They trudged through the tunnel with scowls on their faces, stung by all that was eluding their grasp. Then, for the first time in many given Sundays, the Tennessee Titans allowed self-doubt to enter their sanctum. At halftime of Sunday's AFC Championship Game the cramped visitors' locker room at Alltel Stadium was a loud and anxious sweatbox, especially in the area where the defensive players congregated to confront the team's four-point deficit to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Players vented at one another—"We can't miss any more tackles!...Wrap their asses up!...We're letting this slip away!"—before a middle-aged man with braces on his teeth arrived and restored order.
Gregg Williams, Tennessee's hyper-organized defensive coordinator, cut right to the chase. "We just took a left hook, an overhand right and their best shots to the gut," Williams told his players. "Well, guess what: We're going to be even more aggressive this half. If we can't get to the quarterback with four guys, we'll bring five. If we can't do it with five, we'll bring six, or seven, or eight. If they hang 50 points on us, so be it. We're going to do this our way."
Somebody cue up Sinatra, and let's get everyone up to speed. The Titans' way has gone unnoticed through this surprise-filled season, but now, with owner Bud Adams's franchise-on-wheels headed to its first Super Bowl, it's time to pull back the curtain on Tennessee's not-so-subtle formula for success: When they get in a pinch, when any reasonable bunch would flinch, the Titans swallow hard and come at you even harder.
On Sunday, with most of the 75,206 fans in the stadium calling for their heads and millions across the football-watching nation expecting their extraordinary playoff run to bottom out, the Titans jettisoned the Jaguars with stunning finality. In rolling to a 33-14 victory, Tennessee did some serious damage to its AFC Central rival's psyche, not to mention the airplay potential of a hip-hop single now destined to serve as Jacksonville's swan song.
More on Uh Oh, the Jaguars' Super Bowl Song later. First, an ode to the Titans, who brought da noise with a 23-0 second-half explosion, their latest and greatest feat in a season of unexpected triumphs. Has any Super Bowl team ever powered over so many speed bumps? Coming off three consecutive 8-8 seasons, playing in its fourth home stadium in as many years, Tennessee pulled out a wild-card win over the Buffalo Bills on a lateraled kickoff return for a touchdown and then scored road playoff upsets by shutting down the conference's offensive powerhouses, the Indianapolis Colts and the Jaguars. The Titans are 6-0 against teams that finished with 11 or more victories; that record includes three wins over Jacksonville, which lost to no one else this season, and a 24-21 triumph over the Super Bowl-bound St. Louis Rams in October.
Naturally, the Rams, 11-6 winners over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Sunday's NFC title game (page 42), opened as eight-point favorites over Tennessee. Forgive the Titans if they forget to freak out. "We've got more heart than anyone, but nobody ever gives us a chance," defensive tackle Josh Evans said after the game. "When will they learn, man? When will they learn? We've got a lot of guys on this team who've been doubted—told we were too small, cut by someone else, not supposed to make it this far—and we're always out to prove people wrong."
In 1995, when the team was still the Houston Oilers, Tennessee took a flier on Evans, an undrafted free agent who had been waived by the Dallas Cowboys. The first-ever NFL player from Alabama-Birmingham, Evans is an undersized (6 feet, 288 pounds) interior lineman who plays with a king-sized chip on his shoulder. Suspended for this season's first four games after testing positive for a banned substance, Evans fought for his NFL life, driving every day of his banishment to Clarksville, Tenn., a town 45 minutes from his home in Nashville, for long workouts with a personal trainer. "I was thinking crazy thoughts, blaming everybody but myself," Evans said. "I almost lost my mind, but I wouldn't break."
On Sunday, Evans helped break the Jaguars' spirit. The Titans came away with six of the game's 10 turnovers—roughly the ratio of pickup trucks in Jacksonville sporting attachable Jags flags to those bearing NASCAR pennants—but Evans made the play that turned his team northwest, toward Atlanta. The game's pivotal sequence began with six minutes left in the third quarter, after Jacksonville, trailing 17-14, forced what appeared to be a game-changing fumble. Tennessee tight end Frank Wycheck, fighting to reach the end zone after an eight-yard pass from Steve McNair, was stripped by outside linebacker Kevin Hardy, and middle linebacker Lonnie Marts recovered at the Jaguars' one.
On first down Jacksonville stayed conservative, giving the ball to halfback Fred Taylor (19 carries, 110 yards), who was swarmed by several Titans and dropped inches from the end zone. Now Brunell, limited by the strained left knee he suffered in his team's 41-14 loss at Tennessee on Dec. 26, was truly a Marked man. Titans coach Jeff Fisher, a former Chicago Bears safety and Buddy Ryan protégé, and Williams, his equally brassy defensive coordinator, settled on a package based on Ryan's famed 46 defense, which creates blocking mismatches by crowding eight players at or near the line of scrimmage. The Jaguars' play called for Brunell to roll to his left and throw, but when the quarterback saw Jevon (the Freak) Kearse, Tennessee's rookie pass-rushing sensation, standing alone over left tackle Ben Coleman, he called timeout.
The chess match was on, and the Titans were game. Williams, whose obsessive attention to detail has caused some players to nickname him Melvin Udall—Jack Nicholson's character in As Good As It Gets—bases his philosophy on making the last move. "We're the only defense in the league that has the final say," Williams contends, meaning that he gives several players the authority to counter offensive adjustments with on-field audibles of their own. Thus, when Jacksonville changed its play to a drop-back pass to help protect Brunell from Kearse, middle linebacker Eddie Robinson, whom Williams calls "the smartest player I've ever coached," made an executive decision, flooding the line with yet another defender, linebacker Doug Colman. (Robinson, who was cut by the Jaguars less than a week before the season began, also forced two fumbles against his former team.)