Titans clinch top playoff spot

The Baltimore Sun

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - With Pro Bowl defensive linemen Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch, the Tennessee Titans might be the best team in the NFL. Without them, the Titans are still the best team in the AFC.

The teams with the two best records in the AFC played yesterday for the top seed in the conference playoffs. Even though the Titans had the better record (12-2) and home field, the 11-3 Steelers were tabbed as two-point favorites because Haynesworth (knee) and Vanden Bosch (groin) were out with injuries.

But with rookie defensive linemen Jason Jones and William Hayes turning in Pro Bowl-caliber performances yesterday, the Titans defeated the Steelers, 31-14, to claim the AFC's top seed for the first time since 2000.

The Titans will have a first-round bye and home field for as many as two playoff games. The Steelers will be the second seed, giving them a bye and at least one home game. These teams could meet again on the same field in the AFC championship game.

"The play of our backup defensive linemen was just less than spectacular," Titans coach Jeff Fisher said.

Jones was a second-round draft pick from Eastern Michigan, and Hayes a fourth-rounder from Winston-Salem.

Jones had 40 tackles and 1 1/2 sacks in Tennessee's first 14 games but was a game-day inactive three times. Hayes had 14 tackles and no sacks and was a game-day inactive seven times.

But both were active yesterday - very, very active.

Defensive line coach Jim Washburn "told us there would be a lot of sacks out there today," Jones said. "He said he didn't care who got them. It just so happens that I got the bulk of them."

Jones sacked Ben Roethlisberger 3 1/2 times and forced three fumbles. Hayes sacked Roethlisberger once, forced a fumble and recovered another.

The Titans sacked Roethlisberger five times, the fourth time this season he has been sacked at least five times.

The first four times the Titans tackled Roethlisberger, he fumbled the ball, losing two of them. The game turned on the first fumble.

On third-and-goal from the Tennessee 7-yard line in the first quarter of a scoreless game, Roethlisberger scrambled around right end for 6 yards. As he neared the goal line, he was hit by Jones and fumbled. Hayes recovered, setting the stage for the Titans to build a 10-0 lead by the middle of the second quarter.

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