NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans didn't need another Music City Miracle -- just a few kicks and a helpful call from the latest NFL officiating crew to make playoff headlines.
|Derrick Mason and Tommy Maddox show what a heated contest the game was. (AP)|
Officiating, in the news all week, once again played a key role in the final outcome.
Steelers coach Bill Cowher sprinted across the field and shouted at referee Ron Blum after the winning kick. As the Titans celebrated, Cowher claimed he called a timeout before the kick.
But the kick stood -- a kick that was the result of a penalty on the previous play by cornerback Dewayne Washington. He drew a 5-yard flag for running into Nedney, giving the kicker yet another chance, and he put the game-winner right down the middle.
That gave the Titans the franchise's first victory in four playoff games against Pittsburgh, and put them into the AFC Championship Game against the winner of Sunday's game between the Oakland Raiders and New York Jets.
For Pittsburgh and comeback specialist Tommy Maddox, it was yet another playoff failure for a team that was favored to go to the Super Bowl when the season started.
"For a game to be decided on that call is ludicrous," Cowher said. "A game can't be decided because a kicker takes two steps and we have someone slide into him. We had some chances to win but we had some taken away from us, too."
That's exactly how the New York Giants felt after losing a playoff game against the 49ers last Sunday. The next day, the NFL admitted officials botched the final play.
Asked about the penalty he called, Blum merely explained the difference between running into the kicker and roughing.
As for the timeout, he said: "I wasn't aware that they were, but one of my co-officials said that the request came after the ball was snapped."
Steelers captain Jason Gildon said he asked umpire Chad Brown for the timeout and was told they didn't have any. Gildon said, "Then I pointed to the scoreboard and we had two left."
At the coin toss before overtime, Blum announced each team had three timeouts. That's a change from the regular season, when they get two timeouts.
"It's another example of officials just not being at the top of their game," Gildon said. "It's the playoffs, there is a lot at stake. If anyone should be ready, then it should be them."
Tennessee took the opening kickoff in overtime and Steve McNair drove the Titans from their own 20 into field-goal range.
Nedney, who missed from 48 yards on the final play of regulation, thought he'd blown it when he missed from 31 yards.
"We don't get second chances very often and I didn't expect another one," Nedney said. "Sorry if I gave everybody gray hairs. ... I went from the worst kick of my life to a guy smacks me in the ankle and I get a second chance."
Of course, the Titans are familiar with blown field goal tries in the playoffs -- two years ago, they cut Al Del Greco after he missed once and had two others blocked in a 24-10 upset loss to Baltimore.
McNair was 27-of-44 for 338 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another in a game that was nearly as dramatic as the Music City Miracle against Buffalo three years ago, when the Titans won on a near-impossible kickoff return in the final seconds.
This one was a tense, hard-hitting game that sidelined stars Plaxico Burress (hip) and Kendrell Bell (ankle) of Pittsburgh and Eddie George (concussion) of Tennessee -- exactly the kind of game the longtime rivals have played since the one-time Houston Oilers were the Steelers' biggest thorns in the late 1970s.
It was so close, each team had exactly 324 yards at the two-minute warning and so intense that Maddox and Titans coach Jeff Fisher once began screaming at each other and had to be separated.
There were multiple injuries and multiple comebacks -- of course, since Maddox was involved.
"This is very hard to swallow," Maddox said, who rallied the Steelers from a double-digit deficit for the third time in three weeks. "It's frustrating, it's heartbreaking."
Nedney kicked a tying 42-yarder with 5:40 remaining after Jeff Reed's 40-yarder put Pittsburgh up 31-28. The Steelers had rallied for the second time, tying it at 28 on Maddox's 21-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward and former quarterback Ward's two-point conversion flip to Burress with just over 10 minutes remaining.
In a season where the NFL set a record with 25 overtime games, the Titans got the ball first.
The missed tackle by Washington created Tennessee receiver Justin McCareins' catches of 31 and 22 yards, and the Titans were quickly in field goal position.
With the Steelers calling timeout, Nedney kicked a field goal that sent fireworks shooting over the stadium. But the kick did not count, and Nedney laughed as he lined up again.
This time, Nedney missed -- but the penalty, in which he tumbled dramatically to the turf as Washington brushed across his leg, gave him another chance and left Cowher covering his face in anger and frustration.
On the next play, Nedney kicked it right down the middle to win the game.
"There is one thing that is going to stick in my mind and that's the ref took that," All-Pro linebacker Joey Porter said. "Let it come down to us losing the game and not the ref losing the game for us."
After the Steelers rallied from an early 14-0 deficit, it was close the rest of the way.
George hadn't fumbled in 240 carries, only to do it twice in less than a quarter to set up two Steelers touchdowns.
The second fumble, following a helmet-to-helmet hit with lineman Casey Hampton on the first play of the second half, knocked George out of the game with a concussion and led to Amos Zereoue's 31-yard touchdown run on the next play.
|Frank Wycheck makes several big catches for the Titans, including this touchdown grab. (AP)|
Only this time, their opponents had a comeback in them, too.
The Titans, stalling repeatedly after scoring on their first two possessions, went into the no-huddle spread offense that has repeatedly tormented the Steelers' defense. Within five minutes, the Titans got into the end zone twice on McNair touchdown passes to his tight ends -- 7 yards to Frank Wycheck and 2 to Erron Kinney.
Wycheck, virtually forgotten in the Tennessee offense with only nine catches in his past five games, made a career-high 10 receptions against a Steelers defense that gave up at least 30 points for the eighth time this season -- eight more times than last season.
The Titans, looking rested, confident and relaxed following their two-week break, converted five key third downs -- a season-long problem for Pittsburgh's defense -- to open their 14-0 lead.
It looked like a rout of an injury-depleted team only six days removed from an emotionally draining and almost miraculous comeback victory over Cleveland, the Steelers' biggest rival.
It wasn't, mostly because the Titans did the absolute one thing they shouldn't have done while cruising with a big, early lead: They gave Maddox, the Comeback Player of the Year, a chance.
Maddox was back in the very stadium where his remarkable comeback season nearly ended Nov. 17 with the frightening spinal cord injury that hospitalized him for the two most nervous nights of the Steelers' season.
- Seeded teams are 40-9 against wild-card winners since 1990.
- Pittsburgh is 0-3 in road playoff games under Cowher.
- The Steelers were denied their fifth trip to the AFC title game in nine years.
- The Titans won for the 11th time in 12 games.
- None of the nine teams to play on six days' rest since 1992 has won the Super Bowl; only one reached it.
The Associated Press News Service
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