Rams, Titans make final leap

Running of McNair, defense lift Tennessee over Jacksonville, 33-14

Titans force 6 turnovers

Wild-card team caps 3-game sweep of Jags

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January 24, 2000|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Tennessee Titans spent the whole season chasing the Jacksonville Jaguars. Yesterday, in a second-half surge that bordered on the comedic, they left the Jaguars in their Super Bowl dust.

Milking big plays out of a gimpy Steve McNair and turnovers out of their ravenous defense, the Titans advanced to Super Bowl XXXIV with a 33-14 victory over the Jaguars in the AFC championship game at ALLTEL Stadium.

They became the sixth wild-card team in NFL history to reach the Super Bowl, and the first to achieve a daunting three-game season sweep over a division foe on the road.

They'll face the St. Louis Rams, who beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 11-6, for the NFC championship, next Sunday in Atlanta's Georgia Dome.

"When people said there was no way we could win three times against the same team, we never batted an eye," said Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher.

In an NFL season of never-ending surprises, the Titans (16-3) proved they could reach the Super Bowl with a running quarterback and without a deep passing game.

Despite a nagging turf toe injury on his left foot, McNair hurt the Jaguars as much with his legs as his arm. He rushed for 91 yards and two touchdowns, and passed for 112 and one.

Against a defense geared to stop running back Eddie George, McNair made the offensive plays that made the difference.

"They say, `Dare McNair,' " said Tennessee safety Blaine Bishop. "He was going to do whatever it takes to win the game. He's learned a lot. People are going to have to start respecting him for his running ability, and tackle him as a tailback, not a quarterback."

In three playoff games, McNair has rushed for 145 yards and passed for 300. He has three touchdowns rushing, one passing. Yesterday, at least, his performance fell under the category of taking what the defense gives you.

"We're all professionals," McNair said. "If they try to take one part of our game away, we always have something else. We knew what it would take to win, whether I had to run the ball or pass."

In an improbable journey to the championship, the Titans took a familiar path in beating the Jaguars (15-3). They forced six turnovers -- for a total of 13 in the three-game sweep -- and made big plays in the kicking game.

After Jacksonville nursed a 14-10 lead into halftime, the momentum turned dramatically within a five-minute span.

On Tennessee's first offensive series, McNair's improvisation turned a potential sack into a 30-yard play.

Rolling away from blitzing linebacker Kevin Hardy, McNair flipped a short pass to George, then took a late hit from defensive end Tony Brackens. The pass netted 15 yards to the 50 and the roughing-the-passer penalty moved the ball to Jacksonville's 35.

"It was just a one-man route for the tight end," McNair said. "We wanted to give the guys a great fake to Eddie and hopefully the defense would bite on it. The cornerback and the safety didn't bite, so I had to make something happen."

A 28-yard pass interference penalty against Fernando Bryant two plays later put the Titans in scoring position. On second-and-goal, after forcing the Jaguars to waste a timeout with a no-huddle offense, McNair followed right guard Benji Olson into the end zone. Tennessee had its first lead, 17-14.

Oddly, the game turned after what appeared to be a great defensive stand for Jacksonville.

The Titans took the first of four second-half Jaguars turnovers inside the 10. On second-and-goal from the 9, tight end Frank Wycheck took a short pass and powered his way for the end zone.

But he was hit first by safety Carnell Lake, then stripped by Hardy, and the fumble was recovered by linebacker Lonnie Marts at the Jacksonville 1.

Tennessee rebounded from the adversity; Jacksonville did not recover from the field position.

After barely escaping a safety on a first-down run by Fred Taylor, the Jaguars gave up a safety on second down when quarterback Mark Brunell was sacked in the end zone. That made it 19-14.

Then, utter disaster for the team with the best record in the NFL this season.

On the ensuing kickoff, Derrick Mason sidestepped an over-pursuing Jason Craft and was off for an 80-yard touchdown return. That made it 26-14.

When Jacksonville failed to complete a fourth-and-two pass at the Tennessee 36, with a blitzing Bishop in Brunell's face, the Jaguars collapsed.

They picked up seven penalties for 83 yards in the second half, finishing with a season-high 100 yards of infractions. Brunell threw two interceptions and lost a fumble.

"We know what the formula is to beat this team," Jacksonville coach Tom Coughlin said. "But we end up three games against Tennessee this year minus-7 [in turnovers]. You have to give them credit. They played hard and well."

A 23-0 second half produced the Titans' fourth straight win against the Jaguars, and their fifth in six games here.

Forget about Music City Miracles and luck.

The Titans are in heady territory because they're able to win with a running quarterback and an opportunistic defense.

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