Posted: Sunday January 16, 2000 10:06 PM
INDIANAPOLIS (Ticker) -- Eddie George and Al Del Greco carried the offense and the defense kept the "Big Three" in check, giving the Tennessee Titans their first trip to the AFC championship game in 20 years.
George rushed for a franchise playoff-record 162 yards, including a 68-yard touchdown, and Del Greco kicked four field goals to lead the Titans to a 19-16 victory over the Indianapolis Colts in the first-ever playoff game at Indianapolis.
"About 10 minutes before we went out for warmups, Jeff (coach Jeff Fisher) pulled me aside and asked me to relive draft day in 1995," George said. "He told me to remember why he drafted me, and that was because he felt I could lead this team to the brink of where we are now. He challenged me to live up to those expectations."
The Titans (15-3), who own the best record of any wild card team in NFL history, reached the conference title game for the first time since the-then Houston Oilers advanced in 1979.
Tennessee will play the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team they defeated twice during the regular season, in the AFC championship game next Sunday at Jacksonville.
"We are going to the championship game," Del Greco shouted. "We have had success down there (in Jacksonville) and if history repeats itself we will go to Atlanta (Super Bowl site)."
After needing a miracle 75-yard kick return by Kevin Dyson off a lateral from Frank Wycheck to beat Buffalo, 22-16, in last week's wild card round, the Titans dominated for most of the second half today.
On the third play from scrimmage in the third quarter, George broke off a 68-yard TD run up the middle to put Tennessee ahead for good at 13-9. He ran behind left guard, moved to his right and raced up the middle, where he outran safety Chad Cota and cornerback Jeff Burris into the end zone.
"Eddie's touchdown run was the one and only big play today and fortunately it came on our side of the ball," said Titans quarterback Steve McNair. "Eddie ran hard all day."
Del Greco kicked field goals of 25 and 43 yards in the fourth quarter to increase Tennessee's lead to 19-9.
The Titans were helped by a coach's challenge when Indianapolis' Terrence Wilkins returned a kickoff 87 yards to the Tennessee 3 after Del Greco's first field goal in the fourth quarter. However, the play was reversed when replays showed Wilkins stepped out of bounds at the Indianapolis 34.
"That was a huge swing," said Colts coach Jim Mora, who slipped to 0-5 in the postseason. "What else can you say? To have the opportunity to have the ball at the 3-yard line and to move back to the 33 hurt our momentum. Our coaches felt the call was right that he stepped out of bounds."
Mora remains the only coach with more than 100 regular season victories never to win a playoff game. His previous four postseason losses came as coach of the New Orleans Saints.
The Colts stacked the line to contain the 6-3, 240-pound back, but George still grinded out 94 yards on 25 carries along with the 68-yard touchdown. The Titans are 7-0 when George rushes for 100 or more yards this season. He had 106 yards on 29 carries in last week's win over Buffalo.
The Titans kept Indianapolis' "Big Three" of quarterback Peyton Manning, running back Edgerrin James and receiver Marvin Harrison out of the end zone until Manning scored the Colts' only touchdown on a 15-yard run with 1:51 left.
However, Yancey Thigpen caught the ensuing onside kick and Tennessee ran out the clock.
"Our whole defense played well," said Fisher. "They attacked the run game, they tackled. You have to against a team with the kind of people that they put on offense."
Mike Vanderjagt, who booted 26 straight field goals to close the season, had kicks of 40, 40 and 34 yards in the first half for Indianapolis (13-4).
Manning completed 19-of-43 passes for 227 yards without a touchdown. He was just 4-of-16 for 42 yards in the fourth quarter.
"Tennessee is a really good team," Manning said. "They did a good job on the game plan. They mixed it up well. They played zone and some man-to-man. It's hard to pinpoint one thing, but this was certainly not our best day, either."
James, the NFL's first rookie rushing champion since Eric Dickerson in 1983, was held to 56 yards on 20 carries and caught just one pass for eight yards.
"They did a lot of blitzing to keep me in," said James, who dropped a number of passes. "I wasn't able to get out on the pass route as much as I wanted to. I had to do a lot of blocking and wasn't able to play that side of the game."
Harrison, the NFL's receiving yardage leader, was covered by star cornerback Samari Rolle and faced double teams most of the game. He finished with five catches for 65 yards.
"We knew we had to eliminate their big play ability, so we doubled Harrison and put a defensive back on Edgerrin on third down," said Titans safety Blaine Bishop.
Working with a conservative game plan, McNair was 13-of-24 for 112 yards. He ran for 35 yards on seven carries, giving the Titans 197 yards on the ground against the NFL's 18th-ranked run defense.
The first half featured five field goals and left the Colts with a 9-6 lead.
Vanderjagt opened the scoring with a 40-yarder 7:47 into the game to cap a nine-play, 42-yard drive.
The Titans tied it at 3-3 when Del Greco kicked a 49-yard field goal four seconds into the second quarter. The key plays in Tennessee's 46-yard drive were a 15-yard facemask penalty against Burris and a 15-yard catch by Dyson. The Titans had to settle for the field goal when McNair was stopped for a one-yard gain on 3rd-and-2 at the Indianapolis 32.
A diving 33-yard catch by E.G. Green to the Tennessee 22 set up Vanderjagt's second 40-yard field goal of the game with 5:38 left in the second quarter. However, Green suffered a broken right fibula on the play.
"That was a big play, and the fact that E.G. got hurt sort of changed the momentum," Manning said.
Derrick Mason returned the ensuing kickoff 47 yards for Tennessee. A 29-yard run by McNair to the Indianapolis 20 set up Del Greco's 37-yard field goal with 3:15 remaining.
Indianapolis responded with a 12-play, 66-yard drive and Vanderjagt kicked a 34-yard field goal with one second left in the half, giving the Colts a 9-6 lead. Manning hit Wilkins with a 23-yard pass and connected with Harrison and Jerome Pathon on 11-yard plays to highlight the drive.
With the help of George's TD run, the Titans outgained the Colts, 158-57, in the third quarter.
Tennessee bridged the third and fourth quarters with a 13-play, 73-yard drive that consumed nearly 6 1/2 minutes. Chris Sanders caught two passes for 38 yards and George rushed for 24 yards on four carries before Del Greco's 25-yard field goal with 12:57 left.
Del Greco's fourth field goal of the game, a 43-yarder with 4:19 left, came after Tennessee drove 17 yards following a 19-yard punt return by Mason.
Indianapolis turned the ball over on downs after three straight incompletions by Manning at the Colts 43 with 3:34 remaining.
After two carries by George netted seven yards, the Colts used their two remaining timeouts. Indianapolis got a major break when George stumbled and fumbled away the ball and defensive end Mark Thomas recovered at the Colts 39 with 3:11 left.
Manning hit Pathon with two passes for 25 yards and connected with Wilkins on an 11-yard play to the Tennessee 25. After two offsides penalties against the Titans, Manning eluded hard-rushing end Jevon Kearse and scrambled for a 15-yard TD to pull the Colts within 19-16 with 1:51 left.
Danny Kight bounced a high spinning kick that Thigpen cradled and fell to the ground at the Indianapolis 41, sealing the win for the Titans.
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