Titans reach back for much-needed win

Tuesday, November 2, 2004 at 1:00am

One Titans Way is more than the street address for the Coliseum. In this season of shrinking profit margins, the Tennessee Titans possess one way of making right out of blight, and that way was on display Sunday against Cincinnati.

From all appearances, the 27-20 victory over the Bengals could have been TiVo'ed from 2002, when Tennessee bailed out a 1-4 start and wound up in the AFC Championship Game after an 11-5 finish.

There was the tip-top TOP (time of possession), as the Titans ground out an 11-minute ball-control advantage (36:35 to 23:25). Welcome back, franchise back - Chris Brown, saddled with turf toe, plowed out 147 yards on 32 carries, reminiscent of a typical day at the office for the Man with Two First Names.

Most importantly, a consistent pass rush emerged from the injured rubble of Tennessee's defensive front. The Titans had only 12 sacks in seven games previous to Sunday but reached out and touched Carson Palmer four times, including Albert Haynesworth's forced fumble on the Bengals' last play from scrimmage that saved the game.

For once this season, the Titans' defense shoved an opposing offense out of its comfort zone, even if the offense belonged to a second-year quarterback.

"That was the old Titans football, when we could just get out there and not worry about the run and the pass," cornerback Samari Rolle noted. "When you've got the lead, teams gotta to play to your plan."

Remember those Titans? All of those variables - ball control, ground game and quarterback pressure - must become constants if the home team wants anything to play for in the last half of 2004.

"Come November and December, that's the way you win ball games - controlling the clock, running the ball effectively," Titans wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "When you've got to pass, you pass the ball effectively. You don't do anything that's going to lose you a game, and that's what we did. We went back to smash-mouth football."

"That's kind of the theme [we had] coming into this week," linebacker Rocky Boiman seconded. "We just wanted to get back to old-school football - guys blocking people downfield, guys making tackles, getting pressure on the quarterback, beating people up."

To that end, it may not matter who quarterbacks the Titans. Steve McNair is the once and future king, of course. When he's completely healthy, he can turn games on a dime.

But the qualifier is "healthy," and Billy Volek looked better than a stopgap measure Sunday. Mason took the blame for the interception Cincinnati's Madieu Williams carted in for a touchdown; otherwise, Volek managed the offense more efficiently - at least this week -- than a banged-up McNair had vs. Houston Oct. 17.

"It looked like old Titans football, playing it right down to the wire," Volek said. "We don't lose at home, and when you start off 0-3 you're kind of giving the rookies and everyone else the wrong impression."

Here's another wrong impression - the Titans have solved all of their problems by beating a peer. That secondary is still scuffling, and for whatever reason Tennessee has the darnedest time with third and short. Protecting a lead is not their forte, either; Titans opponents have a landslide 81-33 scoring edge in the fourth quarter this season.

And, lest we forget, it was the Bengals, the vanquished in nine of the last 10 meetings with the Oilers/Titans. As linebacker Kevin Bulluck so aptly observed, "The team that we were playing, they gave us the opportunity to make those plays. We had confidence going up against this team. They had the same record as us. It's no secret."

But consider the alternative. At 2-6, Tennessee could have mailed in the rest of the season, using One Titans Way as the address. Instead, they nestle into a bye week not required this badly since - hello - 2002 with a renewed sense of purpose.

"It would have been tough for us to lose this one," Miller said Sunday. "Morale would have been pretty low, especially having to sit two weeks and not being able to come out the next week and make yourself feel a little bit better."

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