Work in Sports
McNair threw for a career-high 341 yards and Al Del Greco's 33-yard field goal with eight seconds to play put the exclamation point on a late fourth-quarter rally as the Titans christened their new look and new stadium with a 36-35 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
Tennessee (1-0) played at Commodore Stadium on the campus of Vanderbilt University last season. But the team formerly known as the Oilers went 3-5 there, including close losses to San Diego, Jacksonville and Chicago by a combined 14 points that contributed to its third straight 8-8 season.
The Bengals (0-1) seemed poised to add themselves to the list of happy visitors to "Music City," rallying from a 26-7 first-half deficit to take a 35-26 lead after a 38-yard field goal by Doug Pelfrey with 7:56 to play.
But McNair's third touchdown pass of the game, a 17-yarder to running back Eddie George, cut the deficit to 35-33 with 4:30 to play. The Titans got a stop on defense and a clutch punt return by Yancey Thigpen, who raced 21 yards to give Tennessee the ball at midfield with 2:24 to go.
McNair went 3-for-3 for 22 yards on the drive and scrambled for a pair of first downs. George had a key nine-yard run to the Cincinnati 17 before McNair gained two yards and moved the ball to the middle of the field.
"We went into the game with the intention of running the ball more, but it was a situation where they dared us to throw it and we did," Titans coach Jeff Fisher said.
After the Bengals called time out to ice Del Greco, he barely pulled the 33-yard attempt inside the left goalpost. It was his 13th game-winning field goal.
It was a far cry from early in the third quarter, when the blown 19-point lead elicited boos from the crowd of 65,272 at McNair, who had done nothing wrong to incur their wrath.
"It gave me even motivation to come out and get the job done," McNair said about the boos. "Overall, I think we did good in the first half and made a big mess in the second half to get in a big hole."
"I just don't understand it, the guy was having a great game," Titans tight end Frank Wycheck added. "I don't know how they justify booing a player like that. He was playing his heart out. It baffles me, but when Steve came into the huddle, we were all for him. He's a competitor, he just goes out and we know he's going to win the game for us."
Cincinnati had a last-gasp chance to win after Craig Hentrich's kickoff scooted out of bounds. Rookie Akili Smith, who played most of the fourth quarter after Jeff Blake left with an undisclosed injury to his right leg, had an 11-yard completion to Tony McGee to the Tennessee 49.
But Smith's "Hail Mary" pass barely fell incomplete, just out of the reach of rookie Craig Yeast.
Blake completed 18-of-31 passes for 182 yards with two interceptions and two touchdowns, but added 90 yards rushing on 11 attempts. Smith, who was the last of the five first-round quarterbacks to sign, only threw the two passes on the final possession.
It was McNair's second 300-yard game, the other coming against Jacksonville on December 8, 1996.
"I can't say enough (about McNair)," added Fisher. "He's taken some criticism this preseason and after playing only about a half, he comes out and puts up career numbers."
McNair became the first person to score at Adelphia Coliseum, dashing from one yard less than two minutes into the game.
Cincinnati chose to be methodical on its first possession, using 14 plays and 7:36 of the clock before Corey Dillon bulled in from a yard.
The teams traded turnovers, but an interception and 27-yard return by Denard Walker to the Cincinnati 24 gave the Titans better field position. McNair found Kevin Dyson twice on three pass attempts, the last for 13 yards and a 14-7 lead.
The Titans grabbed a 16-7 lead after Will Brice's punt was blocked out of the end zone. Del Greco hammered a 50-yard field goal after the free kick, and Dainon Sidney picked off a pass by Blake and gave Tennessee the ball at its own 46. McNair hooked up with Dyson again, this time from 47 yards to give the Titans a 26-7 cushion with 5:32 left in the half.
"I think this came because we got off to the wrong start early, but I would have loved to gone back to Cincinnati with a win," Bengals linebacker Taeko Spikes.
Cincinnati finally snapped out of its funk as Blake engineered a 77-yard drive that Ki-Jana Carter ended with a two-yard scoring run. The momentum swung the Bengals way after Thigpen fumbled following a 30-yard reception as Greg Myers raced 21 yards with the recovery to the Bengals 39 with 1:12 left.
Blake went 6-for-8 in the hurry-up offense and pulled Cincinnati within 26-21 on a three-yard TD toss to Tony McGee with six seconds left.
Cincinnati took the second-half kickoff 65 yards as Blake found Brian Milne with a 17-yard scoring strike and the two-point conversion to give the Bengals a 29-26 lead 4:23 into the third quarter.
Pelfrey booted field goals of 33 and 38 yards in a 2:19 span of the fourth quarter before the Titans started their rally.