Publish date:

Uh Oh! Turning the Jaguars' rap lyric against them, the upstart Titans danced past Jacksonville and into their first Super Bowl

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

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

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 protege, 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.)

The play, for Tennessee, was as good as it gets: Evans
bull-rushed and hit the seam between right tackle Leon Searcy
and right guard Zach Wiegert, and Kearse beat Ben Coleman around
the left end, forcing Taylor to help out. That gave Evans a shot
at Brunell, and Titans tackle Jason Fisk helped finish off the
two-point play. On the ensuing free kick, Bryan Barker punted to
the Tennessee 20-yard line, and Derrick Mason, after a couple of
stutter steps, burst up the middle and had clear sailing to the
end zone.

Down 26-14, Brunell had time to mount a comeback, but he was
about to be chased like Chris O'Donnell in The Bachelor. He
would score no more against the Titans' constant pressure, while
McNair, who threw for only 112 yards but ran for 91 and two
touchdowns, made the two biggest offensive plays of the second
half: shaking free from Hardy early in the third quarter to turn
a likely sack into a 15-yard completion to running back Eddie
George (along with a 15-yard roughing-the-passer penalty on
defensive end Tony Brackens), which led to the go-ahead
touchdown; and scrambling 51 yards midway through the fourth
quarter to set up his game-clinching touchdown sneak. That
McNair ran so well with a painful turf toe--he wore an air cast
on his left foot before and after the game--was even more
impressive. "This guy has been critiqued and maligned all
season," said Tennessee tight end Jackie Harris, "but people
need to chill. He just took control and led us to victory."

Brunell, who threw two interceptions, lost a fumble and was
sacked three times, has had better days, though several dropped
passes didn't help. Nor did the aggressive schemes of Williams,
who, despite having grown chummy with Brunell at various
off-season charity functions, was determined not to let
friendship get in the way of business. During last Thursday's
practice at the Titans' Nashville training facility, Williams
approached McNair between drills and told him, "Steve, this game
will be decided by which quarterback stands the tallest, and I
promise only one will be standing by the time it's over."

If Williams's role is to fire up his players, Fisher serves as a
Smokey the Bear figure. But even the ultracool coach got caught
up in the heated rivalry with the Jaguars, who after their
lopsided loss in late December didn't exactly sing Tennessee's
praises. Instead, five Jaguars--Searcy, wideouts Jimmy Smith and
Keenan McCardell, cornerback Fernando Bryant and defensive
tackle Gary Walker, a former Titan--cut their rap track. After
the tune hit the airwaves in early January, Tom Coughlin,
Jacksonville's superstrict coach, was about as excited as he
would have been if someone had started passing out bongs at
practice. Yet the tune hit the airwaves in early January, and Uh
Oh was blaring in the home team's locker room following
Jacksonville's 62-7 obliteration of the Miami Dolphins in a
divisional playoff game on Jan. 15. The Jaguars were relatively
loose and confident before their third meeting with Tennessee.
After all, they were 15-0 against the rest of the league, and
they felt they could rationalize their losses to the Titans: The
first was a 20-19 setback at home in September in which Brunell
threw an end-zone interception in the final minute, and the
December blowout could be chalked up to injuries, an emotionally
flat effort and a career day by McNair.

"Hey, we're playing a great team, and they have a right to be
confident," Fisher said the day before the game as he sat in a
conference room at Tennessee's hotel, near Ponte Vedra Beach.
Then, clutching a tape in one hand, Fisher allowed his sarcasm
to seep out. "They went 14-2, and it could've been 16-0 if they
hadn't given us two games. If we can somehow win, I don't know
what'll be more gratifying: going to the first Super Bowl in
franchise history or beating Jacksonville for a third time."

That night, in the same meeting room, Fisher reminded his
players that the Jaguars' record over the past two seasons
against teams .500 or better was 3-6. "Sometimes, when people
talk about how confident they are, they're really trying to
cover up a lack of confidence," Fisher said. "Don't
underestimate how much of an effect our beating them twice has
had on them. We'll find out how confident they are tomorrow."
Then Fisher slipped the tape into a VCR and told his players,
"Now, watch this video and remember it, and maybe after the ball
game you might say, 'Uh oh.'"

At the end of the video, which featured the rap song laced over
Jacksonville highlights, the room was stone-cold silent. The
Titans probably didn't need the extra motivation, but it made
for some good trash talk during and after the game. Said Kearse,
"They did all that hoopin' and hollerin', and they were singing,
'Uh oh.' But by the end of the game it was, 'Oh no, not the
Titans again.'"

Amazingly, the Jaguars kept right on crowing into the
off-season. "I still think we're a better team," Taylor
insisted--ground control to Major Fred--and McCardell said, "We
killed ourselves."

When will they learn, man? When will they learn?

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS Titan Security Jaguars defensive back Fernando Bryant lets his guard down and is called for interference on Titans receiver Kevin Dyson in the third quarter of their AFC Championship Game, which Tennessee won 33-14 (page 36). [Leading Off]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB ROSATO THE MAN Ignoring a painful turf toe, McNair frustrated Jacksonville by eluding pass rushers and running for 91 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO PLAYMAKERS After Evans and Fisk sacked Brunell for a safety, Mason (opposite) broke the Jaguars' backs by returning the ensuing free kick for a touchdown.

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES [See caption above]

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER WORKHORSE George ran for the tough yards and had a crucial reception on the Titans' go-ahead touchdown drive.

"Sometimes, when people talk about how confident they are,"
Fisher said of the Jaguars, "they're trying to cover up a lack
of confidence."

Williams challenged McNair, saying, "This game will be decided
by which quarterback stands the tallest, and I promise only one
will be standing by the time it's over."