O'Donnell Ignites Titans Over Tampa Bay

Tennessee to face Baltimore in playoffs

By Wes Holtsclaw
STAR STAFF
wholtsclaw@starhq.com

   NASHVILLE -- For awhile, the fans in Nashville were ecstatic.
   With their Tennessee Titans beating up on the defending World Champions, without quarterback Steve McNair, and the Indianapolis Colts trailing to Houston, it appeared that the home squad was in good position for a home playoff berth.
   Tennessee used a solid afternoon from Neil O'Donnell at the helm, while forcing four interceptions to pull away with a 33-13 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday afternoon at the Coliseum.
   "If somebody before the season had told me you have a chance to go 12-4 and start the season by defeating the team that represented the AFC in the Super Bowl, and end the season by beating the world champions, I would take that," said Tennessee head coach Jeff Fisher.
   After the game, the Titans (12-4) soon learned their fate as Indianapolis pulled out another comeback win, with Cleveland beating Cincinnati to seal a visit to Baltimore next weekend, where they will face Jamal Lewis and the Ravens in the wild card round of the AFC playoffs.
   The Titans haven't fared too well against Baltimore, losing the majority of their recent meetings.
   "That is basically what happened," Fisher said. "This year was a great effort by this team to get us in this position. It is hard to imagine to win 12 games and not win the division. Congratulations are in order for the Colts. We are in the dance. We look this week to have the chance to go to Baltimore."
   "We did everything possible to win this game," he said. "We elected to go with Neil (O'Donnell) over Steve (McNair) to rest Steve. Steve was better than he was last week and he could have played. However, we felt our best chance to have success in the postseason was to give Steve some extra opportunity to rest."
   O'Donnell finished with 232 yards through the air on 18 completions, with two touchdowns to wide receiver Derrick Mason and one interception.
   Tennessee had cut O'Donnell twice this year due to salary cap restraints, but recently signed him due to the injury of second-string quarterback Billy Volek.
   "It felt great to be back out there with all the guys, just having fun again," said O'Donnell. "I've had a lot of tough Sundays the past four months, but this was one of the better ones. I was excited. The team did great."
   "The offensive line - I can't tip my hat to those guys enough," he said. "They kept me clean all day. Sometimes I got to even the third or fourth reads and that's the offensive line giving me that type of time."
   It was also a great running day for Eddie George, who became the 17th player in NFL history to gain 10,000 rushing yards in his career. He had 87 yards on 26 carries, also putting him over 1,000 yards for the seventh time in his illustrious career.
   "The offensive line, I think they wanted it more than me. They did a great job up front," said George. "I'm just grateful and thankful that I got the opportunities today to get it. Going into this game saying you need 78 yards against Tampa Bay. It's like wow, you got a tough task, but I just thank God that I got it."
   The victory makes the fourth time in franchise history it has won at least 11 games.
   Tennessee finished the month as NFL's best December team since 1998 with a 21-7 mark.
   Anderson hit four field goals for the 22nd time in his career with his performance Sunday. It also marks the 76th time he has kicked three field goals or more.
   Tampa Bay quarterback Brad Johnson finished the game with only 96 yards through the air.
   He was sat down by Bucs coach Jon Gruden after throwing his third interception. His back-up, Shaun King, finished with 106 yards, with a touchdown toss and a pick.
   Tank Williams pulled out two of the four interceptions, with Jevon Kearse making his first, and Keith Bullock recording the other.
   Tennessee scored on its first possession after George pushed the team down the field with some nice gains and a ten-yard reception.
   O'Donnell found Justin McCareins and Frank Wycheck with gains before Gary Anderson nailed a 37-yard field goal.
   The Bucs responded with a no huddle offense. Johnson discovered Michael Pittman with some big gains before penalties got in the way.
   A fumble was recovered late in the drive by Tampa and Martin Gramatica launched a 27-yard scoring kick to tie it up.
   Both teams saw good defense after punts when O'Donnell was picked off by Buccaneer Donte Smith in the endzone after the Titans made some big gains. Three plays later, Johnson was intercepted by Kearse at the Tampa seven-yard line.
   Eddie George couldn't get to the endzone, rushing to the one-yard line. Tennessee went for it, but O'Donnell's throw to Shad Meier was incomplete.
   Tampa took the ball over and Tom Tupa was forced to punt. McCareins took the kick 17 yards and Tennessee took off with a 12-yard gain from George. O'Donnell then found Mason with a 23-yard touchdown grab to make it 10-3.
   Again, the Bucs were plagued after three plays when Johnson was picked by Tank Williams at the Tampa 33. Tennessee settled for a 33-yard field goal from Anderson to make it 13-3 with 1:50 left in the second quarter.
   Tampa went to the air during their next possession, and Johnson fell incomplete three times. After a punt, Tennessee was on a mission. With the clock winding down, O'Donnell hit Erron Kinney and Derrick Mason with some big throws to set up a 43-yard field goal from Anderson as time expired.
   Tampa took the ball to begin the third quarter and suffered the same consequences from the Titans' defense when Johnson was intercepted by Williams, again. Gruden took Johnson out of the game at that point and Tennessee went to work.
   O'Donnell found Mason with a nine-yard grab, with George making some big gains to set up another Anderson field goal, this time a 23-yarder.
   Former Tulane quarterback, Shaun King, stepped up for Tampa Bay with some big gains through the air. He set up a 33-yard field goal from Gramatica, but the comeback try was a little too late.
   George made a big 16-yard grab for Tennessee on their next possession, with an eight-yard run to follow that up. It set up a 34-yard touchdown pass from O'Donnell to Mason.
   Tampa Bay took the ball into the fourth quarter with King finding Thomas Jones and Charles Lee with throws. A big play soon followed when King landed Aaron Stecker in the endzone with a 14-yard toss.
   Both squads were forced to punt a few times before another big turnover, when King was intercepted by Bullock at the Buccaneer 17.
   Chris Brown made two big gains before fumbling the ball at the three-yard line. The ball went into the endzone where it was recovered by Titan tight end Erron Kinney for a touchdown.
   The Bucs took the ball one final time, but were forced to punt, ending their disappointing season.
   REFLECTIONS ON SAPP IN TAMPA BAY
   One of the NFL's greatest defensive players of all time may have played his last game with his original team Sunday afternoon.
   Tampa Bay defensive tackle Warren Sapp battled through injuries all season and finished the game against Tennessee Sunday afternoon. He is known for his ability to talk smack and punish the opposition.
   "You have to talk to Warren before he talks to you," Titans quarterback Neil O'Donnell said.
   "So that's why you try to always start the conversation, because he'll wear you out in the game. I've played against Warren plenty of times with Pittsburgh. He's a great player and he kind of knows his days are over there. So, that's what he told me, he's going to move on."
   Gruden spoke about Sapp after the game and got emotional describing what he has meant to the Tampa Bay organization.
   "There is no question. From afar and from up close at gunpoint range, I know what Warren Sapp's about as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer," Gruden said. "He is a Hall of Fame candidate. The most feared, most productive inside player in my time in this league. We will see what happens."
   "I hate to sit here and paint a bleak picture that we have decided who's going where or if he's decided on who's going where until we take a little bit of time and move on."
   Gruden explained how Sapp fought through the foot pains he has suffered this season.
   "He had some lingering foot problems for the last three or four weeks. Plantar or however they say that. He fought through it," the coach added.
   "He had limited time on the practice field for the last month. But he wanted to finish the game on the field with his teammates and I credit him for that."
   Tampa defensive end Simeon Rice said he would like to see Sapp back in Tampa.
   "He is a good player and a vivacious guy. I love him to death," Rice said. "I would love to see him come back here."