Despite turnovers and penalties, Titans roll

December, 7, 2008
12/07/08
8:05
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

 
 Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
 Kerry Collins threw two touchdowns as the Titans routed the Browns 28-9 Sunday to grab the AFC South title for the first time since 2002.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Stephen Tulloch wanted one. Cortland Finnegan had no use for his.

And so a simple handoff went down in the shadowy Titans locker room, where the same electrical problems that took out a Jumbotron meant only about half the lights were working.

While Tulloch acquired an AFC South Championship hat and Michael Griffin proudly wore his high on his head during interviews, most Tennessee players tucked their hats and shirts into their bags -- treats for family or mementos for later when they hope it's a small marker on the road map of a much bigger season.

"I think I'll put it in the closet with the rest of them, I think that's my fourth or fifth one," said cornerback Nick Harper, who jumped to the Titans in 2007 from the Colts, who won the previous five division titles. "I collect them. I've won so many, I never wore the hats. One day I'm going to have a trophy case and put them all up there for the grandkids to see."

Tight end Alge Crumpler enjoyed watching coach Jeff Fisher get a cooler dumped on him late in Tennessee's 28-9 victory over Cleveland, but said the celebration didn't extend far beyond that.

"We came in, said we've got one goal down, and by the time we said a prayer you guys were in the locker room, so we didn't get a chance to do much celebrating," Crumpler said. "If anybody on this team is satisfied, they're in the wrong place."

Long after the Titans finished their part, the Jets' loss in San Francisco assured Tennessee of a first-round playoff bye.

The last two weeks may have shown us as much or more about how bad the Lions and Browns are than about how good the Titans are.

Still, it's no small feat for the home team to survive a season-high three turnovers and season highs in penalties and yards -- 13 for 131 -- and still win by 19 points.

"It wasn't our cleanest game," quarterback Kerry Collins said. "I think a lot of credit has to go to our defense. We put them into some tough situations with the turnovers, hurt ourselves with the penalties, so a lot of credit has to go to them for stepping it up the way they did."

A game that was sailing early got bogged down with chippy play -- 21 total penalties and 30 incomplete passes. But the Titans took command with a stout run defense, a steady diet of carries for their two running backs and third-down success on both sides of the ball.

The Titans were a bit daring on the play of the game that might best symbolize how things line up for them. Down 6-0 and facing a fourth-and-1 from the Cleveland 28-yard line after LenDale White couldn't convert on third-and-1, Collins faked a handoff to White, then threw to fullback Ahmard Hall, who snuck out into the flat. He caught the short throw, raced to the front left corner of the end zone and the Titans were ahead for good.

"Actually it was the best call I think we could have had for the defense they were in, I think they had a 6-2 defense in," Crumpler said. "If we tried to just run it up the gut, we were outmanned. It was a great call at the right time."

Collins said it was a "gutsy" call by offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger and that the Titans hadn't imagined Hall would be open, but planned to throw to one of two crossing receivers.

Just like with the penalties and the turnovers, it all worked out for the best.

At the two-minute warning, the Titans' marketing folks were pitching AFC South Championship gear on the one scoreboard that was working. But Finnegan was not at all excited about his keepsakes.

"That's short-lived man, I don't care about that," he said. "The Houston Texans don't care, that's a division rival coming up."

Other things I noticed, heard or asked about after the game at LP Field...

  • Rookie Running back Chris Johnson came into the game averaging an impressive 4.7 yards per carry, and did significant work to boost it to 4.9 with 19 carries for 136 yards and a touchdown.

    His backfield partner, White, got a touchdown too, and landed a yard short of 100 himself. He actually had it until he took a late fourth-down carry wide left for a loss of two yards.

    Had he stayed in triple figures, it would have been the Titans' third game with two 100-yard running backs. No team had seen two backs top 100 yards rushing in three games in the same season since Rocky Bleier and Franco Harris on the 1976 Steelers.

  • An illustration of how Fisher and Collins are hardly the only calm, cool, collected guys leading this team, just the most visible:

    Return man Chris Carr watched the opening kickoff of the third quarter scoot by him and circled behind it. When it touched the goal line he was on a knee in the end zone gathering it to down it. Touchback.

    Undoubtedly, there are some return men in the league who wouldn't have known the rule well enough to make the right play with such confidence and would have tried to bring it out of the end zone for fear of being hit for a safety.

    "I think I played it exactly the way you're supposed to play it," Carr said. "It's tough when the ball bounces like that, but I think I did the right thing."

    A similarly smart play: Collins let go of his second touchdown pass, a 9-yarder to Justin Gage, while defensive back Eric Wright had his back turned. Gage may have gotten away with a slight shove and Wright slid sideways, away from the ball, as it arrived.

    "The defender had his back turned," Collins said. "Sometimes if you throw it high and right at him, the defender doesn't know the ball is coming and at worst it's going to be incomplete."

    Likewise on defense, the Browns' use of Joshua Cribbs in a "flash package" where he took direct snaps and lined up some at quarterback hardly made the Titans flinch. He threw one nice pass that led a receiver out of bounds and ran six times for 24 yards. Ho hum.

  • Three of the Titans' penalties h
    ad side effects that don't show up in the raw numbers:

    Kevin Mawae's personal foul undid a 5-yard gain, Jevon Kearse's defensive offside undid a Nick Harper interception and a 14-yard return, and Jason Jones' defensive offside meant his 18-yard sack of Ken Dorsey didn't count.

  • One spot it doesn't look like this regime or a new one for the Browns will have to address is weakside linebacker. D'Qwell Jackson had two picks and nearly had a third, and looked to do very well getting depth covering the deep middle when he had too.

    He was credited with 15 tackles in a game where no one else had more than eight.

    But Jackson can't solve this team's primary issue -- an inability to get into the end zone. The Browns' touchdown-less streak now extends just 13 seconds short of 13 quarters, dating back to the early fourth quarter of their Nov. 17 win at Buffalo.

  • Until late in the second quarter, the scoreboard in the north end zone was completely dark. The play clock at the other end was turned off too to make things fair.

    Collins said he looked only for the 10-second signal from the official. Fisher was complimentary of the crisp pace with which the offense worked to ensure it was a non-issue.

  • Finnegan was kicking himself after the game for two near-misses on field-goal blocks. Twice he streaked in from the right edge, beating Steve Heiden and nearly blocking Phil Dawson's kick.

    "I was real close, great penetration," he said. "I made the same move both times and it worked both times, and the third time he roughed me up. ... I definitely owe us one."

    While we're on the subject of field goals, an odd note from ESPN Research:

    With Dawson hitting from 47 and 41 and missing from 44, opponents are just 5-for-10 on field goal tries from 40 yards and beyond against the Titans. Tennessee kicker Rob Bironas, meanwhile, is 14-of-17 from 40 and beyond. His work was limited to extra points on Sunday.

Paul Kuharsky | email

ESPN Tennessee Titans reporter

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