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Original Issue

One for the Team On a squad devoid of Pro Bowl players, Steve McNair and two unlikely receivers took the Titans to the threshold of the title game

After the ball had split the uprights and fireworks had lit the
sky over the Coliseum last Saturday night, a distressing thought
ran through the mind of Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher: It's
not over yet. Titans kicker Joe Nedney had seemingly ended this
latest heart-stopper in a mad, mad, mad NFL postseason by
hitting a 31-yard field goal 2:07 into overtime, but
Fisher--unlike the euphoric crowd of 68,809, or the
trigger-happy folks in charge of the pyrotechnics--knew the
attempt had been negated by a Pittsburgh Steelers timeout
called just before the snap. With the smoke still thick in the
chilly night air, the left-footed Nedney pulled his next
attempt wide right, only to get a mulligan when Steelers
cornerback Dewayne Washington was flagged for running into the
kicker. After the five-yard penalty was walked off, Nedney
nailed a 26-yarder to give Tennessee a gutsy 34-31 AFC
divisional playoff victory that was emblematic of the team's
topsy-turvy year.

In the on-field bedlam after Nedney's final kick, as Pittsburgh
coach Bill Cowher chased down referee Ron Blum to voice his
displeasure over the penalty, Fisher gleefully pranced through a
mob of well-wishers. Meanwhile, Tennessee's heroic threesome of
quarterback Steve McNair, tight end Frank Wycheck and wideout
Drew Bennett each savored his joy more privately. Who better to
lead a team that started the season 1-4 and had no player voted
to the Pro Bowl to this seminal win than a perpetually battered
passer, a supposedly washed-up tight end having his worst season
in eight years and a converted college quarterback who caught one
less pass against the Steelers than he did in his entire college

"That's why I'm so proud of this team--the players have excelled
without accolades," said an exhausted and hoarse Fisher in his
dressing room of a team that has won 11 of its last 12. "When
none of our guys made the Pro Bowl, I took it as a compliment."

After five years of sharing top billing with running back Eddie
George, McNair emerged this season as the team's backbone, even
as multiple injuries (turf toe, strained ribs, sore back) kept
him off the practice field in December. Still, he completed 61.2%
of his passes for 3,387 yards and 22 touchdowns, and he led
Tennessee to a 5-0 record in December--a run that began with a
32-29 overtime win against the New York Giants in which he
rallied the Titans from a 26-14 fourth-quarter deficit. "Steve
hoisted us on his shoulders in that game," said Fisher.

Against the Steelers, McNair looked as healthy as he has all
season; in fact, for the first time since Nov. 3 he was not on
the team's weekly injury report. He completed 27 of 44 passes for
338 yards and two touchdowns, scrambled for another score and was
perhaps at his best on third down, when he converted a staggering
12 of 18 opportunities. But after McNair smashed his right thumb
against an opponent's helmet midway through the fourth quarter,
"I accepted that we'd have to go on with Neil O'Donnell," Fisher
said. "Steve had a flap of skin hanging from the thumb; he had no
feeling in it. Two plays later, he says he's ready."

"I couldn't really grip the ball, but I'm a lot better when I'm
injured," McNair said matter-of-factly. "So even with the thumb,
things were going well today. The guys were finding their spots.
Drew had a great game, and Frank ... well, he was Frank."

That is to say, Wycheck looked like his old self after a regular
season in which he had a paltry 40 receptions for 346 yards and
two touchdowns. Wycheck was once McNair's primary safety valve,
but his role diminished as the offense shifted from a power
running attack to one with more spread formations. However, with
the Titans' receiving corps depleted by injuries, McNair turned
to Wycheck, and the tight end responded with a game-high 10
catches for 123 yards, including a seven-yard touchdown reception
early in the third quarter that gave the Titans a 21-20 lead.

Wycheck's reemergence opened the field for Bennett, whose seven
catches for 85 yards made him an unlikely star of the game even
on this mostly anonymous team. A onetime walk-on at UCLA, Bennett
languished behind quarterback Cade McNown before switching to
receiver for good midway through his junior year. After catching
only six balls as a senior, he thought he'd backpack through
Europe upon graduation; instead he was awakened during the waning
moments of the 2001 draft with a call from Tennessee scout Cole
Proctor inviting him to a free-agent minicamp.

For the raw receiving prospect, winning an NFL job was as
mystifying as it was rewarding. "At first I played on special
teams--and had to ask guys how to tackle," Bennett says. "I'd
have one good day, then the next I'd wonder what I was doing
there." But he persevered, and the Titans began to like what they
were, and were not, seeing. "It helped that Drew didn't know a
lot coming in, because he didn't have a lot of bad habits to
unlearn," says receivers coach Steve Walters. "He's a smart kid,
he runs precise routes, and Steve trusts him." Never was that
clearer than when McNair found Bennett for 13 and 20 yards on the
fourth-quarter drive that ended with Nedney's 42-yard field goal,
tying the game at 31.

"A bunch of us were talking at dinner [last Friday] night about
Coach Fisher's ability to keep us involved," Bennett said. "He's
always got something creative for us, and it helps keep us
relaxed." That night Fisher delivered yet another masterful
motivational stroke. After showing a series of clips from
Remember the Titans, Fisher suddenly revealed, from behind the
hotel ballroom's door, Herman Boone, the real-life coach of the
1971 Virginia high school championship football team upon which
the movie was based. The players stood and applauded, then
mingled with Boone, who was made an honorary captain for
Saturday's game.

"You talk about character and perseverance, that's what this is
about," Fisher said. "I can't put into words how I feel about
these players, what they've overcome. From 1-4 to the AFC
Championship Game ... that about says it all, doesn't it?"

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER (BENNETT) CAREER DAY Against the Steelers, Bennett had seven receptions,one more than he had in his senior year at UCLA.