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Momentum swings back in Titans' direction

Michael Silver
Yahoo Sports

Editor's note: Michael Silver will not have a Live Trippin' session Tuesday. Live Trippin' will return Dec. 30.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The best team in football had just made a resounding statement, displaying its depth, toughness and comprehensive excellence to the powerful Pittsburgh Steelers and any potential future opponents who happened to tune in, but Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher didn't want to hear it.

To Fisher, the Titans' 31-14 victory Sunday over the Steelers (11-4) wasn't about sending a message to the rest of the NFL that the road to Super Bowl XLIII goes through Music City. It even transcended the literal embodiment of that message – with the triumph Tennessee (13-2), owner of the NFL's best record, clinched home-field advantage in the AFC.

No, this was something far more personal: A signal to their demanding coach from 45 players – a group that, on Sunday, included neither the NFL's top defensive tackle nor the Titans' best pass-rushing end – that Tennessee's vast promise can be fulfilled when it matters most.

"This," Fisher said as he strolled through the empty home locker room at LP Field nearly an hour after Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's final, futile kneel-down, "is the game we've been waiting to play."

The result guaranteed the Titans nothing. After a four-day whirlwind of postseason scrambling across the conference, it's easy to envision a team seeded fifth (the Colts) or sixth (most likely the Ravens or Patriots) advancing not only out of the wild-card round but into the AFC championship game.

What Sunday's emphatic effort did was remind Fisher's players, who'd lost two of their previous four games following a 10-0 start, of some essential tenets that those of us outside their facility aren't as adept at grasping:

First, that winning football in December and January isn't usually the product of superlative individual play; it takes a collective show of grit, intensity and execution.

Secondly, as the Giants showed us last year in their spirited loss to the Patriots in the regular-season finale, getting on a championship roll this time of year is less about securing favorable outcomes than activating some sort of internal extra gear – or, for you Spinal Tap fans, finding a way to crank that amp to 11.

"This game definitely set the tone for the whole AFC playoffs," said Keith Bulluck, the Titans' omnipresent outside linebacker, who had 13 tackles (two for loss), a pair of passes defensed and a forced fumble. "All year long, we felt like we were the best team, but we never got the credit for it – and we still may not. Actually, Pittsburgh is the best team. We just beat 'em, but they're still the best."

Considering that Bulluck and Titans halfback LenDale White had spent the final moments of Sunday's game stomping on a Terrible Towel on the Tennessee sideline – the horror! – it wasn't hard to spot the sarcasm in that last statement.

Hey, all teams convince themselves, with varying degrees of conviction, that they're disrespected. To Fisher's credit, before the surprising Titans' biggest regular season game in years, the 15th-year coach challenged his players to look beyond the obvious – that they were underdogs at home to the newly anointed darlings of power-ranking nation – and foster a more cerebral sense of urgency.

On Saturday night, Fisher, who had stopped briefly by the bar at the hotel near Vanderbilt University where the team stays before home games, recounted the speech he had just given to his players. "It was a setup of sorts," the coach said, offering an unusually relaxed smile. "I knew what they were thinking, and I wanted to make a point."

Fisher began his speech by asking, "What kind of game is this? A statement game?" The coach gave a subtle nod, and his players nodded along affirmatively.

"Why?" Fisher asked.

Several Titans, including Bulluck, the team's defensive leader, raised their hands and gave their answers. Finally, the coach cut them off.

"Guys," Fisher said, "it was a trick question. It's not a statement game. It's a momentum game. Momentum is what we need heading into the playoffs. And this is our last chance to get it."

The NFL's longest-tenured coach with his current team then proceeded to lay it all out: The Titans, coming off a 13-12 defeat at Houston, were starting to look like a team that was staggering to the finish line. With the Colts, their AFC South rivals, locked into the fifth-overall seed after Thursday's victory over Jacksonville, Tennessee's season finale at Indy next Sunday was destined to take on an exhibition vibe, at least for the home team.

Staring down the Steelers, winners of five consecutive games – most recently a road thrashing of the Patriots and a pair of dramatic comeback victories over the Cowboys and Ravens – was the last available jolt to the Titans' system before the single-elimination tension descended.

"Whether we win or whether we lose," Fisher told the team, "let's go out and create some momentum for ourselves."

Of all the great things the Titans did Sunday, exceeding their coach's expectations was the most improbable. They forced four fumbles, recovering two of them, and twice intercepted Roethlisberger. Safety Michael Griffin had both picks, returning the second one 83 yards for an emphatic touchdown with 16 seconds remaining. Tennessee had 10 tackles for losses, five of them sacks of Roethlisberger.

On offense, the Titans were close to perfect, committing no turnovers and allowing quarterback Kerry Collins to be sacked only once. Halfbacks White and Chris Johnson combined for 117 yards on 31 carries and a pair of touchdowns as Tennessee gained 323 total yards – becoming the first team this season to break the 300 barrier against the NFL's top-ranked defense.

Twice Fisher passed up field-goal attempts to go for it on fourth down – on the first play, Johnson ran 21 yards for the go-ahead touchdown late in the third quarter; on the second, Collins hit Justin Gage with a 17-yard pass that set up White's 1-yard scoring run, which put the Titans up by 10.

Oh, and the Titans had some big plays on special teams, too.

"We knew what was at stake," cornerback Nick Harper said. "Win or lose, we really wanted to come out and show everybody – and ourselves – that we're for real. Outside this room, nobody wanted to give us credit at all. If you listen to people, we just happened to beat 12 teams that ain't no good. Why that is, I don't know. I guess 'cause it's a small market, and we don't make a lot of noise here. And we don't have a lot of players who people consider big names."

Now consider that the Titans manhandled the Steelers without their biggest-name player: All-Pro defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, who sprained his left knee late in the defeat to the Texans. Joining Haynesworth on the sideline was defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, a Pro Bowl selection last season who has been hobbled with a groin injury for much of the season.

Both players are expected to return for the playoffs, which will only make the Titans deeper and scarier. On Sunday, Haynesworth watched his replacement, rookie second-round pick Jason Jones, make a case for allowing the big man to leave via free agency after the '08 campaign: All the 277-pound converted end did was record 3½ sacks and force three fumbles. Fellow no-name linemen Tony Brown, William Hayes, Jacob Ford, Dave Ball and fresh-off-the-practice-squad Amon Gordon also shined.

When it was over, the Titans (14.1 points per game) had moved ahead of the Steelers (14.4) in scoring defense to sit atop the league rankings – Pittsburgh still leads in total defense, which is based on yardage allowed – and the visitors were left to hope for a do-over in January.

"We'll see them again," Pittsburgh halfback Willie Parker said as he walked off the field.

If so, the game will be in Nashville, and the Titans will have the momentum their coach so desperately craved.

As Fisher prepared to leave the stadium Sunday afternoon, he reflected back on a busy weekend that included a long Friday night drive to Chattanooga, where his son, Brandon, a linebacker for Montana, lost to Richmond in the Football Championship Subdivision title game. After arriving home at 2 a.m. Fisher turned his attention back to the Steelers, who've caused more restless nights among opposing coaches than any AFC team outside of Nashville.

You can bet Fisher slept soundly Sunday night.

"Inside the building, it's comforting that we've played our best game at the most important time," the coach said before heading for the parking lot. "We've kind of set a minimum standard that we'll have to uphold in the playoffs, and now we understand what we're capable of doing."

In that sense, it was a statement game. It's just that, in this case, the Titans were talking to themselves.

I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …

Stop me if this sounds eerily similar to what you just read above, but the Giants (12-3) accomplished more than clinching home-field advantage in the NFC with Sunday night's 34-28 overtime victory over the impressive Panthers. "The only message we sent tonight is that the team is getting that swagger back that we had last year at the end of the season," middle linebacker Antonio Pierce told reporters afterward. "They're going to fight for 60 minutes, overtime, cold weather, being down. To keep fighting, that's what I'm most proud of." The defending Super Bowl champs ended a two-game losing streak with an outstanding offensive effort keyed by the rejuvenated line. The proof: 301 rushing yards – the team's highest single-game total since 1959 – including 215 by Derrick Ward and 87 (including the two-yard thrust that won the game) from Brandon Jacobs. Eli Manning, meanwhile, was masterful when it mattered most. His sweet play-fake to Jacobs that set up the game-tying two-point conversion pass to Domenik Hixon with 3:21 left in regulation was, dare we say, Peytonesque. The Panthers (11-4) could have won it before overtime had John Kasay, 24-of-25 on field goals to that point, been able to convert a 50-yarder. Oh, and the increasingly awesome DeAngelo Williams ran for four touchdowns. What a great battle, and we may very well see a rematch in the NFC championship game.

The Falcons are no longer merely a great story. After Sunday's 24-17 road victory over the Vikings, Atlanta (10-5) is a playoff team with the confidence to compete against anyone in the conference. "We have a team that can make a run at this thing," veteran linebacker Keith Brooking said via text message Sunday night. He's not lying: The Falcons seem destined to get the fifth seed, but with a home victory over the Rams and a Panthers loss at New Orleans, they could win the NFC North and earn a first-round bye. Think about how crazy that is. New GM. First-year coach. Rookie quarterback. It helps, of course, that Matt Ryan is playing with the poise of a 35-year-old. "He is unbelievable," Brooking says. "This franchise is in great hands for the next 10 years or longer if he stays healthy." So much for the post-Petrino/Vick stench. This is why the NFL is a great league; transformations like this can happen in a year. As veteran safety Lawyer Milloy texted Sunday night, "It feels so good!!!"

Another team feeling ridiculously good right now? The San Diego Chargers, a.k.a. the Most Dangerous 7-8 Team In NFL History. OK, I'm kind of joking. Kind of. But after the way the Chargers ripped apart the Bucs in Tampa Sunday, you have to wonder – what if this maddeningly mistake-prone team is finally putting it together the way it did in last season's stirring stretch run? Consider that the Bucs, with their postseason fortunes on the line, suffered their first home loss of the season and surrendered their highest point total since 1999. Think about Nate Kaeding's 57-yard field goal and Philip Rivers' "Take That, Pro Bowl Voters" four-touchdown effort and the reemergence of Antonio Gates and so many other positive signs, and there's reason to believe. Meanwhile the Broncos (8-7), who held a three-game lead in the division two weeks ago, blew a 13-0 lead to the Bills and lost, 30-23, to keep hope alive in San Diego. Given the controversial circumstances of the two teams' first meeting, what better way to decide this dysfunctional division than to stage the Hochuli Bowl on Sunday night at Qualcomm Stadium? Looking ahead, if the Chargers can beat the Broncos, they'll face the Colts in a first-round game that will conjure memories of their greatest postseason triumph since the Super Bowl season of '94. And to think this team was down 11 points with 1:19 to go in Kansas City two weeks ago and needed an onside kick and a missed Chiefs field goal on the final play to stave off elimination.

… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT

Chant with me, everybody: "J-E-T-S MESS MESS MESS." Less than a month ago, New York/New Jersey's other team was being talked up as a Super Bowl contender after beating the Titans by 21 points in Nashville to improve to 8-3. Now? It's ugly. On Sunday the Jets (9-6) likely doomed their postseason hopes by losing 13-3 at Seattle, New York's fourth defeat in as many games on the West Coast. Against a team that was 3-11 coming in, with a six-game losing streak, the Jets had nothing. Remember when Brett Favre (43-6 at Lambeau Field with the kickoff temperature 34 degrees or below) was cold in the cold? Now he just looks old. After Green Bay's NFC championship game defeat to the Giants last January, some Packers decision-makers wondered privately whether Favre had become a liability in the chill. Weather aside – it was 31 degrees and snowy at kickoff Sunday – Favre has thrown one touchdown and six interceptions during the past four games. Last week he openly questioned whether he still has enough arm strength to be effective; for what it's worth, he underthrew receivers on two conspicuous occasions Sunday. Perhaps a lack of confidence in Favre caused coach Eric Mangini to shrivel up at two pivotal points of the game. On New York's opening drive it faced a fourth down and half a yard from the Seattle 2 but, instead of challenging the league's 30th-ranked defense, Mangini settled for a 20-yard field goal by Jay Feely. Then, early in the fourth quarter, Feely killed a 45-yard field goal attempt, putting it through the uprights with plenty of distance to spare, but the Jets were penalized for delay of game. So, absurdly, Mangini pulled his kicker and sent on the punting team. When Mangini finally decided to be bold that move, too, was dubious: Trailing 10-3 and facing a fourth-and-2 from his own 20 with 2:21 to go and with three timeouts, Mangini had Favre throw deep for Laveranues Coles, who was double-covered and couldn't hold onto the pass. Seattle kicked the field goal to put away the game, and that was that. Fortunately, Mangini won't face much second-guessing, because, you know, HE COACHES IN A TINY MARKET CALLED THE BIG APPLE. With all of that said, here's what the Jets face: Unless the Ravens lose to the Jags or the Patriots lose to Bills, even a home victory over the Dolphins won't get them into the playoffs. All of which causes my inner conspiracy theorist to ponder a disquieting notion – given his well-documented disgust for former boss Bill Belichick, would a small part of Mangini be tempted to tank the game against the Dolphins to keep New England out of the playoffs? That sounds far-fetched, I know, especially since, as one owner speculated Sunday, Mangini may need to win the game to save his job.

"We pissed down our leg," read a text message I received from an Eagles player Sunday night, and it was very difficult to argue. Given a chance to control its playoff fortunes when the Cowboys and Bucs lost their respective games, Philly (8-6-1) shot blanks in a 10-3 loss to the Redskins. Yes, the Eagles were within inches of forcing overtime on the final play, with LaRon Landry and Fred Smoot teaming up to keep Reggie Brown from crossing the goal line after a leaping catch, but a good team would never have let it come to that. Philly still has a mathematical chance of reaching the postseason, but it's more likely that the possibility of spoiling Dallas' season (if the Cowboys win they're in) is all Andy Reid's team will have to play for next Sunday. Oh, and that tie at Cincinnati in mid-November? That was sort of deadly.

Someday far off in the future, an NFL team will be a true embarrassment to its fan base, and people will be throwing out terms like "worst of all time." And barring a stunning Detroit victory next Sunday at Lambeau Field, I'll be the old codger chiming in with, "Not so fast, whippersnappers. The 2008 Lions were the most terrible team of all." In a 42-7 defeat to the Saints Sunday that made Detroit the first NFL team to go 0-15, Ford Field turned into a burlesque show, with fans mockingly chanting "Jo-ey, Jo-ey" at Saints third-string quarterback (and former Lions presumed savior) Joey Harrington. Soon-to-be-fired coach Rod Marinelli, who seems like a nice, honorable man, was on-point as always – the Lions opened the second half by being penalized for having 12 men in the huddle. It was another proud Sunday for Marinelli's son-in-law, defensive coordinator Joe Barry, as Detroit allowed New Orleans to convert all 11 of its third-down plays before Drew Brees' game-ending kneel-down. And the news keeps getting worse: Owner William Clay Ford told mlive.com before Sunday's game that he plans to retain two current members of the front office (chief operating officer Tom Lewand and interim general manager Martin Mayhew) and might not hire a GM with control over personnel decisions. In other words: Matt Millen is gone, but may his regime live on! Then, after the game, things degenerated even further. During Marinelli's postgame news conference, Detroit News columnist Rob Parker pushed him about Barry's failings as defensive coordinator. Then Parker, in what he later explained as an inside-joke-kind-of-thing, asked, "Do you wish your daughter had married a better defensive coordinator?" I guess you had to be there. Suffice it to say that it was not his – nor our profession's – finest hour.

TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND

1. My daughter's seventh grade geometry homework (or, for that matter, anything spatial).

2. Why Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt would subject Kurt Warner, his most important player, to even a single snap in the second half of a game that was an abject disaster. Think about it: The Cardinals trailed 38-0 by the time they got the ball in the third quarter and had no semblance of an offensive attack. There was snow all over the Gillette Stadium field and the Pats would be free to rush the immobile Warner with abandon, especially given Arizona's utter absence of a ground attack. And Arizona hosts a playoff game in two weeks. Time to put away the fine china. Yet Warner played two series and threw five passes, and the Cards fell behind 44-0 before Whisenhunt brought Matt Leinart in to replace the 37-year-old quarterback. Also incomprehensible: That the Cardinals (8-7), who've been outscored 405-393 this season and are 2-6 against teams with a winning record, are headed to the postseason while the Pats (10-5), even if they win at Buffalo next Sunday, may become the second 11-5 team of the last 30 years to be left out of the playoffs.

OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN

I like Brad Childress, and I've defended him quite a bit this season amid the resounding chorus of frustrated Vikings fans who've been calling for his head. I also realize that choosing a starting quarterback is a hugely important part of his job, and he is the person best equipped to make that decision. Yet I can't help but believe that he has made a huge mistake by playing Tarvaris Jackson ahead of Gus Frerotte with Minnesota's postseason fate on the line. It was Frerotte, remember, who saved the Vikings' season – and, most likely, Childress' job – when he replaced Jackson after an 0-2 start and steadied the team with his veteran leadership and big arm. He hung in and took big hits and won over teammates with his toughness and utter disregard for his own statistical success. Yeah, he threw 15 interceptions, but here's the stat that mattered most: The Vikes went 7-3 and took control of the NFC North with him at the helm. Then, in a victory over the Lions two Sundays ago, Frerotte suffered a fractured transverse process in his back, and Jackson came in and played well and helped Minnesota to the victory. An MRI the following day revealed a second fractured transverse process – Frerotte had suffered it in a mid-November defeat to the Bucs and had played through it without complaining. This time, the pain from the newer fracture was enough to cause him to sit out last Sunday's game against the Cardinals. Jackson had another good performance – though, in the wake of Arizona's atrocious performance against the Pats Sunday, that seems partly attributable to the competition, or lack thereof – to put the Vikings within a game of clinching a playoff berth. Frerotte, who was told by doctors he could play as soon as he could tolerate the pain, returned to practice last Wednesday. Later that day, Childress told the quarterbacks he was sticking with Jackson. I believe he made the wrong call and, as someone who knows Frerotte well, am convinced the coach handled the situation poorly. If Childress knew anything about Frerotte's career, and the way the quarterback has felt shafted by numerous coaches in the past, he should've considered the psychological ramifications of making such a move. If anyone deserves a little loyalty – or, at least, an honest explanation of why he was being benched after winning a majority of his games – it's Frerotte. I know that people will point to Jackson's stats in Sunday's defeat to the Falcons and say he had a good game, and it's true that he's playing much better than he did at the start of the season. But Jackson also lost a fumble in the red zone and botched a handoff to Adrian Peterson that resulted in another turnover. I trust Frerotte more, and I'm not alone. I ran the quarterback situation by a couple of Vikings players after the game, and they agreed that Frerotte should be playing. One said he felt the Vikes were "under more control" with Frerotte and that he brings an intangible confidence to the entire team. So, assuming the Bears can beat the Packers Monday night, now comes Childress' moment of truth. If the Bears win out (they play the Texans Sunday in Houston), the Vikings will likely have to defeat the Giants to make the playoffs. Coach Chilly, don't be silly – start the guy who got you here in the first place.

TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK

"You picked the Lions? Well [expletive] you & your pick."
– Text Sunday evening from Saints linebacker Scott Fujita, goofing on a prediction that was only five touchdowns off the mark

"We owed brett. He sent us home last yr"
– Text Sunday night from Seahawks safety Brian Russell, recalling his team's divisional-round playoff defeat at Lambeau Field last January

"[Expletive] yeah"
– Text Sunday night from fired-up Chargers long-snapper David Binn

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