Wednesday, January 26, 2000

Comeback win vs. Bengals was key for Titans

36-35 victory in season opener set tone for year

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        ATLANTA — The Bengals knew the Tennessee Titans were a team of destiny long before Frank Wycheck's miracle lateral. They've known since the first game of the season.

        The Titans knew it, too.

AP coverage

        They paused Tuesday during Super Bowl media day and recalled that 36-35 season-opening victory over Cincinnati. The Titans won their first game at Adelphia Coliseum with pluck, luck and eight seconds left, on Al Del Greco's 33-yard field goal.

        “I saw that quote by (Bengals linebacker) Takeo Spikes when he said that game flipped their whole season,” Titans linebacker Eddie Robinson said. “To win that first home game got us over the hump. Had we lost that game, you can't say we wouldn't be here right now, but it definitely would have been a tougher road.”

        The Bengals feel if they had held on to that 35-26 lead midway through the fourth quarter, they wouldn't have gone 4-12. On Tuesday, in between sound bites for MTV and BET and ESPN, some Titans wondered if their season would have been D.O.A. before it started.

        “We needed a fast start,” Del Greco said, “and those first two games (against the Bengals and Browns) were very winnable. If we lost that first one, I don't know what would have happened.”

        As big as the game was for the Bengals, coming off a 3-13 season and heading into their last season in their old stadium, it may have been bigger for the Titans. Owner Bud Adams gave coach Jeff Fisher an ultimatum to break the cycle of three straight 8-8 seasons, in a state that had been apathetic to his new team while playing in Memphis and at Vanderbilt University before settling at Adelphia.

        In the middle of the fourth quarter, quarterback Steve McNair hit running back Eddie George on a 17-yard touchdown pass. And the Bengals' offense literally cramped up, with quarterback Jeff Blake's legs locking on the sidelines.

        In the Adelphia roar, Cincinnati couldn't get that elusive first down with rookie quarterbacks Akili Smith and Scott Covington. Del Greco got his chance, and the Titans went 9-0 on their new field.

        “I'm sure there were guys on our team and a lot of people in the stands that were thinking, "Here's the same old guys again,'” Del Greco said. “I think because Steve and Eddie and all the rest of the team stepped up and won the way we did, it did a lot of people's psyche good, because we had the different jerseys, the different helmet, the different name. The win showed we were a different team.”

        The Bengals fell behind 26-7 that day before scoring 28 straight points. The only team to score 21 points on the Titans at home the rest of the way was St.Louis.

        “Jeff Blake and the guys started coming back, and it was a new season and we had to overcome that deficit,” McNair said. “It was the start of something good going on early in the year. We knew once the string started, we could have good luck in the end and win close games.”

        Not only did Blake cramp, but so did running back Corey Dillon for about two quarters. And Blake's 80-yard touchdown pass to Darnay Scott was called back because of holding. Furthermore, Dillon's run for what appeared the winning first down (with less than two minutes left) was nullified by illegal motion.

        “There's something about that stadium for us,” Robinson said.

        Del Greco doesn't want to hear about breaks. He saw the franchise endure a stunning set of bad circumstances beginning in 1990, when quarterback Warren Moon broke his hand just before meeting the Bengals in the playoffs.

        “A lot of things happened for us this year,” Del Greco said. “The Bengals game. St. Louis came in and had trouble with our crowd. Buffalo started Rob Johnson (instead of Doug Flutie).”

        Del Greco also said that if an 87-yard punt return by the Colts' Terrence Wilkins hadn't been run down the Titans sideline, it wouldn't have been reviewed. Replays showed Wilkins had stepped out of bounds, and the Titans went on to a 19-16 playoff win.

        Robinson wondered what's going to happen to the Bengals they left for dead Sept.12.

        “Maybe the new stadium and the fans getting into it will help them like it helped us,” he said.


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