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Making some noise

Tennessee a great unknown as NFL playoffs begin

Click here for more on this story

Posted: Tuesday January 11, 2000 11:06 AM

  Friendly faces: Eddie George and the Titans have yet to lose in Adelphia Coliseum. AP

By John Donovan, CNNSI.com

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans have won some huge games this year. They beat arguably the best team in the NFL -- twice. They beat the league's beloved St. Louis Rams.

They have one of the best running backs around, and maybe the best defensive end in football. Right now, the Titans are playing as well as they have all year. Maybe better. Maybe better than anyone.

But ... well, there's always a but.

When the NFL playoffs start Saturday and the football-mad city of Nashville hosts its first playoff game ever, the Titans -- 13-3 and in the playoffs for the first time since they were the Houston Oilers in 1993 -- will have some convincing to do.

"I'm not sure we've answered the questions," admits Floyd Reese, the general manager of the Titans. "But I think we've shown we can do it."

The Titans roll into the playoffs as one of the great unknowns, a team that barreled its way to the best record in the history of the franchise, yet still became the first team to win 13 games and not win its division. Their season seemingly came out of nowhere, after three straight 8-8 years and a painfully long move from the Astrodome to Adelphia Coliseum.

 
In an NFL season where anything goes -- and almost anything has -- the Tennessee Titans have emerged as a bonafide Super Bowl contender. CNNSI.com recently spent a week in Nashville to get an inside look at the quietest 13-3 team in football.
The Stories 
  • Home at last
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  • Air no more
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    45 seconds with Jevon Kearse 
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    The Titans, in fact, are one of the most dangerous teams in these playoffs. They handed the Jacksonville Jaguars their only two losses of the season and they beat maybe the NFC's best team, too, handing the Rams a 24-21 loss on Oct. 31.

    But ... their three losses came to two teams that didn't make the playoffs, San Francisco and Baltimore, and one that maybe shouldn't have, the Miami Dolphins.

    Except for a surge in their last three games, the Titans have done little convincingly. Their first 10 wins were by an average of 6.3 points. Five of those were by a field goal or less.

    "We've turned the corner, as far as learning how to win," Eddie George, the team's Pro Bowl running back, said recently. "But as far as our offense, we haven't even scratched the surface yet. We haven't put that double-headed monster into full effect yet."

    The Titans' offense relies on George and the ground game, but for that to work, the passing game needs to be a threat, and few opponents have feared it this season. Quarterback Steve McNair has been bothered with injuries, missing five games after an early season back operation. His best deep threat, Yancey Thigpen, also has lost time to injuries.

    Still, the Titans have had their moments. In a 41-14 romp over the Jaguars on the day after Christmas, McNair threw for a career-high five touchdown passes. They put up 47 points in the finale against Pittsburgh. Their offensive line, solid all season, allowed only 25 sacks this season, third in the league.

    "I think we feel better in that our quarterback is back to the level that he was prior to the injury," Reese says. "We had thought all along if we could get back to that level, we could be contenders."

    Tennessee's defense, with rookie pass-rushing stud Jevon Kearse, has been unstoppable at times, mediocre at others. They have forced 40 turnovers and are +18 in turnover margin this season, second in the NFL. But coach Jeff Fisher says they've dropped at least 25 sure interceptions.

    Critics point out that the Titans seem to play to the level of their competition, that they lack the ability to put people away. Those questions may have been answered in the team's last three games, when the Titans averaged better than 39 points a game.

    The 27-point rout of Jacksonville in Week 16 was probably the best game the Titans have played all season.

    "When it comes down to it," safety Marcus Robertson says, "I think we're a really good team."

    The Eight's Long Wait
    Here's a look at the Titans who were Oilers when the franchise last made the postseason, in 1993.
    Name  Yr  The skinny 
    Blaine Bishop  SS  Third on team with 75 stops 
    Joe Bowden  LB  51 tackles, 3.5 sacks as starter 
    Al Del Greco  16-18 inside 40, 5-7 outside 
    Brad Hopkins  LT  Started all 16 games 
    Steve Jackson  CB  Backup provides vet leadership 
    Bruce Matthews  LG  17  NFL record for games by OL 
    Marcus Robertson  FS  Second in tackles with 76 
    Eddie Robinson  LB  First in tackles with 79 
    Yr=Years with team
    Robinson spent '96 and '97 in Jacksonville
     

    How far can the Titans go? The Titans are unbeaten at Adelphia this season, and when playoff tickets went on sale for the game against Buffalo on Saturday, 12,000 tickets were scooped up in 18 minutes. A loud home crowd never hurts.

    If that helps them get past the Bills, the Titans may end up having to get past both Jacksonville and Indianapolis, both on the road. A tall order, to be sure, but neither of those teams is playing as well right now as the Titans.

    In fact, the Titans -- like the rest of the NFL -- see these playoffs as an anyone-can-win affair.

    "This year, there doesn't appear to be that one giant hurdle out there," Reese says. "There's not the 49ers in their heyday. You don't have Green Bay coming off a couple Super Bowls. You don't have Denver coming off two straight.

    "The field's pretty wide open."

    Maybe. But ...


     
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