Tampa Bay (7-8) at Tennessee (11-4)

Fair Currently: Nashville, TN
Temp: 75° F
  • Game info: 1:00 pm EST Sun Dec 28, 2003
  • TV: FOX
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A sore right calf and a cracked bone spur in his left ankle won’t prevent Steve McNair from playing against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—especially with an AFC South division title potentially on the line.

Coach Jeff Fisher said there was very little chance that McNair will practice this week, staying inside and receiving more treatment on his ankle instead.

McNair was held out of practice Friday, concluding the third straight week he hasn’t practiced.

However, Fisher said the Pro Bowl quarterback has improved during the week and the team will take the same approach to the regular-season finale against visiting Tampa Bay on Sunday as it did with McNair last week in Houston.

“His symptoms are better than they were last Friday,” Fisher said. “We’re going to do the same things with him, carrying into just before warmups, get him out there, get him running around a little bit and try to give him some warmups and see how he feels.”

McNair, who has emerged as one of the leading candidates for league MVP honors, was at it again last weekend. After Fisher waited until warmups to give McNair the nod as his starter in Houston, the courageous signal-caller engineered a clutch game-winning touchdown drive, limping his way down the field.

McNair hit Drew Bennett with a 23-yard touchdown pass on fourth down with 17 seconds remaining to give the Titans a 27-24 win over the Texans, clinching a playoff berth for Tennessee.

“I didn’t feel that I needed to play, but I felt I wanted to go out there and get something started even if I didn’t finish,” said McNair, adding it was ”50-50” on which leg hurt worse.

After Indianapolis lost to Denver later Sunday night, Fisher realized that he couldn’t give McNair the regular season finale off as originally intended as the Titans now have a chance to win the AFC South, if they beat the underachieving Buccaneers and the Colts lose at Houston on Sunday.

“We’ve got some things to work out right now. Our goal is to win this ballgame we’re in,” Fisher said. “We also have to keep things in mind for a week from this weekend. It’s a delicate situation. But the bottom line is we’re going to play to win.”

McNair, who has become reknown for his ability to play through pain, has thrown a career-high 24 touchdown passes this season. He also has topped 3,000 yards passing for the fourth time in his career.

But it’s what he does when even when he’s injured that makes him perhaps the league’s biggest impact player.

“He gives everything he has on every down, and he won’t stop until we get the win,” receiver Justin McCareins said. “He goes into the phone booth and pulls it out for us. We’ve gotten used to him doing amazing things.”

The Titans are currently the fifth seed in the AFC, but if they lose and Denver beats Green Bay on Sunday, Tennessee would drop to the sixth and final spot in the conference, and would play at Indianapolis in the wild-card round.

The Bucs looked like a legitimate contender to repeat as Super Bowl champions after opening the season with a shutout win in Philadelphia. But very little has gone well for Tampa Bay since, and the Bucs will just be trying to avoid finishing with a losing record on Sunday.

The Bucs were eliminated from the postseason with last Saturday’s home loss to Atlanta, ending a streak of four straight playoff appearances.

“It’s going to be strange, but that’s where we are,” Tampa Bay safety John Lynch said of missing the postseason for the first time since 1998.

“There were a lot of distractions, including injuries, but we refuse to use those as an excuse for what’s gone on this year. Injuries are the most tangible reason, but other teams have had those and they stepped up. … We just didn’t do a good enough job.”

Tampa Bay, 0-5 in games decided by three points or fewer this season, lost twice in overtime and dropped six games in which it was tied or held a lead in the fourth quarter.

“There’s a fine line between winning and losing. It’s a hard lesson that we’ve learned if some of us didn’t understand that,” Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. “But we’ll regroup. We’ll respond. We’ll reload if we have to, and we’ll come back next season better than ever, I hope.”

The Bucs are the second straight Super Bowl winner—11th overall—to fail to make the playoffs the following season. Six defending champions—the 1999 Broncos, 1988 Redskins, 1987 Giants, 1982 49ers, 1981 Raiders and 1968 Packers—had losing records.

“You look at it early in the year and looked at some of the teams that hadn’t made it, and you kind of laughed at it,” said veteran defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who may be playing his final game for the Bucs as he is eligible for free agency this coming offseason.

“It’s a reality now.”

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