JACKSONVILLE, Fla.—America, meet the Tennessee Titans. So quiet and unassuming, their own hometown wasn't sure what to make of them last season. So conscientious, they hardly made a peep about being expected to lose to a team they manhandled twice this season. So methodical, they never completed a pass longer than 15 yards Sunday.
And so thoroughly prepared for this day, this game and this scenario that rolling over the Jacksonville Jaguars 33-14 for the AFC championship and advancing to next Sunday's Super Bowl really shouldn't have surprised anyone at all.
The Titans never thought they would be grateful for a vagabond existence that took them from Houston to Memphis to Nashville and left them feeling unwanted, unknown and unappreciated. But while their opponents were proclaiming this season to be "Super Bowl or Bust,'' the Titans simply sucked it up, shook off a 14-10 halftime deficit and the loss of two key starters, and rode six Jaguars turnovers and their quarterback's athleticism to Atlanta.
Given plenty of time all day to throw, Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair had 91 yards rushing on nine carries, ran for two touchdowns and threw for another to negate his two fumbles and an interception.
"Obviously, he's the guy that beat us,'' said Jaguars linebacker Kevin Hardy. "We came into the game wanting to stop McNair and Eddie George, and I think we did a nice job of stopping George (86 yards on 25 carries), but we couldn't contain McNair.''
For the Titans, the big swing came in one 17-second span late in the third quarter that began with what appeared to be a critical mistake.
Having already taken their first lead at 17-14 earlier in the quarter on a six-play, 76-yard drive that ended with a 1-yard keeper by McNair, the Titans essentially put the game away with a sequence of events that began with a fumble of their own.
About to score a touchdown, Titans tight end Frank Wycheck, he of last-second-lateral-against-Buffalo-fame in Tennessee's first playoff game, lost the ball on the Jaguars' goal line. Hardy recovered at the 1.
But after a run for no gain by Fred Taylor, Titans tackle Josh Evans sacked Jacksonville quarterback Mark Brunell in the end zone for a safety. Tennessee's Derrick Mason then returned the ensuing free kick 80 yards for the touchdown, and suddenly, the Titans led 26-14.
Despite Taylor's 110 yards on 19 carries and Jacksonville tackle Leon Searcy's handling of Titans' rookie end Jevon Kearse, Tennessee's defense did exactly what it wanted to do. The Titans' secondary kept All-Pro receiver Jimmy Smith in check and disrupted the Jaguars' every stab at momentum by forcing still another turnover.
Perhaps the most damaging developments for the Titans came in the second quarter. First, Marcus Robertson swiped a Brunell pass in the end zone. Later in the quarter, Robertson broke his leg and wide receiver Yancey Thigpen broke his ankle.
"We had a great opportunity here, playing at home for the AFC Championship,'' said Jacksonville coach Tom Coughlin. "For whatever reason, we didn't play as well as we anticipated we would. The turnovers and the missed opportunities and the mistakes in the kicking game were too much for us to overcome. It's difficult to swallow because we knew exactly what the formula was to beat this team.''
In defeating their AFC Central rivals for the third time in the same season, the Titans won their seventh straight game and earned the first trip to the Super Bowl in franchise history. They also became the sixth wild-card team to reach the Super Bowl and the first since Denver did it two years ago.
"It's just huge for this organization because for a stretch there, people didn't even know we were an NFL team,'' Wycheck said. "For us to have that sweet redemption of standing on the stage holding the AFC championship trophy, that's just an unbelievable feeling.''
For Tennessee coach and former Bears safety Jeff Fisher, it is that much more unbelievable considering he was in danger of losing his job after three straight 8-8 seasons. "They set their minds to this back when training camp started, just like every other team in the NFL did, and then they didn't say anything more about it,'' Fisher said. "That's the most impressive part. When the odds were against us week after week after week, they kept on fighting and found a way.''
Five of the Titans' 13 regular-season wins and all three playoff wins have been comebacks. One of the few, interestingly, in which they jumped out to a big early lead was the Titans' 24-21 victory over the Rams in St. Louis on Halloween, when they led 21-0 in the first quarter.
"We just don't get flustered,'' Matthews said. "We've been down a lot the whole season, and it's really been the story of this team. Last year we got down a lot and we'd get back in a position to make plays and we wouldn't do it.
"What has changed this year is we are making those plays when we get the opportunity. That doesn't mean we blow people out, far from it. Everything has been in doubt until three or four minutes left in the fourth quarter. Even today, yeah, we're up 12, we're up 19, but I don't think anyone was ready to dump the Gatorade just yet.''