Sunday, January 11, 2009

Titanic Collapse: Fisher’s Boys Dominate Ravens, Then Squander Opportunities in 13-10 Playoff Loss

Nashville’s Circle Players are currently in rehearsal for a production of Titanic, the Musical, set for opening next weekend. But for a compelling tale of unbridled disaster, the Tennessee Titans beat the local community theater to the punch with their performance Saturday afternoon in the AFC divisional playoffs.

Like the journey of the Titanic itself, this one started out with high hopes and a sense of majesty. And the vital statistics were impressive. Basically, the Titans outran, outpassed and outmuscled the Ravens through most of the game. They outgained Baltimore 391 yards to 211. They averaged 4.1 yards per rush, while the Ravens managed 1.7 yards. The Titans’ Kerry Collins threw for 281 yards; the Ravens’ Joe Flacco threw for 161. The Titans dominated time of possession, 34:07 to 25:53.

But instead of heading into the locker room at halftime with a healthy lead as they should have, the Titans could only manage a 7-7 tie at intermission, and any local fan who recognizes negative game trends—which often spell impending doom—had to have been nagged by a sinking feeling.

A strong game plan looked in place, and Titans secret weapon rookie Chris Johnson had gained 72 yards on 11 carries in the first half, including a first quarter TD scamper that seemed to set the proper pace. But after that, it was an exercise in frustration, as the Titans committed 12 penalties and turned the ball over three critical times, thwarting drive after drive with sloppiness and handing the game to a Ravens team that was not at its best but outlasted their opponent by playing conservatively and minimizing mistakes.

Between the 20-yard lines, the Titans’ offense was in synch, and the Ravens’ vaunted defenders often looked less than their usual tireless selves. But Baltimore came up with the big plays when it counted, including an interception of a dying quail Collins pass and two key fumble recoveries. The last one, coughed up by veteran Titans tight end Alge Crumpler, was particularly galling. Crumpler, a former All-Pro signed with great fanfare in the off-season, had had a relatively quiet year statistically, but in his biggest, long-overdue moment, he couldn’t finish off a key reception near the Ravens’ goal line. Sandwiched hard between two Ravens, the ball spurted out of his hands, and with it went Tennessee’s last serious scoring threat.

The Ravens played things close to the vest down the stretch, Flacco made a couple of key connections with his receivers, and Matt Stover kicked a field goal late to seal the victory.

It was yet another classic struggle in the Ravens-Titans series, but this time out the probably superior team proved themselves seaworthy, then sabotaged its most important voyage in nearly a decade with mental mistakes and physical faux pas. (Hold on to the ball, for chrissakes, LenDale!)

The Titans played this game without All-Pro center Kevin Mawae. Johnson never took the field in the second half due to a painful ankle injury. These were factors in the team’s overall play, but they were not the sole reasons for the loss.

Sometimes teams just choke; alas, that’s what appeared to happen here. Titans head coach Jeff Fisher will now have plenty of time to ponder that reality, and, like the rest of us, wonder why.

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