Titans trim Buffalo

By Wes Holtsclaw
STAR STAFF
wholtsclaw@starhq.com

   NASHVILLE -- The Tennessee Titans had everything going against them Sunday afternoon: cold weather, empty seats and no Steve McNair.
   Back-up quarterback Billy Volek proved to be the doctor with the right medicine.
   In a crucial must-win game against the Buffalo Bills, Volek led the Titans from a 17-6 deficit in the third quarter with two touchdown passes and a scoring run en route to a tight 28-26 victory at the Coliseum.
   The Titans' defense held off a late rally from Drew Bledsoe's Buffalo offense, who drove 81 yards to paydirt in two minutes, but missed a crucial two-point conversion that would've sent the game into overtime.
   Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher was proud of Volek, who was also sick, battling cold and flu symptoms going into the game. The quarterback had trouble breathing after the game and had to be given some intravenous fluids.
   "What can you say about Billy's effort? That is a very tough defense to throw against," said Fisher. "Billy hung in there and took a lot of hits. He made big plays. When you are not 100 percent, everybody has to step up, and that is what we got. Billy got a lot of help today and proved he is worthy of that backup spot and he can play in the league."
   Volek finished 26 out of 41 for 295 yards.
   "I think things went well," Volek said. "We got off to a slow start. We needed to get touchdowns instead of field goals. I was just going to take one play at a time and keep working at it."
   After special teams blunders in last week's loss, Tennessee moved receiver Derrick Mason to kick and punt returner this week. Mason tallied 165 yards on returns, but came through big with 137 yards receiving on nine grabs - a career high.
   "My main goal right now is to win football games," Mason said after going over the 1,100 yard mark for the second time in his career. "Hopefully we put ourselves in a good position to get in the playoffs, so all the other stuff we'll worry about after the season. First and foremost we've got to get to the playoffs."
   After a series of punts, the Titans got on the board first after a 60-yard drive that included some big gains from Eddie George. It set up Gary Anderson with a 29-yard field goal.
   Tennessee picked it back up with their second drive, with Volek connecting with Mason, Justin McCareins, and Erron Kinney, giving Anderson room for a 39-yarder.
   Buffalo dominated from that point forward in the half.
   Travis Henry gained 32 yards on the ground during a drive that saw one completion from Bledsoe, giving Rian Lindell a 27-yard field goal try, which he connected.
   Buffalo's defense gave Tennessee little room for work during the stanza, forcing two punts, with Nate Clements returning the second for 35 yards to put the Bills in scoring position again.
   The former Tennessee Volunteer, Henry, ran a 19-yarder before Bledsoe hit Bobby Shaw with a six-yard touchdown throw, giving Buffalo a 10-6 lead.
   Tennessee worked hard with under two minutes left in the half, with Kinney, Mason and Drew Bennett picking up some solid throws. Robert Holcombe pushed Tennessee down to the Buffalo seven-yard line; however, a tripping penalty made the Titans try for another field goal.
   This time, Anderson missed a 41-yarder and Tennessee trailed going into the third quarter.
   Things continued to blow up in the Titans' face after three plays in the second half, when Volek was hit from behind by Buffalo's Jeff Posey, fumbling over to Pat Williams who took it 28 yards for a Bills touchdown, making it 17-6.
   The Titans got their revenge later in the period when Bledsoe was sacked by Keith Bullock, who recovered a fumble on the play in Tennessee's favor.
   It turned the game around for the home unit.
   "I told (defensive coordinator) Jim Schwartz that I could get there," said Bullock. "I got there and the rest is history."
   It set up Kinney with a 14-yard touchdown reception, followed by a gutsy Holcombe two-point conversion run to pull the Titans within three.
   "We know that there are critical situations in the game where you've got to change the momentum or keep the chains moving," said Kinney. "Today, I was blessed with the opportunity to make a play with that touchdown."
   After forcing a punt on the next Buffalo series, Tennessee started their next drive with Holcombe and Wycheck making needed grabs. Mason caught a nine-yarder going into the fourth quarter, but it was a 32-yard sidelines grab near the goal line that put the Titans back in scoring position.
   The play was challenged by the Bills, but upheld, and Volek found Justin McCareins wide open for a two-yard score to give Tennessee a 21-17 lead.
   Two drives later, Buffalo was breathing down their throats again.
   Bledsoe found Eric Moulds and Henry ran the ball on two 17-yard plays to move the chains. A 14-yard toss to Mark Campbell set up Lindell with a 32-yard field goal to make it a one-point contest.
   But Tennessee was right back in the midst of things with Mason making a 37-yard grab, then recovering an Eddie George fumble after a 19-yard throw at the one.
   It set up Volek with a one-yard quarterback sneaker for the score. The Anderson extra point gave the Titans a 28-20 lead.
   Tennessee ran the clock down well during their next drive, but Buffalo got it back with 2:24 remaining.
   After struggling throughout most of the game, Bledsoe showed his all-pro fire with big completions to Shaw and Sam Morris to move the chains.
   It allowed him to find Mark Campbell with a six-yard score, but Buffalo needed a two-point conversion to send it into overtime.
   Bledsoe found Shaw, but the receiver bobbled the ball into the air and out of bounds inside the end zone. Buffalo missed the ensuing onside kick and Tennessee ran the clock out to victory.
   Shaw complained after the game that the catch was complete; however, referee Tom White differed.
   "He threw the pass and the receiver went down to catch the ball. It went into him (his hands)," White said. "As he rolled over, his arm came up in the air, but the ball was already loose. So he never really had possession of it under the definition of a completed pass. Therefore, it's incomplete and the try is no good."
   Bledsoe completed 17 of 30 passes for 168 yards for Buffalo, while Henry gained 88 yards on 19 carries. The loss eliminated the team from any chances for a playoff berth.
   "It's a tough pill to swallow," Henry said. "We knew this game was important. We needed this win to make our playoff chances much better."
   Right now the focus is on Houston for Tennessee (10-4), who needs the next two wins to keep their playoff hopes alive.
   "We're just taking it one game at a time," said Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. "We've got 24 hours to celebrate and when we come in tomorrow, we start thinking about Houston."
   NOTES:
   - It was a game time decision not to start McNair due to his inability to move in the pocket. McNair said he didn't want to hurt the team and knew Volek would do a good job.
   "I went out there and warmed up and it was still a little stiff and weak," McNair said. "I felt my knee buckle a little bit in warm-ups and tried in pre-game, but I wasn't comfortable with it. Billy did a good job in practice all week preparing himself and I felt like we had a good chance (with him)."
   "He proved he could go out there and step up at a big level."
   - Footage of President Bush's address to the nation was shown on both big screens in The Coliseum to a large applause of support from the fans and players.
   - A Titans-Bills Notes Package will be in Tuesday's STAR.