HOUSTON (AP)—It’s December and Steve McNair is ailing.
The Titans quarterback, playing with a cracked bone spur in his left ankle and a sore right calf, hit Drew Bennett for a 23-yard touchdown pass on fourth down with 17 seconds left to lead the Tennessee Titans into the playoffs with a 27-24 victory Sunday over the Houston Texans.
Titans coach Jeff Fisher waited until after pregame warmups to choose McNair over veteran Neil O’Donnell, signed Thursday after backup Billy Volek went down last weekend with a lacerated spleen. Volek started last week’s victory over Buffalo to end McNair’s consecutive game streak at 43.
“(McNair) was the difference,” defensive end Jevon Kearse said. “If he hadn’t been out there, I don’t think the result would have been the same.”
Tennessee (11-4) fell behind with 1:48 remaining when Domanick Davis capped a four-play drive with a 5-yard touchdown run around the left end.
That put the ball back into the hands of McNair, who got the starting nod despite a noticeable limp. He drove the Titans 75 yards in the waning seconds, completing passes to Bennett for 20 and 24 yards before hitting him in stride over cornerback Marcus Coleman in the end zone on fourth-and-10.
“It’s always tough, but that’s what I get paid for,” Coleman said. “I’ll forget about it as soon as I leave here. You’ve got to have amnesia and a short-term memory to play defensive back in this league.”
McNair, who led the Titans to five straight wins at the end of last season despite not practicing because of injuries, was 17-of-36 for 268 yards and two touchdowns.
The Titans qualified for postseason play when Cincinnati lost at St. Louis a few minutes before Tennessee’s victory. And Denver’s victory at Indianapolis on Sunday night meant the Titans could win the AFC South next weekend with a win over Tampa Bay and a Colts loss at Houston.
“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.
It was the sixth straight home game decided by less than a touchdown for the Texans (5-10), the expansion team formed to replace the Oilers after they moved to Tennessee in 1997. Houston fell to 0-4 against the Titans, in the playoffs for the fourth time in five years.
“Today is one of the most disappointing losses I’ve been involved with,” Texans coach Dom Capers said. “It’s disappointing to me as a head coach because of the way our guys fought.”
Things looked promising for Houston when Carr, 17-of-34 for 242 yards, hit Andre Johnson for a 42-yard pass play late in the game to get the Texans within striking distance. Davis, an offensive rookie of the year contender, did the rest with a 15-yard run followed by his scoring trot.
The Texans tied it 10-10 midway into the third quarter when Marlon McCree picked off McNair’s pass and ran it back 95 yards for the longest play in team history. McNair just missed a diving tackle on the sideline.
Moments later, Davis fumbled on a hit by Keith Bulluck. Rolle snagged the loose ball and outran Carr for a 61-yard score.
Comic relief came later in the third quarter when the Texans tied it 17-17 after Carr scrambled right and hit Corey Bradford for a 20-yard touchdown strike. Carr and center Steve McKinney inspected the padding around the goal post, pretending to look for a cell phone like the one Saints receiver Joe Horn used to make an end zone call a week ago.
“We talked about it in the huddle right before that,” McKinney said. “We knew we were going to score.”
Neither offense accomplished much in the first half until McNair’s 73-yard connection to Justin McCareins, who almost pulled cornerback Kenny Wright into the end zone but was downed at the 1-yard line late in the second quarter. McNair hit Erron Kinney two plays later for 2-yard score and a 7-3 advantage.
Gary Anderson added a 41-yard field goal as time expired in the half.
McNair set a career high with 24 touchdown passes, two better than last season. He has 3,215 yards passing through 15 games this season, his fourth with 3,000 or better. … Texans linebacker Shantee Orr broke his left ankle, and cornerback Kenny Wright—starting because of Aaron Glenn’s season-endinggroin surgery—tore a knee ligament.