Supremacy in the AFC Central was on the line when the Tennessee Titans huddled late in their game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. The Steelers, winners of five straight, led 7-6, and the Titans were facing a fourth-and-eight from the Pittsburgh 42 with 2:12 remaining. Pittsburgh appeared to be one defensive stop from pulling within a game of division-leading Tennessee.
Some teams wilt in such situations. But the Titans had the Steelers right where they wanted them. Wide receiver Derrick Mason looked at his teammates in the huddle, said, "Let's have some fun" and then hooked up with quarterback Steve McNair for a 17-yard completion. Four plays later Al Del Greco kicked a 29-yard field goal, allowing Tennessee to escape with a 9-7 victory.
Sexy playoff-caliber teams come and go from one year to the next—remember the Atlanta Falcons?—but Tennessee seems to be in it for the long haul. The Titans specialize in finding ways to win, and that's why they have emerged as the best team in the NFL. Since a season-opening loss to the Bills in Buffalo, they have won eight straight games, and dating back to the start of last season they are a league-best 21-4. What's remarkable, however, is not just that they are winning; it's how they're winning. During that stretch, Tennessee is 12-2 in games decided by eight points or less.
"The key to that team is that they've been together for a while," says Pittsburgh quarterback Kordell Stewart. "They're keeping guys, but they're adding some too. They just keep building and building."
Since that loss to the Bills, the Titans have dispatched opponents with their typical old-school style, the kind that would make St. Louis Rams coach Mike Martz queasy. Of the elite teams, they are the ugliest to watch, the hardest to appreciate, the likeliest to be caught in the kind of dogfight that the Steelers gave them. They are also the most resilient.
"They play hard-nosed football," says Pittsburgh linebacker Levon Kirkland. "They hit you in the mouth. They don't finesse you. They have a lot of confidence, and their mind-set is that whatever happens, they will break you down and get the job done."
Tennessee doesn't get as much attention as the league's high-scoring machines, but it beat Pittsburgh with the same approach that has consistently derailed other opponents. The Titans controlled the clock (holding the ball for 39:30), played stingy defense (the Steelers gained only 167 yards) and made the biggest plays at the most critical junctures. For much of the day their swarming defense stifled Stewart and running back Jerome Bettis (13 carries, 42 yards)—just as a Steelers defense that hadn't allowed a touchdown since Oct. 1 shut down the Titans. But when Stewart connected with tight end Mark Bruener for a 30-yard touchdown pass with 8:27 to play, an upset seemed in the offing.
In fact, McNair had been so perturbed by the play of the offense in the first two quarters that he had lit into his teammates at halftime. "I wanted to express the way I felt," McNair would say later, after finishing with 20 completions in 31 attempts for 227 yards, "which was that no one on offense was giving 100 percent, including myself. We needed to stop waiting for other guys to make plays."
Enter Mason, who has taken a place alongside McNair, All-Pro running back Eddie George and Pro Bowl tight end Frank Wycheck as one of the keys to the offense. With fellow wideouts banged up—Yancey Thigpen and Carl Pickens were nursing tender hamstrings, Kevin Dyson is on injured reserve with a torn left ACL, and Chris Sanders left Sunday's game with sore ribs—Mason has flourished. Against the Steelers he caught a career-high eight passes for 92 yards. He was also McNair's go-to guy on the game-winning drive, catching three balls for 47 yards. His 31 receptions this season are second on the team only to Wycheck's 40.
The 5'10", 188-pound Mason, who doubles as the team's primary return man, is a fourth-year player who until this fall had never caught more than 25 passes in a season. Still, it wasn't easy for him to watch as Tennessee signed prominent free agents, such as Thigpen and Pickens, to inject life into its passing game. He had been down that road before.