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After the ball had split the uprights and fireworks had lit the sky over the Coliseum last Saturday night, a distressing thought ran through the mind of Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher: It's not over yet. Titans kicker Joe Nedney had seemingly ended this latest heart-stopper in a mad, mad, mad NFL postseason by hitting a 31-yard field goal 2:07 into overtime, but Fisher—unlike the euphoric crowd of 68,809, or the trigger-happy folks in charge of the pyrotechnics—knew the attempt had been negated by a Pittsburgh Steelers timeout called just before the snap. With the smoke still thick in the chilly night air, the left-footed Nedney pulled his next attempt wide right, only to get a mulligan when Steelers cornerback Dewayne Washington was flagged for running into the kicker. After the five-yard penalty was walked off, Nedney nailed a 26-yarder to give Tennessee a gutsy 34-31 AFC divisional playoff victory that was emblematic of the team's topsy-turvy year.
In the on-field bedlam after Nedney's final kick, as Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher chased down referee Ron Blum to voice his displeasure over the penalty, Fisher gleefully pranced through a mob of well-wishers. Meanwhile, Tennessee's heroic threesome of quarterback Steve McNair, tight end Frank Wycheck and wideout Drew Bennett each savored his joy more privately. Who better to lead a team that started the season 1-4 and had no player voted to the Pro Bowl to this seminal win than a perpetually battered passer, a supposedly washed-up tight end having his worst season in eight years and a converted college quarterback who caught one less pass against the Steelers than he did in his entire college career?
"That's why I'm so proud of this team—the players have excelled without accolades," said an exhausted and hoarse Fisher in his dressing room of a team that has won 11 of its last 12. "When none of our guys made the Pro Bowl, I took it as a compliment."
After five years of sharing top billing with running back Eddie George, McNair emerged this season as the team's backbone, even as multiple injuries (turf toe, strained ribs, sore back) kept him off the practice field in December. Still, he completed 61.2% of his passes for 3,387 yards and 22 touchdowns, and he led Tennessee to a 5-0 record in December—a run that began with a 32-29 overtime win against the New York Giants in which he rallied the Titans from a 26-14 fourth-quarter deficit. "Steve hoisted us on his shoulders in that game," said Fisher.
Against the Steelers, McNair looked as healthy as he has all season; in fact, for the first time since Nov. 3 he was not on the team's weekly injury report. He completed 27 of 44 passes for 338 yards and two touchdowns, scrambled for another score and was perhaps at his best on third down, when he converted a staggering 12 of 18 opportunities. But after McNair smashed his right thumb against an opponent's helmet midway through the fourth quarter, "I accepted that we'd have to go on with Neil O'Donnell," Fisher said. "Steve had a flap of skin hanging from the thumb; he had no feeling in it. Two plays later, he says he's ready."
"I couldn't really grip the ball, but I'm a lot better when I'm injured," McNair said 1 matter-of-factly. "So even with the thumb, things were going well today. The guys were finding their spots. Drew had a great game, and Frank...well, he was Frank."
That is to say, Wycheck looked like his old self after a regular season in which he had a paltry 40 receptions for 346 yards and two touchdowns. Wycheck was once McNair's primary safety valve, but his role diminished as the offense shifted from a power running attack to one with more spread formations. However, with the Titans' receiving corps depleted by injuries, McNair turned to Wycheck, and the tight end responded with a game-high 10 catches for 123 yards, including a seven-yard touchdown reception early in the third quarter that gave the Titans a 21-20 lead.
Wycheck's reemergence opened the field for Bennett, whose seven catches for 85 yards made him an unlikely star of the game even on this mostly anonymous team. A onetime walk-on at UCLA, Bennett languished behind quarterback Cade McNown before switching to receiver for good midway through his junior year. After catching only six balls as a senior, he thought he'd backpack through Europe upon graduation; instead he was awakened during the waning moments of the 2001 draft with a call from Tennessee scout Cole Proctor inviting him to a free-agent minicamp.
For the raw receiving prospect, winning an NFL job was as mystifying as it was rewarding. "At first I played on special teams—and had to ask guys how to tackle," Bennett says. "I'd have one good day, then the next I'd wonder what I was doing there." But he persevered, and the Titans began to like what they were, and were not, seeing. "It helped that Drew didn't know a lot coming in, because he didn't have a lot of bad habits to unlearn," says receivers coach Steve Walters. "He's a smart kid, he runs precise routes, and Steve trusts him." Never was that clearer than when McNair found Bennett for 13 and 20 yards on the fourth-quarter drive that ended with Nedney's 42-yard field goal, tying the game at 31.
"A bunch of us were talking at dinner [last Friday] night about Coach Fisher's ability to keep us involved," Bennett said. "He's always got something creative for us, and it helps keep us relaxed." That night Fisher delivered yet another masterful motivational stroke. After showing a series of clips from Remember the Titans, Fisher suddenly revealed, from behind the hotel ballroom's door, Herman Boone, the real-life coach of the 1971 Virginia high school championship football team upon which the movie was based. The players stood and applauded, then mingled with Boone, who was made an honorary captain for Saturday's game.