Supremacy in the AFC Central was on the line when the Tennessee
Titans huddled late in their game against the Pittsburgh Steelers
on Sunday. The Steelers, winners of five straight, led 7-6, and
the Titans were facing a fourth-and-eight from the Pittsburgh 42
with 2:12 remaining. Pittsburgh appeared to be one defensive stop
from pulling within a game of division-leading Tennessee.
Some teams wilt in such situations. But the Titans had the
Steelers right where they wanted them. Wide receiver Derrick
Mason looked at his teammates in the huddle, said, "Let's have
some fun" and then hooked up with quarterback Steve McNair for a
17-yard completion. Four plays later Al Del Greco kicked a
29-yard field goal, allowing Tennessee to escape with a 9-7
Sexy playoff-caliber teams come and go from one year to the
next--remember the Atlanta Falcons?--but Tennessee seems to be in
it for the long haul. The Titans specialize in finding ways to
win, and that's why they have emerged as the best team in the
NFL. Since a season-opening loss to the Bills in Buffalo, they
have won eight straight games, and dating back to the start of
last season they are a league-best 21-4. What's remarkable,
however, is not just that they are winning; it's how they're
winning. During that stretch, Tennessee is 12-2 in games decided
by eight points or less.
"The key to that team is that they've been together for a while,"
says Pittsburgh quarterback Kordell Stewart. "They're keeping
guys, but they're adding some too. They just keep building and
Since that loss to the Bills, the Titans have dispatched
opponents with their typical old-school style, the kind that
would make St. Louis Rams coach Mike Martz queasy. Of the elite
teams, they are the ugliest to watch, the hardest to appreciate,
the likeliest to be caught in the kind of dogfight that the
Steelers gave them. They are also the most resilient.
"They play hard-nosed football," says Pittsburgh linebacker Levon
Kirkland. "They hit you in the mouth. They don't finesse you.
They have a lot of confidence, and their mind-set is that
whatever happens, they will break you down and get the job done."
Tennessee doesn't get as much attention as the league's
high-scoring machines, but it beat Pittsburgh with the same
approach that has consistently derailed other opponents. The
Titans controlled the clock (holding the ball for 39:30), played
stingy defense (the Steelers gained only 167 yards) and made the
biggest plays at the most critical junctures. For much of the day
their swarming defense stifled Stewart and running back Jerome
Bettis (13 carries, 42 yards)--just as a Steelers defense that
hadn't allowed a touchdown since Oct. 1 shut down the Titans. But
when Stewart connected with tight end Mark Bruener for a 30-yard
touchdown pass with 8:27 to play, an upset seemed in the offing.
In fact, McNair had been so perturbed by the play of the offense
in the first two quarters that he had lit into his teammates at
halftime. "I wanted to express the way I felt," McNair would say
later, after finishing with 20 completions in 31 attempts for 227
yards, "which was that no one on offense was giving 100 percent,
including myself. We needed to stop waiting for other guys to
Enter Mason, who has taken a place alongside McNair, All-Pro
running back Eddie George and Pro Bowl tight end Frank Wycheck as
one of the keys to the offense. With fellow wideouts banged
up--Yancey Thigpen and Carl Pickens were nursing tender
hamstrings, Kevin Dyson is on injured reserve with a torn left
ACL, and Chris Sanders left Sunday's game with sore ribs--Mason
has flourished. Against the Steelers he caught a career-high
eight passes for 92 yards. He was also McNair's go-to guy on the
game-winning drive, catching three balls for 47 yards. His 31
receptions this season are second on the team only to Wycheck's
The 5'10", 188-pound Mason, who doubles as the team's primary
return man, is a fourth-year player who until this fall had never
caught more than 25 passes in a season. Still, it wasn't easy for
him to watch as Tennessee signed prominent free agents, such as
Thigpen and Pickens, to inject life into its passing game. He had
been down that road before.
A kick returner since childhood, when he played football in the
streets of Detroit, Mason arrived at Michigan State in 1993 only
to find a talented group of receivers ahead of him. Only after
other Spartans wideouts were beset by injuries was Mason able to
showcase his receiving skills. He led Michigan State in
receptions as a senior, and the Titans selected him in the fourth
round of the 1997 draft. His Tennessee teammates have been
impressed with how smoothly he has made the transition from role
player to major contributor. As Del Greco lined up for his
game-winning field goal on Sunday, Thigpen, Pickens and Sanders
were among those who embraced Mason on the sideline. Mason never
so much as cracked a smile.
"I was enjoying myself, but sometimes you have to stop smiling
and get the job done," he says. "I want the coaches to see that
I'm good enough to be a starter. I know we brought Yancey and
Carl here for a purpose, but I plan on making the most of my
Says guard Bruce Matthews, "We've had some games when we've
struggled early on offense, and it seems that he has been the guy
who has made things happen. You can see his confidence growing.
Whether it's a return or a reception, you feel like he's going to
make something happen."
That's exactly what Mason did against the Washington Redskins on
Oct. 30. The Titans trailed 7-3 and hadn't done much on offense
when he returned a punt 69 yards for a touchdown early in the
second quarter. They led 20-7 by halftime and hung on for a 27-21
win. For the season Mason ranks second in the league in kickoff
returns and seventh in punt returns. One of his biggest fans is
George, who goes so far as to call Mason the team's most valuable
player this season. However, it's difficult to imagine any
Tennessee player wrestling that honor from George.
Last week George woke up every morning at 6:30 to undergo
treatment for sprains to his right knee and ankle and a swollen
right toe. Though hampered by those injuries against the
Steelers, he still displayed the rugged running style that drives
the Titans' offense, pounding out 98 yards on 34 carries. He was
at his best on a third-quarter drive, running seven times for 36
yards and frequently carrying defenders along the way. He made a
key block on Mason's pivotal fourth-down reception, picking up
blitzing cornerback Deshea Townsend. On the next play he ripped
off an 11-yard run up the middle. However, like McNair, George
isn't happy with how his team is playing.
"We don't feel like we're the best team, not at all," George
says. "I know I'm not satisfied with how we're doing things,
especially offensively. We're finding ways to win, but it's time
that we put together a complete game and stop shooting ourselves
in the foot."
While the offense sorts out its problems, coach Jeff Fisher has
the luxury of relying on a unit that entered the Pittsburgh game
ranked fifth in the league in total defense and points allowed.
When the Steelers took over with 4:38 to go, hoping to seal the
victory, the Titans shut them down. Pittsburgh went three-and-out
while taking only 56 seconds off the clock.
Still, Fisher believes even the defense has room for improvement.
Last week he criticized star end Jevon Kearse, saying that Kearse
was "back to being a one-dimensional pass rusher, going up the
field with speed" and that he wasn't "winning his share of
one-on-one [matchups]." Fisher added that Kearse could benefit
from watching how fellow end Kenny Holmes prepares for games.
Holmes, a 1997 first-round draft pick out of Miami, leads the
Titans with five sacks and five forced fumbles.
Kearse, who has only three sacks this year after leading the AFC
with an NFL rookie-record 14 1/2 in 1999, saw a lot of double
teams early this season, but for the past month or so opponents
have primarily used a single blocker on him. Fisher's comments
shocked Kearse, but they got results. Kearse spent two days last
week working on his speed and power-rush moves before practice.
"I let [the criticism] get to me," he said after making only one
tackle against the Steelers. "It's not that I wasn't getting to
the quarterback or beating my man. I just wasn't coming up with
that sack, and [Fisher] wanted me to work for that extra inch. I
need to push myself more, and I'm going to keep what he said in
"I wasn't making an ultimatum," Fisher said. "It was just fact.
We need more production out of everybody. Jevon worked hard all
week and was a factor today, but we were disappointed in his
offside penalty [in the fourth quarter]. He was trying to time
the snap count to put pressure on the tackles."
If Fisher gets the production he's looking for, other AFC
contenders had better beware. Not only are the Titans the most
balanced team in the league, but with a favorable schedule they
are also in position to lock up home field advantage throughout
the conference playoffs. Their remaining games are against
Baltimore, Cleveland (twice), Jacksonville, Philadelphia,
Cincinnati and Dallas. Of those teams, only the Ravens and the
Eagles have winning records, and four of the seven games are at
home. Since moving to Adelphia Coliseum at the start of last
season, Tennessee has never lost there.
Adelphia was the site of the Titans' most stunning victory ever,
over Buffalo in last season's AFC wild-card game, which concluded
with the now-famous Music City Miracle kickoff return. With four
seconds remaining in Sunday's game, Pittsburgh also
tried--futilely--a razzle-dazzle kickoff return. That shouldn't
bother the Titans, though: After all, imitation is the sincerest
form of flattery.
COLOR PHOTO: COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS COVER Remember the Titans Eddie George & Co. have quietly become the NFL's best team
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER Rambling man Wycheck, Tennessee's leading receiver, had a key catch on each of the first two scoring drives against Pittsburgh.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Bus stop Frank Chamberlin and the Tennessee defense never let Bettis get untracked, holding him to 42 yards on the ground.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Workhorse George was his usual reliable self, churning out yards when it mattered most.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Double threat Known primarily as a return man, Mason (85) is making the most of an opportunity to showcase his receiving skills.
Of the elite teams, the Titans are the ugliest to watch. They
are also the most resilient.
"He has been the guy who has made things happen," Matthews
says of Mason.