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AFC road to the Super Bowl will go through Titans’ field

AFC road to the Super Bowl will go through Titans’ field
 NASHVILLE — The AFC road to Tampa and the Super Bowl will go through Nashville.
The Tennessee Titans cemented themselves as the conference’s No. 1 seed and secured homefield advantage all the way through the playoffs with a resounding 31-14 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday afternoon.
With the best record (13-2) in all of pro football, the Titans dispatched their most serious challenger to that distinction by forcing four turnovers and sacking Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger five times.
Rookie tackle Jason Jones — subbing for injured Pro Bowler Albert Haynesworth — had a monster game with 31⁄2 sacks and three forced fumbles as the Tennessee defense set up 21 points with takeaways and sealed the impressive showing with the second of Michael Griffin’s two interceptions that went for an 83-yard return and a touchdown in the final minute.
The Titan offense did its share, too, becoming the first unit this season to top 300 yards against the league’s No. 1-ranked defense while ending the Steelers’ five-game winning streak.
Kerry Collins bounced back from his worst showing of the season to throw for 216 yards and a touchdown on 20-of-29 passing, and both Chris Johnson and LenDale White ran for scores as Tennessee scored the game’s last 21 points after falling behind 14-10 early in the second half.
“Clearly today, we got a tremendous effort out of all three phases of our football team,” victorious coach Jeff Fisher said afterward. “This was not a statement game; it was a momentum game. To put yourself in a position to win a game like we did, we had to play very, very well.
“I can’t say enough about the fans and the support and everything. This is a bonus for the fans. If we are fortunate to get (a win) in the first (playoff) game, then we can come back here and play at home a second time.”
Tennessee will close its regular season with a virtually meaningless game at Indianapolis this Sunday and then will get a first-round bye in the playoffs. The team’s first postseason game will be either Jan. 10 or 11.
Coming off a loss to Houston (13-12) in which they failed to score a touchdown, the Titans responded with the most points scored against the NFL’s stingiest defense this season.
Even more impressive, though, was Tennessee’s defensive effort that came not only without Haynesworth, but minus standout end Kyle Vanden Bosch, who also missed the game due to injury.
However, Jones — a second round pick out of Eastern Michigan — proved to be more than a capable fill-in for Haynesworth.
“Our backup defensive linemen, Jason Jones and the effort we got out of that group, was just less than spectacular,” Fisher continued. “I was very, very pleased and proud of them. Coming into this game without Albert (Haynesworth) and Kyle (Vanden Bosch), there was some concern. But we felt all along like we had guys who, given the opportunity to play, could made plays for us. And they really stepped up.”
The Titans scored twice in the first four minutes of the second quarter to take a 10-0 lead. Rob Bironas nailed a 42-yard field goal to open the scoring, and Hayes’ second forced-fumble jarred the ball loose from Roethlisberger and set up a pretty 34-yard TD toss from Collins to Justin Gage at the 11:59 mark of the period.
Jones’ first turnover-causing hit on the Pittsburgh QB came when the Steelers were threatening and Roethlisberger scrambled to the Tennessee one before Jones knocked the ball free and William Hayes recovered to deny the visitors points.
Unruffled by his two mistakes, Roethlisberger threw a pair of touchdown passes to rally Pittsburgh to a 14-10 lead a little more than five minutes into the second half. Santonio Holmes made a beautiful diving catch of the first scoring toss — a 31-yarder with 5:40 left in the second period — before the fifth-year Steeler signal-caller threw the 100th TD pass of his career to Hines Ward from 21 yards out in the third stanza.
Tennessee didn’t blink, though.
Facing a 3rd-and-20 from the Steeler 40, Collins threw a 19-yard aerial to a tight-roping Justin McCareins to get the Titans just inches from a first down. Fisher then gambled and Johnson took a pitch, juked the only defender to have a shot at tackling him and bolted 21 yards to paydirt for a 17-14 Tennessee lead.
Griffin returned his first interception 32 yards into Pittsburgh territory, but it was a costly Steeler penalty on 4th-and-3 from the six that was most critical in the Titans’ ensuing drive.
With Bironas lining up for a 22-yard field goal attempt, a Steeler player was whistled for simulating a snap count — an infraction that gave Tennessee a first down instead at the two. One play later, on the first snap of the fourth quarter, White veered untouched into the endzone for a score that padded the Titans’ lead to 24-14.
The Steelers then never seriously threatened before Griffin’s game-sealing pick and return set off a celebration that included linebacker Keith Bullock, who stomped on one of the Steelers’ “Terrible Towels” at the end of the game.
Sports editor Mike Hutchens can be contacted by e-mail at mhutch@ucmessenger.com.

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