- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 19, 2003

A lingering improbability meets a seeming inevitability today in the AFC Championship game.
The Tennessee Titans have gotten there by grinding it out, squeezing past opponents and maximizing a roster with key injuries but no players voted to the Pro Bowl. The Oakland Raiders, in contrast, have played to their very impressive potential, thanks in large part to the NFL's Most Valuable Player and the No.1 offense.
"We're going to have to play our best game of the year, there's no question, considering how well they're playing," said Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher, whose team lost 52-25 in a regular-season meeting Sept.29 at Oakland. "But we've been improving."
As one might expect, the oddsmakers have dubbed Oakland (12-5), playing in its Network Associates Coliseum, the favorite by more than a touchdown. The Titans (12-5) their quarterback hobbled, their running back past his prime and their kicker needing three attempts to get them this far might require a miracle to get to Super Bowl XXXVII.
And a miracle was just what Tennessee got en route to Super Bowl XXXIV. Back then it was the Music City Miracle, the last-second kickoff return-lateral touchdown that beat Buffalo in the wild-card round of the 1999 playoffs. The Titans then upset Jacksonville on the road in the AFC Championship game, only to lose to St. Louis in the big game at Atlanta.
Stunning postseason defeats, meanwhile, are a part of the Raiders' recent history. Last year they lost to New England's Tom Brady and the tuck rule in the snow. The year before, Baltimore went on the road for the conference title game and beat Oakland 16-3. Those losses, however, won't be on the Raiders' minds today.
"This is a different team, this is a different team of characters, there is a different dynamic and a different chemistry," coach Bill Callahan said.
If the game comes down to talent, it will hinge on the simple and seemingly overwhelming matchup of Oakland's top-ranked passing offense against the Titans' 25th-ranked passing defense.
The Raiders' attack dominated this season despite the loss of architect Jon Gruden to Tampa Bay, which is an NFC finalist today. Callahan went even more unabashedly to the pass, swapping Gruden's preference for the power running game with the type of runs that have defined Philadelphia in recent years ones that start out with a short pass.
"I think we just made up our mind earlier in the year that you have to be good at something on offense either throwing the ball or running the ball," wide receiver Tim Brown said. "And we figured we were better at throwing the ball. We just went with it."
Masterfully guiding the offense is 37-year-old quarterback Rich Gannon, a first-time NFL MVP. Aiding him are two of history's top three wideouts (Jerry Rice and Brown), a dangerous speed receiver (Jerry Porter) and a running back (Charlie Garner) whose versatility is defined by his almost 50-50 split of rushing and receiving yards (962-941).
The Titans' offense, by comparison, is merely effective. Quarterback Steve McNair overcame a variety of injuries this year to post career numbers in passing yards (3,387) and touchdowns (22), while running back Eddie George averaged just 3.4 yards per carry as he searched for the consistency that made him one of the league's best players a few years back.
McNair didn't practice until Friday due to concerns about the thumb he injured last week and a lingering bout with turf toe. A big day today would cement the gladiator image he portrayed throughout the season, when he often was limited by back and rib injuries.
"When you've got No.9 back there, anything can happen," tight end Frank Wycheck said. "We're taking the attitude that we're just going to go out there and play like we're used to playing play hard, play fast and just make plays."
Such playmaking allowed a team that opened 1-4 (following a 7-9 run in 2001) to win 10 of its last 11 including a league-best five straight to end the season and nose past Pittsburgh 36-33 in the divisional round of the playoffs.
In that game, Titans kicker Joe Nedney missed from 48 yards to win at the end of regulation. In overtime, he connected and would have won but the Steelers called timeout just in time. Fireworks, nonetheless, went off to celebrate an apparent Tennessee victory. Nedney then missed but suffered a roughing the kicker penalty which he later joked was a good acting job on his part. Finally he chipped through a 26-yarder for the win.
After that stretch, one has a sense this team could overcome any obstacle.
"Our confidence level is up," McNair said. "Regardless of if we fall behind or not, we have the confidence in ourselves, each and every individual right now, to come back from a deficit. I think we're putting everything together right now."
The Raiders, though, also have reason to feel like a team of destiny. A club with six players 35 or older is in line to be broken up for salary cap reasons in coming months. Now is the time to make up for two years of heartbreak and accomplish what seems inevitable.
"Everybody right now, we're playing for each other," cornerback Charles Woodson said. "There's a lot of guys, older guys, that have not won a Super Bowl. I have not been to a Super Bowl. We are all trying to get there, and we are all trying to win it for each other."


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