Twice since their relocation and rebirth in Nashville, Tennessee, the Tennessee Titans have come perilously close to being crowned World Champions.
Twice they have faced a team that they had the ability, and in fact had been picked, to beat.
Twice they have gone into the waning minutes of the fourth quarter tied.
Twice they have let one get away.
After closing out their 1998 inaugural season in Nashville with an 8-8 record, the Tennessee Titans came alive in 1999, racking up an impressive, if not totally expected, 13-3 record on the way to a Wildcard berth.
After they "miraculously" outlasted Buffalo at home, they traveled to Indianapolis and stunned the pundits with a 19-16 victory over heavily favored Peyton Manning and the Colts. They then closed out their postseason run with a decisive 33-14 victory over the hapless Jaguars, earning them the right to play the St. Louis Rams in the franchise's first Super Bowl appearance.
As most of you know, St. Louis, with "The Greatest Show on Turf," took the lead in the fourth quarter with "The Catch," and ended Super Bowl XXXIV just over two minutes later with "The Tackle."
In 2008, the Titans again ran up an unexpected 13-3 record, this time earning the No. 1 seed throughout the playoffs. The AFC road to the Super Bowl ran right down main street across the Silliman-Evans Bridge.
This time, there was no miracle. Baltimore waltzed into town under the leadership of "Joe Cool" Flacco, the rookie quarterback with the seemingly unflappable demeanor, and Tennessee again ended their postseason run by being scored on in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter. A few bad play calls, some horrible ball control at the end of the game, and the Titans were sent to an early offseason.
So what's it gong to take? How are the Titans going to break through the ceiling and lay claim to the ultimate title of World Champion? Do they have it in them?
I, for one, think they do, but I may be in the minority. Kerry Collins is old, Albert Haynesworth is gone, the "Freak" Jevon Kearse had another offseason surgery, and LenDale White is already in the news with his big mouth, bigger attitude, and questionable position on the depth chart.
But I still think they have the tools to make another run, and maybe this time they can close it out right.
Key Factors to a Successful Super Bowl Run
Solid, Consistent Play on Both Sides of the Ball
First of all, the Titans need balance. Yeah, defense is good, but I'm gonna throw something out there that some of you more established football types may not like. GOOD DEFENSE DOES NOT ALWAYS WIN CHAMPIONSHIPS.
Blasphemy? Not necessarily. The Titans were ranked in the top 10—seventh overall—in the 2008 regular season. Of the 12 teams who made the playoffs, only six were ranked in the top 10: Pittsburgh, Tennessee, Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia, and Minnesota. Of those six, three made it out of the first round.
Why? THEY SCORED MORE POINTS THAN THE OTHER TEAM. They did that by aggressive play-calling and ball control. It's kind of hard to put points on the board if you keep giving the rock away, or if you focus on playing it safe the entire game.
Don't get me wrong. I'm a defensive guy, and always have been. But if the offense isn't performing, it doesn't matter much what the defense does. The Titans ranked 14th overall in the regular season in points per game. In their lone postseason appearance, they scored 10 points. The eventual Super Bowl contenders, Pittsburgh and Arizona, both scored more than 25 points per game in the playoffs.
Defense may get you to the postseason, but points get you the trophy.
Youth and Enthusiasm
The Titans have one big thing going for them; with only five players on their roster having 10 or more years in the league, they are relatively young. This does not necessarily equate to inexperience, however; 26 of the players currently on their roster have at least five years in the league, and the Titans did make a postseason appearance last year.
With that much youth, Tennessee has the opportunity to turn in not just one, but a string of postseason appearances in the next few years. One of those, quite possibly the one they could turn in this year, should end up as a Super Bowl Championship.
Open Up Down Field
With the addition of Nate Washington to the roster, Tennessee now has a potential double threat for the long ball, depending on how draftee Kenny Britt turns out. With Justin Gage in the lineup and both Bo Scaife and Alge Crumpler available on short routes, it's time for Collins to get the ball down field before he gets too old to throw it that far.
This isn't to say that they have to throw it because the running game is shot; to the contrary, the offensive backfield is one of the strongest they've had in years. But if they want to continue to use it, they have got to get the receivers engaged further down field than five to 10 yards at a time.
Change Nothing Defensively
There was quite a bit of worry last year when Big Al went down with a knee injury. Then KVB dropped, and the whole world went to heck.
Or so it appeared. Turns out, it was much ado about nothing. Dave Ball and Jason Jones stepped in as the season wound down, and played like they had been there all season.
With Haynesworth's departure, these two guys, as well as a few other up and comers, have things well in hand. The Titans still have the strength and speed to put pressure on the offensive backfield and force mistakes. The defensive backfield, led by veterans like Keith Bullock, Cortland Finnegan, Nick Harper, and Chris Hope, still have the speed and agility to defend and intercept downfield attacks.
The long and short of it is the Titans have 10 starters coming back from their No. 1 ranked defense of 2008. With the depth they have to keep everyone fresh well into the fourth quarter, they are set for another top-ranked year.
All in all, if the Titans can maintain their focus in the playoffs they could be unstoppable. Their defensive play was good enough to get them to the top, but their lack of ball control ultimately ended their run. Play like they did all last year, hold on to the ball this time in the playoffs, and we are likely to see the Titans hold aloft the Lombardi in February 2010.
That's how I see it, anyway.