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Indy win sends Titans to wild card

12/28/2003

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- The Tennessee Titans gave themselves the
best confidence boost possible Sunday, winning with their best
player on the sideline, resting his aching legs for the postseason.

Steve McNair dressed but didn't play, and veteran Neil O'Donnell
threw two touchdown passes to Derrick Mason in his first start
since Sept. 23, 2001. Gary Anderson kicked four field goals as the
Titans routed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 33-13.

The Titans (12-4) had a chance to win their second straight AFC
South title if Indianapolis lost to Houston, and fans stuck around
watching the finish of the Colts' game on the stadium's
videoboards.

But the Colts' 20-17 victory left Tennessee as the AFC's No. 5
seed, with a trip to Baltimore in the wild-card round next weekend.
Baltimore has won the past five games in this series and six of the
last seven.

"Off to Baltimore," Titans left guard Zach Piller said as he
gave a thumbs-up in the locker room. "Let's go, let's go."

Tennessee had never lost to Tampa Bay at home, and the Titans
weren't about to on Sunday. The defense came up with four
interceptions, three against Brad Johnson, and had two sacks in
holding Tampa Bay to 274 yards on offense.

The loss made Tampa Bay (7-9) the first defending Super Bowl
champion with a losing record since Denver in 1999. A team with 11
players already out on injured reserve also lost safety John Lynch
(right shoulder) and tackle Anthony McFarland (left ankle) by
halftime.

"We will come back energized for next year," Johnson said.
"Unfortunately, this year we had a lot of bad breaks, and it just
didn't go our way."

Titans coach Jeff Fisher said McNair could have played, but he
chose to avoid risking another injury to a quarterback who already
has a strained right calf and a sprained left ankle with a cracked
bone spur. McNair played last week at Houston but has not practiced
for three straight weeks.

The Titans turned to O'Donnell, the man they cut twice this year
for salary cap reasons, but re-signed after backup Billy Volek
lacerated his spleen in his only NFL start in place of the injured
McNair.

O'Donnell hadn't played since two snaps in a playoff game last
January against Pittsburgh, but he showed very little rust. The
14-year veteran completed his first three passes and drove the
Titans to a field goal on their opening drive.

He found Mason on a 23-yard TD pass midway through the second
quarter for a 10-3 lead, his first touchdown pass since Jan. 6,
2001, against Cincinnati.

He added his second, a 34-yarder, late in the third quarter for
a 26-6 lead, and finished 18-of-27 for 232 yards.

Then O'Donnell posed with his two sons on the field for
photographs, fully enjoying the moment he thought was lost forever
when the Titans released him.

"I had a lot of tough Sundays the past four months, but this
was one of the better ones," O'Donnell said.

O'Donnell had plenty of help as Eddie George rushed 26 times for
87 yards and became the 17th back in the NFL with 10,000 yards
rushing in his career.

Fisher kept his Titans from thinking too much about
Houston-Indianapolis by keeping updates off the scoreboard. But the
public address announcer gave an update with Houston leading 10-3
in the first half, and the crowd responded with a standing ovation.

The Titans then forced the Bucs to punt, and O'Donnell was
5-of-5 for 42 yards as he drove Tennessee to Anderson's third field
goal, a 43-yarder for a 16-3 halftime lead.

The Bucs tried to show spirit in their final game as defending
champs. They came out in a hurry-up offense on their first drive,
but bogged down and settled for a 27-yard field goal by Martin
Gramatica.

Tennessee picked off Johnson for the third time on the Bucs'
third offensive play after halftime, which the Titans turned into
Anderson's fourth field goal, a 23-yarder, and a 19-3 lead. Shaun
King led them to a field goal and had a 14-yard TD pass to Aaron
Stecker, but they never got closer than 26-13.

Game notes
The Titans got their third season with 12 or more victories
under Fisher. ... Tennessee is 6-0 at home against Tampa Bay and
leads the series 7-1. ... Titans DT Albert Haynesworth was
deactivated and end Kevin Carter started in his place. Haynesworth
was involved in an argument during practice Friday. Fisher said he
told the tackle to report back for work Monday morning. ... Titans
TE Frank Wycheck moved past Drew Hill for third in receptions in
franchise history with 481. ... King's TD pass was his first since
Dec. 24, 2000, at Green Bay. ... Johnson finished the season with
26 TDs and 21 interceptions.