The end result was a 41-24 Oakland victory at Network Associates Coliseum that sends the Raiders to San Diego for Super Bowl XXXVII and the Titans home wondering what might have been.
What might have been was a chance to pull the upset, had it not been for consecutive fumbles just before halftime and a botched punt attempt in the third quarter that wound up handing the potent Raiders 13 extra points.
The Titans had weathered the early aerial assault by Raiders quarterback and NFL Most Valuable Player Rich Gannon well enough to take a 17-14 lead with possession of the ball with 1:47 to play before halftime.
Then disaster struck – twice in a span of 58 seconds.
First, Titans running back Robert Holcombe was stripped of the ball by Raiders linebacker Eric Barton, and former Titan Anthony Dorsett recovered at the Titans 16.
"In this situation, it was really, really critical. It was down there in the red zone," Holcombe said. "You give a team the football on that part of the field, and nine times out of 10 they're going to put points on the board.
Gannon and the Raiders did just that, as he needed just two plays to make the Titans pay. First, Gannon hit Jerry Rice for 15 yards.Rice fumbled on the play, but recovered; then Gannon found tight end Doug Jolley on the next play for a score and a 20-17 edge.
Then, just 49 seconds before the half, John Simon fumbled the Raider kickoff, and Oakland recovered at the Tennessee 39.
"You want to go out there and do something great for your team," Simon said. "I was trying to fight for that extra yard, and it ended up backfiring on me."
Sebastian Janikowski made a 43-yard field goal as the half expired, putting the Raiders up, 24-17.
Still, the Titans felt good about their chances. They had to, considering that back in September they had gone into that same locker room down 31-7 at the half.
"We still were confident, but you can't give this team too many opportunities," defensive tackle John Thornton said. "I thought they were down and the pressure was starting to get to them. Being down at halftime at home would have been huge. We gave them the opportunity to get back into it, and they regrouped and took care of us after that."
Though Tennessee battled back and again got within three points in the second half, the Titans' battered pass defense eventually wore down from the 41 passes launched by Gannon for 29 completions, 286 yards and three touchdowns.
Throwing the football was the Raiders' bread and butter all season, and it was no different Sunday. Oakland rushed the ball just 17 times all game, and eight of those came on Gannon scrambles.
It added up to the Titans trying to keep up all game, and unable to, partially because of those key mistakes.
Another miscue came in the third period as Oakland unleashed a jailbreak rush on punter Craig Hentrich,who was forced to take cover, giving the Raiders the ball at the Tennessee 18. The Raiders tacked on three more points to extend their lead to 27-17, again putting the Titans' season in dire straits.
Again, though, it was Steve McNair to the rescue. McNair, who had engineered two first-half touchdown drives, plus another for a 29-yard Joe Nedney field goal, went back to work.
He took the Titans 67 yards in eight plays on the Titans' second possession, capping the drive himself with a 13-yard touchdown scramble. Hentrich, subbing for Joe Nedney, who injured his knee making a tackle on a kickoff, added the point-after to cut the lead to 27-24.
From that point, though, the Raiders took control, adding two fourth-quarter touchdowns to seal the victory and book their first Super Bowl trip in 19 years.
For Raiders coach Bill Callahan, that was icing on the Super Bowl cake. However, he pointed to the 10 points just before halftime as the critical juncture of the game.
"I thought that was the game right there, right before the half and the ability to maximize. I think we capitalized with 10 points on those two turnovers, and that was huge," said Callahan, whose team faces the NFC champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and former Raiders coach Jon Gruden for the title next week.
For the Titans, who ended the season 12-6, they knew it would take winning time of possession (they did), running the football effectively (they did) and not making critical mistakes to make it to San Diego. Sunday, two out of three wasn't good enough.
"When you come from behind against a great team like the Raiders, you have to minimize your mistakes, and we just didn't take care of the ball early," said McNair, who finished 21 of 36 for 194 yards passing and added 53 more yards with two TDs on the ground. "We had an uphill climb, and we just didn't climb hard enough."
Nedney said he hyperextended his right knee making a tackle on a kickoff and will have an MRI today.
He could not finish the game, and punter Craig Hentrich took over as placekicker with receiver Drew Bennett assuming Hentrich's holding duties.
Also, guard Zach Piller re-injured his calf muscle and did not finish the game. Cornerback Andre Dyson was unable to make it through the game with his injured shoulder, and wide receiver Justin McCareins suffered a concussion.