Just before halftime of Tennessee’s playoff games against Indianapolis and Jacksonville, a startling realization came to careful observers in the crowd: The Titans were losing, and they were going to win.
Jeff Fisher’s team is about as subtle as a tornado (perhaps a more apt name for this bunch, after all)and, yet, like a tornado, the Titans can sneak up on you. Even with a 13-3 record, and three victories over the teams considered the best in each conference, few among the nation’s Media Geniuses seemed to regard Tennessee as a serious contender when the playoffs began. Which was just ducky with the players, who have relished the role of underdogs all year long.
So when the Titans trailed Indianapolis 9-6 at the half and were behind 14-10 at Jacksonville, the numbers suggested that the games belonged to anyone. But Tennessee’s players could already smell victories. They were dictating the style of play: an unaesthetic, primal, smash-mouth brand of football that would have made Fisher’s old boss, George Halas, beam with pride.
In both games, the Titans entered the second half with supreme confidence. They believed they had it won; all they had to do was execute.
This week, that familiar pattern seems poised to repeat itself.
No sooner had the Rams narrowly escaped Tampa Bay’s trap than the Bookmaking Geniuses anointed St. Louis as a seven-point favorite in the Super Bowl. It didn’t appear to matter that the Titans already had defeated the Rams this year. (Perhaps it was the same curious dynamic that led Tennessee’s previous victories somehow to make the Jags overconfident on Sunday: ”There’s no way those upstart punks can beat us three times!“)
The conventional wisdom holds that the Rams possess too much speed and offensive firepower. The Titans, by contrast, seem plodding. The Rams’ passing game is beautifully balletic to behold. Against J’ville, the Titans completed no pass longer than 15 yards. The Rams are choreographed like a Broadway show. The Titans are improvisationalwhich, to many Media Geniuses, suggests they’re more lucky than good.
The Rams are pretty. The Titans, whose style is best exemplified by Steve McNair, are gritty. They play Uglyball.
Nevertheless, the Titans seem well-matched for St. Louismuch better matched, in fact, than they would have been against Tampa Bay, whose ferocious style is perhaps even more intimidating than Tennessee’s.
Particularly of late, the Titans have played their best against ”finesse“ teams like the Rams, Colts, and Jags.
The Rams’ speed and elusiveness will sorely test Tennessee’s secondary, where the loss of Marcus Robertson could be sorely felt on Super Sunday.
Nor is it probable that the Titans will win the psychological gameor at least not as easily as they did against Jacksonville, which treated the AFC championship game more like a coronation than a contest. The Rams have already survived one upset bid. It’s not likely that they’ll show up again with a run-down battery.
Still, it says here that the Titans will again defy the Media Geniuses.
The suggestion that Bud’s Boys are Destiny’s Team may be hooey. What’s relevant, though, is that the Titans believe it. Ever since the Immaculate Deception, they have maintained an unshakable confidence, even when losing. If you discount the impact of such an attitude, ask the Colts and Jaguars what can happen when self-doubt creeps in.
More tangBly, Fisher’s team again will be excruciatingly well-prepared defensively. If you like hearing gears grind, you’ll enjoy watching this bunch disrupt the Rams’ offensive unit.
Meanwhile, the Tennessee offense, which has won three playoff matches by summoning the thunder of Eddie George and the lightning of McNair, will attempt to wear down St. Louis with a relentless pounding.
With the Titans, it may be less a thing of beauty than of booty. Of course, if looking good were a critical factor, their uniforms alone would have kept them from the playoffs.
Before the ”Thrilla in Manila,“ Muhammad Ali crowed that Joe Frazier was too ugly to hold the title. ”We need a pretty champion!“ he announced.
A generation later, the pendulum has swung the other way. Ready or not, America, the NFL is about to crown an ugly champion.
Titans 27, Rams 23
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