JACKSONVILLE , Fla.—Team of destiny, indeed.
Throughout the playoffs, the Tennessee Titans have gotten enough breaks at key times to earn such a label from the media. That trend continued in Sunday's AFC Championship Game, as the well-traveled franchise earned its first Super Bowl berth with a 33-14 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars in front of 75,206 fans at Alltel Stadium.
"You can call it destiny. You can call it what you want," Titans running back Rodney Thomas said as his team celebrated on the field following the victory. "There are so many things that have gone our way. You can call it luck sometimes, but it's destiny that we're here."
Although the Titans entered Sunday's game having won two regular-season games against Jacksonville, there was well-justified skepticism about whether Tennessee could pull off the three-peat.
Of the seven teams that have defeated an opponent three times in a single season since 1970, none won the final game on the road. The Jaguars also were coming off a 62-7 thrashing of the Dolphins last weekend, and the Titans had eked out a 19-16 victory at Indianapolis.
"I don't know how much more frustrating it can be," said Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin, whose team committed six turnovers and 100 yards in penalties. "I never expected that to happen today."
It shouldn't have, but the Jaguars began to implode late in the first half.
Had Jacksonville's Reggie Barlow successfully fielded a Titans punt, the Jaguars would have entered halftime with the momentum and a 14-7 lead. Instead, Barlow fumbled and Titans safety Steve Jackson recovered at the Jaguars' 19. That led to a 34-yard Al Del Greco field goal.
"We needed to get something going," Jackson said. "That really catapulted everybody for the rest of the game."
Jacksonville's collapse continued on the first series of the third quarter, when wide receiver Alvis Whitted dropped a third-down pass that would have given the Jaguars a first down inside Titans territory. Tennessee capitalized by driving for a 1-yard quarterback sneak by Steve McNair to take a 17-14 lead.
On Jacksonville's ensuing possession, Titans defensive tackle Jason Fisk recovered a fumble at the Jaguars' 35 when linebacker Eddie Robinson stripped tight end Kyle Brady after a reception. The Titans reached Jacksonville's 1, but tight end Frank Wycheck was stripped, and Jaguars linebacker Lonnie Marts recovered that fumble.
"When Frank fumbled, we just treated it like we punted down to the 1," Titans running back Eddie George said. "It was a missed opportunity, but we really didn't have time to focus on it."
That's because Tennessee's defense and special teams scored nine points in lightning-quick fashion.
After Jaguars running back Fred Taylor was held to no gain on first down, Brunell dropped back to pass and was sacked in the end zone for a safety by Fisk and fellow defensive tackle Josh Evans.
Tennessee's Derrick Mason then returned the ensuing kickoff 80 yards for a touchdown, extending the Titans' lead to 26-14.
"As soon as I made the move and made one man miss, I knew I was gone," Mason said.
So were Jacksonville's chances for a spot in the Super Bowl. The Jaguars' next four possessions ended with a failed fourth-down conversion, a punt, and a fumble and interception of Brunell.
"Of all times to do it, we did it today," said Brunell, who was sacked three times and threw a second-quarter interception in the end zone in an 19-for-39 performance. "Bad reads, bad blocking, bad throws. You can't afford that in a game like this, especially against a team like the Titans."
Tennessee also made its share of mistakes, but McNair never lost his poise. McNair's passing statistics were mediocre -- his longest pass in a 14-of-23 outing went for 15 yards -- but he killed Jacksonville with his elusiveness.
McNair rushed nine times for 91 yards and scored twice on quarterback keepers, including the 1-yard plunge that iced the Titans' victory with 6:59 left in the game. Toss in an 86-yard performance by George and Tennessee finished with 34 rushes for 177 yards.
"This is smash-mouth football at its best," Wycheck said. "They couldn't stop us. We just marched it down the field. That's our bread and butter."
What Sunday's victory also proved is that the Rams shouldn't take the Titans lightly, despite the unusual events that have spurred the team's playoff run.
A wild-card team entering the postseason despite a 13-3 record, the Titans topped Buffalo 22-16 in a first-round playoff game thanks to a cross-field lateral on a kickoff that was returned for a touchdown with three seconds remaining. Against Indianapolis, an instant replay reversal nullified an 87-yard punt return in the third quarter and helped demoralize the Colts.
"We're tough mentally," said Titans left guard Bruce Matthews, who will play in the first Super Bowl of his 17-year NFL career. "I think we've shown that in our playoff run. We've overcome a lot of things, a lot of loud crowds and situations where, in all honesty, some of us thought we may have been out of it. But we found a way."
Said Titans fullback Lorenzo Neal: "You can call it destiny. I just call it playing hard and outplaying these guys. The bottom line is the better team won."