their biggest test. Now come the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The 15-3 Titans will play "Can you top this?" one more time today in the AFC championship game against the 15-2 Jaguars at ALLTEL Stadium. The winner advances to Atlanta for Super Bowl XXXIV, and the loser dreams of what might have been.

Although they are seven-point underdogs, the Titans may be up to it. They've won six in a row and are playing like the fireball on their helmets. The D word has even surfaced: destiny. Coach Jeff Fisher doesn't buy it, though.

"It's not destiny," he said. "It's called winning games."

Could the Titans become the sixth wild-card team in history to reach the Super Bowl? Stranger things have happened.

These are 10 pivotal factors that will influence today's championship game.

1. Clash of the premier backs

The Titans are going to pound away with Pro Bowl running back Eddie George, averaging 4.9 yards a carry in the postseason. The Jaguars are going to counter with their playmaker, Fred Taylor, who delivered a pair of highlight-reel touchdowns last week against the Miami Dolphins, including a 90-yard run.

These are two of the best young running backs in the league. Taylor, the more spectacular of the two, is most dangerous cutting back, and George is a north-south runner capable of the big play -- like last week's 68-yard touchdown run.

The Titans are 19-5 in four years when George runs for 100 yards, including 7-0 this season. The Jaguars are 10-1 in Taylor's two seasons when he hits 100.

2. Dare McNair

That was Jacksonville's strategy against quarterback Steve McNair on Dec. 26 -- load up against the run and force the Titans to win with the pass. McNair threw for 291 yards and five touchdowns in a 41-14 Tennessee waltz. It was the best game of his five-year career.

But McNair has been far too inconsistent and far too predictable in the passing game. Eight of his 12 touchdown passes came in just two games. In six of 11 regular-season starts, he did not throw for a touchdown. He rarely uses the deep middle of the field and often loses track of his wide receivers.

Do the Jaguars drop more into coverage this time or dare McNair to do it again?

3. Get out the broom

The Titans swept the regular-season series and now must beat the Jaguars for a third time to advance. It's been done before -- as recently as 1994 when the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Cleveland Browns for a third time in the playoffs -- but never on the road.

Who has the advantage because of Tennessee's sweep? The Titans because of the confidence factor? Or the Jaguars because of the revenge motive?

"They owned us during the regular season, but we've learned from our mistakes and we've got them now," Jaguars wide receiver Jimmy Smith said.

4. Road warriors

The Titans have won four of five games in Jacksonville, so ALLTEL is not exactly a house of horrors to them. The Jaguars are virtually unbeatable at home against everybody else, winning 30 of their past 34 there.

History says it's not uncommon to win on the road in the AFC championship game. The visiting team has won three of the past seven AFC title games: Denver won in Pittsburgh at the end of the 1997 season; San Diego won in Pittsburgh in 1994; and Buffalo won in Miami in 1992.

5. Gimping along

Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell used to be a pretty nifty runner, but now he wears braces on two damaged knees and isn't nearly as mobile. Along with it, his production in the pocket is way down.

Brunell threw only 14 touchdown passes this season, the lowest total of his five-year career. He failed to throw for a touchdown in six of his 15 starts. He threw for two touchdowns against Miami last week before leaving with a big lead in the second quarter.

6. Attack of the tight ends

In lieu of a deep passing attack, the Titans use a short, controlled game that features tight ends Frank Wycheck and Jackie Harris. Wycheck, a one-time Maryland standout, led the team in catches the past four years.

In two playoff games, Wycheck and Harris have combined for 11 catches, compared with 10 for the team's wide receivers. In Tennessee's 41-14 romp over the Jaguars in Week 16, tight ends caught 13 passes for 140 yards and two touchdowns. It's a position to watch today.

7. R-e-s-p-e-c-t

The Jaguars have been bristling over the season-long criticism of their weak schedule. They did not beat a team that finished the season with a winning record.

"We read," Smith said. "We don't [get] a lot of respect. But if we win the Super Bowl, we'll shut all that down."

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