Welcome back to the sixth edition of Classic Titans Games. For today’s edition, we travel back to 2002—or January 11th, 2003 in this case—For another memorable postseason victory from the Titans.
Before we get to that though, in case you missed the previous five editions, you can find them right below!
Classic Titans Games #1: Steve McNair vs. Tampa Bay’s Defense
Classic Titans Games #2: 2003 Wild Card Round at Baltimore
Classic Titans Games #3: Chris Johnson Vs. Maurice Jones-Drew
Classic Titans Games #4: 1999 AFC Championship Game at Jacksonville
Classic Titans Games #5: The Music City Miracle
With that out of the way, let’s get to today’s write up.
Back in 2002 the Titans were looking to improve on the disappointment from their 7-9 record the year prior, this time in a new division—the AFC South. Quite literally, the season turned South fast at the beginning.
With a 1-4 start things looked bleak for the team’s season, as the defense gave up 31.8 points per game. But the team rallied to win 10 of their last 11 games thanks to the defensive improvement; In that span the team only allowed 15 points per game.
With the stretch, not only did the Titans clinch the AFC South in its first season of existence, but also earned a first round bye, and they were set to face an old AFC Central foe: the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers clinched the newly formed AFC North at 10-5-1, using a late comeback to rally against the Browns 36-33 in the Wild Card Round in what was Cleveland’s last playoff appearance to date. This was set to be an intense, back and forth game, and was it ever?
We’ve got a lot to look back on, so let’s get to it.
The Titans defense got started right away, as corner Samari Rolle picked off Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox on the game’s second play from scrimmage. The offense was quick to capitalize, with the run game taking over most of the proceeding drive...
...and on 3rd and 7, McNair took it to the house by himself with an 8-yard touchdown run to give the Titans an early 7-0 lead.
As with their previous drive, the Titans defense forced a punt, and while the Titans’ second drive was longer, the result was the same as the first.
The Titans converted four third downs into first downs on this drive alone, including three from McNair. A key play was this 19-yard pass from #9 to receiver Drew Bennett on a 3rd and 16.
Eddie George converted a third down himself, also turning that very play into a 1-yard touchdown run. Suddenly the Titans had a 14-0 lead heading into the second quarter over their former divisional rivals.
But the Steelers would rally from there. Their defense forced three turnovers by the time the Titans’ first second half drive began, and Pittsburgh scored 20 unanswered points to take a 20-14 lead.
Fortunately, however, the Titans offense came back to life.
McNair and tight end Frank Wycheck came up huge on the following drive, including a 39-yard bomb (that featured a vintage McNair play extension) and a 7-yard touchdown connection to reclaim a Titans lead at 21-20.
The defense held the Steelers in check on the next drive, and once again the Titans offense responded with their second straight touchdown drive.
McNair connected with Wycheck for another big gain, and the drive culminated with a 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Erron Kinney off of play action, extending the Titans lead to 28-20 with under five minutes to go in the third quarter.
Both defenses would take big stands on the next five combined drives, and the Steelers tied things up at 28 with key plays to future Super Bowl heroes; Maddox’s second touchdown throw to Hines Ward on the day, and the 2 point conversion to Plaxico Burress. The defense picked off McNair for the second time, and Pittsburgh reclaimed the lead off a 40-yard field goal from Jeff Reed to make the score 31-28.
But as they had done so many times, the Titans offense punched right back.
The Titans started off with great field position thanks to a 38-yard return from John Simon, and the offense converted two first downs (including another connection from McNair to Bennett for 20 yards) before Joe Nedney hit a 42-yard field goal as the game was tied again at 31.
Near the end of regulation, the Titans got the ball back—with the score still 31 all—and McNair drove the offense down to the Pittsburgh 30. But this time Nedney’s field goal sailed wide right as time in the fourth quarter expired, meaning this hard fought showdown would have to be decided in sudden death overtime.
The Titans won the coin toss and elected to receive, and the result was a wild, chaotic roller coaster ride that was not short on thrills and anxiety.
On back-to-back plays receiver Justin McCareins came up clutch, going for 31 yards on a pass from McNair on a 2nd and 10. On the next play another vintage McNair moment was added to the highlight reel, as he scrambled outside the pocket and found McCareins again for a 22-yard gain.
After fullback Robert Holcombe advanced the ball 3 yards, Jeff Fisher decided he had enough and wanted to win the game at that moment. The Steelers called a timeout just before Nedney’s practice kick went through, prompting the firework operator to accidentally delay the game with an explosive set of fireworks.
How brutal the symbolism would be if Nedney were to miss after the timeout.
And he did. With a catch, however.
Nedney’s kicked sailed right again, but a controversial roughing the kicker penalty on Steelers corner Dewayne Washington gave the Titans new life on a 2nd and 2 on the Pittsburgh 8, infuriating the Pittsburgh sideline.
Fisher’s call to kick the field goal instead of keeping the offense out there was not favorably received by the CBS broadcast, but this time Nedney’s kick went right down the middle, advancing the Titans to the AFC Championship Game for the first time since 1999 in a thrilling 34-31 overtime victory.
While McNair threw two interceptions, he also threw for 338 yards and two touchdowns while adding another touchdown on the ground. He also converted 11 first downs off third and fourth down, an incredible feat and one where the Titans needed it most (especially considering George only had 33 rushing yards on the night). Wycheck was also big on the day, adding 10 receptions for 123 yards and a touchdown.
Despite committing four turnovers in comparison to one from Pittsburgh as well as more penalties, the Titans converted first downs off of third and fourth down 13 times, ultimately deciding the game in their favor. It was without a doubt, another signature performance from Steve McNair’s career, and one of the more memorable games in franchise history as the team made the AFC title game for the second time in just four seasons as the Tennessee Titans.