Sunday, January 19, 2003

Matchups for AFC championship game

By Eddie Pells
The Associated Press

OAKLAND, Calif. - How the Tennessee Titans and the Oakland Raiders match up in the AFC championship game.


Any thoughts off getting involved in a shootout with Oakland will be quashed when Tennessee thinks back to its last meeting against the Raiders - a 52-25 loss in which the Titans fell behind 21-0 after six minutes, then got totally out of what they do best.

Field position and ball control are the name of the game for the Titans, even though they have been opening things up more as the season has gone on.

Steve McNair (9) plays a controlled passing game that got better as the season progressed. His best receiver is Derrick Mason (85), who led the team with 79 catches. Tight end Frank Wycheck (89), and running back Eddie George (27) also catch a lot of passes.

The injury of the week for McNair is the thumb on his throwing hand. But he's expected to play, just as he always has through a series of ailments that have included the back, ribs and foot - and that's just this season.

George has established himself as one of the most versatile running backs in the league. He can catch, and he can run inside or outside of tackles Brad Hopkins (72) and Fred Miller (71). He's a star, even though his 1,165 yards (3.4 yards a carry) weren't enough to get him to the Pro Bowl this year. George left the game with a concussion last week but says he'll be fine for the title game.

On defense, the Raiders will miss DT Trace Armstrong, who was placed on injured reserve with a groin injury. In his place will go DeLawrence Grant (99) or Regan Upshaw (91), and the Raiders will use some 3-4 formations, too.

OLB Bill Romanowski (53) has had a fairly calm year by his standards - 66 tackles, four sacks, one interception and no wildly embarrassing outbursts. He's still a playmaker.

Rod Woodson (26) had eight interceptions and is regarded as one of the best defensive backs in the game. Tory James (20) had four picks and is solid in coverage. James and Charles Woodson (24) are both successfully overcoming recent injuries.


How to stop the league's top-ranked offense? It's one of the biggest mysteries of the year in the NFL. MVP Rich Gannon (12) will pick teams apart across the middle, and when defenses start squeezing, he'll go long.

And what a group of receivers to throw to. There's Jerry Rice (80), the most prolific receiver in NFL history. There's Tim Brown (81), who is No. 2 all-time in yardage behind Rice and is lacking only a Super Bowl ring. Jerry Porter (84) has 51 catches as a third receiver. He'd be a starter on most teams.

The Raiders have turned to the pass more as the playoffs have approached, but ignoring their running game can be dangerous. Just ask the New York Jets, who got gashed for 4.2 yards per carry last week against Charlie Garner (25) and Tyrone Wheatley (47) in their 30-10 loss to the Raiders.

Oakland also has a massive line, anchored by 335-pound right tackle Lincoln Kennedy (72) and 330-pound left tackle Frank Middleton (73).

Middleton outweighs Tennessee rusher Jevon Kearse (90) by about 70 pounds. Whether Kearse, who is still rounding into shape from a foot injury, can withstand the pounding to make five or six plays Sunday could be a key. Then again, it's difficult to get to Gannon with the big number of three-step drops and quick throws he makes.

LB Keith Bulluck (53) leads the team in tackles, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries. S Lance Schulters (31), who called Brown a "crybaby" this week, has six interceptions. The CBs, Samari Rolle (21) and Andre Dyson (22), are solid but not unbeatable, and they'll have their hands full.


This pair of field-goal kickers have had their share of the spotlight, for both good and bad.

Joe Nedney (6) of Tennessee could have won an Oscar for his flailing flip after being grazed by Dewayne Washington of Pittsburgh in overtime last week. Nedney drew a flag for running into the kicker and got another chance to kick the game-winner. He made it, joked about his acting exploits, then came out Monday and apologized for making light of the controversial ending. If kicking karma is a factor here, then ...

Of course, Sebastian Janikowski (11) is no angel. He's had numerous run-ins with the law, including a drunken-driving charge this season. But he has a huge leg. For as much as that helps the Raiders in field-goal situations, it's even better on kickoffs. He led the NFL in touchbacks with 22.


Bill Callahan replaced Jon Gruden as Oakland's coach this year, and prospered. The players took a liking to his even-tempered, consistent approach.

After a 4-0 start, the Raiders lost four straight, and a team of veterans could have easily tuned out a rookie coach. But Callahan kept the team on track, and he's looking like a great pick because of it.

When Tennessee opened 1-4, Titans owner Bud Adams openly questioned whether his team was getting outcoached. It turned out to be a silly question.

Jeff Fisher, who grew out his salt-and-pepper beard during Tennessee's playoff run, is the ultimate "player's coach." He played in the league in the 1980s and can still relate to players from that perspective.

He motivates quietly and was able to keep his team and the owner on board after the bad start. He got roundly criticized two years ago for playing too conservatively in a 24-10 loss to the defense-oriented Ravens in the divisional playoffs.

But the year before, he took the Titans to the Super Bowl, saving his best coaching for the Jacksonville Jaguars, the team he beat three times, including in the AFC title game.


A trip to the Super Bowl is usually all a player needs to motivate himself for this game. In this case, many of the Raiders know this could be their last chance.

Rice, Brown, Romanowski and Gannon are all running out of time, and there's a sense around the complex that this is it.

Fueling Oakland's fire is the loss at home in 2000 to Baltimore in the AFC title game, and the bitterness from last year's loss to New England in the "tuck rule" game.

The Titans are 7 1/2-point underdogs, got blown out by the Raiders last time they were here, and have a quarterback and running back with injury questions. Sounds a lot like 1999, when they were given no chance at Jacksonville and wound up with a 33-14 victory, a trip to the Super Bowl and a spot among the NFL elite that they've held to this day.

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