EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – There were several critical decisions that had to be made with the Tennessee Titans’ season hanging in the balance Sunday – such as how to handle the breezy gusts at Giants Stadium or what play to call on the crucial two-point conversion that forced overtime.
But the most important decision made by the Titans in their 32-29 overtime win over the New York Giants was made some three hours before kickoff. That’s when quarterback Steve McNair, sore ribs, sore shin and sore toe aside, decided that he would indeed be under center after going all week without practicing.
It turned out to be the best call of the day for the Titans in a game filled with close calls and gut-wrenching choices. McNair, aided by a cortisone shot that dulled the pain in his ribs until about the third quarter, completed 30-of-43 passes for 334 yards and three touchdowns.
“This was one of the best games Steve has had considering his ribs were messed up and his toe was still bothering him,” said wide receiver Derrick Mason, who had 116 yards on 12 catches. “The guy just went out there and put all his pain aside for the team and led this team to victory.”
That victory march was a succession of big plays from McNair, including a 12-play, 81-yard drive that ended with Frank Wycheck making a diving catch in the end zone with 14 seconds play, McNair’s subsequent waltz into the end zone for the tying two-point play, followed by a game-winning drive on the Titans’ first possession in overtime, polished off by Joe Nedney’s 38-yard field goal.
The victory was a huge swing for the Titans, who improved to 7-5 in a must-win game, heading into Sunday’s showdown with AFC South leader Indianapolis, which hits Nashville with an 8-4 mark.
Instead of the Titans seeing their playoff hopes gone with the 20-plus mph winds on Sunday, it was the Giants who fell to 6-6 and all but out of the NFC playoff chase.
Tennessee owes its playoff life to McNair, who had one of the most productive games of his career when the Titans needed it most.
“I didn’t know till game time,” McNair said of his status. “I went and warmed up three hours before game time, and I went out and it loosened up some. I threw the ball with a lot of velocity in pre-game, and from then on, I felt like as long as I didn’t take a hit, and as long as I didn’t aggravate it more before the game, that I was going to play.”
And play he did, especially late in the ballgame with Tennessee’s season hanging in the balance.
The Giants had used the wind, strong enough that both coaches elected to kick off at the start of half and take the breeze, to build a 26-14 at the beginning of the fourth quarter. On their final touchdown, New York coach Jim Fassel chose to go for two points to try and lengthen the lead to 14 points, but was turned away when Kerry Collins’ pass to Jeremy Shockey fell incomplete on the two-point try.
The Titans battled back with the wind behind them, scoring on Eddie George’s 1-yard run to cut it to 26-21 with 7:34 to play.
Going against the wind, the Giants came back and managed to tack on a field goal to boost their lead to eight points. However, that turned out to be a key turning point as well, as the Giants had a first-and-goal at the Titans 1 after Amani Toomer had beaten Andre Dyson on a timing throw from Collins to put the Giants in position to seal the game.
The Titans defense, struggling for most of the day with penalties and suspect pass coverage, rose to the challenge, stuffing Tiki Barber twice and forcing a Collins into an incompletion on third down. It forced New York to settle for Matt Bryant’s 19-yard field goal and set the scene for McNair’s comeback.
On the tying drive, with the Titans in their two-minute set, McNair was 7-of-11 for 70 yards, plus adding a key 11-yard scramble to the Giants 29 to keep the march alive.
After Wycheck’s reception, the Titans had a pair of play options for McNair on the two-point play, and some extra time to contemplate it as replay officials reviewed and upheld Wycheck’s catch.
At the line, McNair got the look he wanted from the Giants and called his own number on the quarterback draw on the two-point play. With help from a block by running back Robert Holcombe, McNair walked into the end zone, carrying the game into overtime and the Titans’ once-sagging playoff hopes on his back.
“There were two plays called, and I chose the best one at that time,” McNair said. “Robert did a great job of getting on the linebacker, and the line did a great job of blocking.
“They didn’t have but five in the box. They had one linebacker inside, and everybody else was outside defending the pass. We had one linebacker inside, and everybody had a man. We had been successful passing the ball in that situation, and they were defending that. The run was there.”
Tennessee lost the coin toss in overtime, but that actually proved advantageous. New York took the football, but the Titans took the wind.
Thanks to an offensive pass interference play, the Giants drive fizzled after four plays, giving the ball back to the red-hot McNair for what proved to be the decisive drive.
With McNair holding the hot hand, the Titans stuck with their spread formation, and it worked as McNair completed three of four passes to put Nedney in line for the winning kick, which he made with 10:05 left in OT, to keep the Titans’ season alive.
“This was a pivotal game,” Nedney said. “Every game from here on out is a pivotal game, and we needed to have this win. We got it, and we’re 7-5 and going back home for a two-game stretch.”
Nedney got the opportunity to win it, but he knew where to give credit – McNair.
“He’s the bionic man. The stuff that he can do with all the adversities he’s had this year is just outstanding,” Nedney said. “He’s such a great leader. I love playing with him, I love playing for him, and I love going in and finishing off a drive like that for him.”
The Titans’ comeback kept their playoff chances alive and also allowed them to atone for several mistakes.
Tennessee’s defense, despite holding Tiki Barber in check for much of the day (42 of Barber’s 64 yards came on one run), struggled for much of the game as Collins burned them for 283 yards and a pair of TD throws.
The defense, which has carried the team for much of its five-game win streak and had played well in last week’s loss to Baltimore, managed to escape in this one, thanks largely to the offense.
“That’s part of what makes a team,” linebacker Keith Bulluck said. “It was one of those days where we were bending on defense and not breaking, and the offense came around.”
Bulluck finished the game with a right hamstring injury, though the severity is not yet known.
Cornerback Samari Rolle left the game with a shoulder stinger, but returned for the overtime period after regaining all the feeling in his shoulder and arm.
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