Titans led by McNair and home crowd

The Titans used their home-field advantage to beat up on Rich Gannon and the Raiders.

Updated: September 9, 2003, 10:41 AM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- There's home-field advantage, and there is home-field advantage. In Nashville, where the Titans play in a non-sponsored stadium now known as The Coliseum, a case can be made that the Titans have a 26-point advantage when they play the Raiders.

You do the math. In two games played in Oakland's Network Associate Coliseum last year, the Titans defense allowed 93 points, including a 41-24 loss in the AFC Championship game. This was the Raiders' first game ever in Nashville. The result was a 25-20 loss to the Titans in which the Raiders offense didn't look like a Rich Gannon-led short-passing machine. Credit the fans as crowd noise killed Gannon's ability to communicate.

Kicking in
For months, Titans punter Craig Hentrich wondered if the salary-cap strapped Titans were going to have the room to re-sign him. He resisted the temptation to sign with other teams while he waited for the right offer.

Good thing the Titans re-signed him, because they might be 0-1 had they not. Hentrich filled in for injured kicker Joe Nedney on Sunday night and made all three of his field goal attempts, including a 49-yarder. Those kicks were the difference in a 25-20 victory over the Raiders.

"The funny thing is we were on the practice field Thursday and our special teams coach (Alan Lowry) said, 'I want you to get a couple of field goals just in case,' " Hentrich said. "So Drew Bennett and I were out there just like we did tonight and it felt good. Everything was in rhythm. I think our get-off times were fine. Everything just felt like old times."

Hentrich might have to get used to the job because Nedney could be lost for a long time. He told Hentrich that he might be lost several weeks, if not the season, because he injured a medial collateral and possibly an anterior cruciate knee ligament.

"I feel horrible for Joe," Hentrich said. "I know how horrible he felt in the championship game last year when he got hurt. I know he's pretty sick to his stomach right now. It's unfortunate for him."

Nedney was injured trying to make a tackle during the AFC title game against the Raiders. Missed tackles by other special teams players put him in the same position Sunday night. Nedney twisted his knee badly trying to make a tackle following a kickoff. His season might be over.

Titans coach Jeff Fisher won't know until Monday whether or not he's in the market for a new kicker.
-- John Clayton

There were problems from the very first offensive series for the Raiders. Seasoned left tackle Barry Sims was called three times for false starts in eight plays. He had four false starts in the first quarter, which has to be some kind of a record. Overall, the Raiders had 17 penalties for 173 yards. Eleven of the penalties were on offense, including five false starts, three holdings, one illegal crackback block, another illegal block and an intentional grounding.

"That's what it means to have home-field advantage," Raiders right tackle Lincoln Kennedy said. "With Jevon Kearse coming off the corner, along with them having a pretty impressive blitz package, you have to stand up to those guys when you can't really hear. It takes you out of your game. Coming to a place like this is going to be hard on us."

Of course, the Raiders know the troubles of the road. Two years ago, their season ended prematurely when Tom Brady had a fumble overturned because of the "Tuck Rule.". How bad were things Sunday night? The Raiders actually benefited from a play in which Steve McNair fumbled when the ball came out of his hand before the tuck when it hit defensive tackle Roderick Coleman. They won that call, but lost the game.

"This is a hard, tough loss for us," Raiders coach Bill Callahan said. "It's disappointing in a lot of respects. It was a very tough game. Unfortunately, offensively we couldn't get anything going consistently enough. We didn't get in enough of a rhythm to basically sustain anything. We got backed up with penalties throughout the night. It's unfortunate."

Things were so bad that the Raiders almost lost Gannon in the fourth quarter. Kearse got away from Kennedy with 7:11 left in the fourth quarter and twisted Gannon to the ground like a cork screw, spraining Gannon's left leg. Gannon came to the sidelines and had to lie on a table while trainers attended to the injured knee. To the relief of the Raiders, he returned to the field and completed five consecutive passes in a 65-yard touchdown drive that cut the Titans lead to 22-20.

"It was almost like being in a bad dream," Raiders receiver Jerry Rice said. "It's a nightmare. But the nightmare is over now and we need to get ready for the next one."

Gannon appears to be healthy, but the Raiders came out of the game with a lot of concerns. Kennedy has a very sore knee and his body looks beat up, and this is only the opener. Wide receiver Jerry Porter only participated in a few plays because of his abdominal pull.

Fullback Chris Hetherington couldn't finish the game because of a hamstring injury. Safety Anthony Dorsett injured a lower leg, and the only thing he said he knew about the injury is that it isn't broken. Wide receiver Ronald Curry suffered a knee injury.

The Raiders used two rookies -- tight end Teyo Johnson and halfback Justin Fargas -- along with backup receiver Alvis Whitted more than anyone expected. The lesson learned Sunday night is that it is going to be tough for the Raiders to repeat as the AFC champs, particularly if they are going to play road games in the playoffs.

"We played off the crowd's feeling and emotion tonight," cornerback Samari Rolle said. "We lost our composure a little bit and let them get some easy scores there at the end to make it close, but we were able to pull it out. Last year against them, we didn't have a healthy Jevon. But he's healthy now and you see what a difference it makes when you put the quarterback under pressure the whole night."

Rich Gannon
AP PhotoThe Titans sacked Rich Gannon four times in Sunday's game.
In a neutral site or at home, the Raiders match up well against the Titans. They have big offensive linemen. The Titans are small at the ends with Kearse and Carlos Hall in the nickel. Kearse is 255. Hall is 261. They give up 50-to-80 pounds against the Raiders blockers. But in Nashville, Kearse and Hall are Supermen because of the crowd. Each had a sack. Each had numerous pressures. Each caused false starts.

"Both of them twitch at the line of scrimmage trying to draw you offsides," Sims said. "As a blocker, you are trying to go off the quarterback's movement, but on the road, you can't hear anything. You also can't have penalties on the road and we had too many. There is no excuse for so many false starts."

The Titans had their own problems. New center Justin Hartwig was called for three holdings and one tripping penalty. The powerful Titans offensive line couldn't open running lanes against the Raiders defense and the Titans had to run out the clock by passing the ball. Overall, the Titans had 11 penalties for 111 yards.

The difference, though, was Steve McNair. The guy is the game's most valuable player.

Eddie George isn't the Eddie George of the past. Everything was left to McNair, who completed 25 of 38 for 269 yards and two touchdowns.

"The more Steve plays, the better he gets," said wide receiver Derrick Mason. "On the run, he threw some great balls. In the pocket, he threw some great balls. He scrambled when he had [to]. If Steve is playing well, the team is playing well."

Mason knows what to do when McNair scrambles. Mason got behind Dorsett in the back of the end zone in the fourth quarter. McNair bought time with his feet until he spotted Mason, who made a leaping catch in the back of the end line. Though he appeared close to being out of bounds, Dorsett pushed Mason so he landed several yards out of bounds. Officials ruled Dorsett pushed Mason out, and the touchdown stood.

"I don't think Mason would have come down inbounds under his own power," Dorsett said. "To me, it looked like the way he jumped, his momentum carried him out of bounds. It was a judgment call."

So was a second-quarter play in which safety Rod Woodson stole a ball from Titans tight end Erron Kinney while Kinney was being wrestled to the ground. A quick whistle ended the play and cost the Raiders an easy touchdown.

Questionable officiating was the one thing both sides agreed upon. The Raiders got a second-quarter touchdown drive thanks to an unsportsmanlike conduct call on Titans defensive tackle Robaire Smith. Referee Ron Blum claimed Smith touched an official, which gave the Raiders a first down and caused Smith to be ejected from the game.

"It was a poorly officiated game," Titans defensive lineman Kevin Carter said. "It was sloppy. Robaire said an official got his hands on him, and he was just reacting to somebody getting their hands on him. There is tension out there between these two teams. Everyone knows that and guys are going to react. He gets 15 yards? What are you talking about, dude? We play football. Putting your hands on somebody in the heat of battle is going to have somebody react."

Smith left, but the crowd stayed behind him and the team. The Titans might have lost a defensive tackle for a game, but their 12th man -- the crowd -- earned MVP honors Sunday night.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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