In a back and forth battle that wasn’t supposed to be this high scoring, this was the game which would show who could lay claim to the best team into the NFL entering the playoffs. Right from the start, the Titans and Steelers were out to prove that they were the team to beat.
At least defensively.
Stalling time and again on offense, the Titans showed quickly that they were deeper on defense than many would have thought. With the Steelers spending most of the first quarter in Titans territory, Tennessee held Pittsburgh to no score, even forcing a fumble and nearly taking Ben Roethlisberger out of the game with the Steelers threatening to score from the 6-yard line.
Jason Jones stepped up to the plate nicely early on, getting a sack and forcing the fumble that kept the Steelers out of the end zone early.
Not to be outdone in the “backups who performed well” department, Kendall Simmons stepped in when the Steelers got a scare in the first quarter, filling in for James Harrison who made a quick trip to the locker room with an injured hip.
Harrison soon returned to the game, but Simmons made a key stop against Chris Johnson that held the Titans to a field goal as the second quarter opened.
Once the scoring started, though, Tennessee was rolling. After forcing another fumble on the Steelers first drive of the second period, Tennessee responded three plays later with a 34-yard strike from Collins to Gage to take the score to 10-0.
This was not how the Steelers wanted to start the day.
Tennessee came out to continue their strong defensive stand, but Pittsburgh was not to be denied. Taking over at their own 20-yard line, Big Ben calmly drove the Steelers down field, even picking up a first down with his legs before connecting with Santonio Holmes for 31 yards to cap off a 10-play drive.
Suddenly this was beginning to shape up as an offensive battle that no one was expecting.
Tennessee came right back on the next drive. After a holding penalty pushed them back close to their own end zone, Collins led the Titans up the field, hitting Algee Crumpler on short routes and handing the ball off to Chris Johnson, who ran right at the vaunted Steelers defensive line.
After holding at midfield and forcing the Titans to punt, Pittsburgh took over at their own 14 with all three timeouts, and just under two minutes to go in the first half.
Picking up two quick first downs, Big Ben picked the Titans secondary apart, hitting Miller and Washington for big first downs to move into Titans territory. A broken play led to a dump off to Mewelde Moore which moved the Steelers into field goal range with 40 seconds to go.
Keeping the drive alive with his arm, Roethlisberger connected with Miller to take Pittsburgh down to the 19 yard line, then Hines Ward at the 16 to give Jeff Reed a chance to tie the game going into the half.
But Reed, normally a sure thing inside of 35 yards, pulled the kick left and the Titans went into the half with a slim 10-7 lead.
Pittsburgh deferred the toss to Tennessee to start the game, so they got to open the half at the 40-yard line after Bironas’s kick went out of bounds. Tennessee held them to three-and-out, and after a scare at the 10 when the ball bounced off of Chris Barr, who quickly fell on it, Collins and Company geared up for another run at the end zone.
With Tennessee continuing to stop the run, Roethlisberger completed three plays of 20 yards or more to take the first lead of the game. Hitting Hines Ward for two consecutive 21-yarders, Pittsburgh edged ahead of the Titans, 14-10.
The head-to-head match up of Ward and Finnegan was turning out to be the veteran who should have made the Pro Bowl taking the young guy who did make it to school.
Tennessee wasn’t going down without a fight, though. With a holding call negating a 41-yard return, the Titans were backed up to their own 21 to start their first drive of the second half. At 38 years old and in his 13th year in the league, this 1995 first-round draft pick showed he still had some zip on his passes as he moved the Titans into Pittsburgh territory.
With a Steelers record 15th sack by James Harrison to back him up for a third and 20, Collins hit Justin McCareins for 19 yards, 10 inches. Jeff Fisher quickly made the call to go for it, which turned out to be the correct one as Chris Johnson scooted 20 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.
After a short kickoff by Bironas, Pittsburgh got the ball back at their own 32 and quickly went back to work. But Tennessee stepped up big time, picking off Roethlisberger as the Steelers were moving down field, and ending the longest streak of consecutive completions without an interception in Roethlisberger’s career.
Again with fourth down and out of field goal range, Titans coach Jeff Fisher decided to go for it again, and again Collins kept the drive alive with a 17 yard completion to Justin Gage. Going for the score on the next play, an apparent pass interference call in the end zone was negated after the refs decided the ball had been deflected.
Holding the Titans to a field goal try, Pittsburgh was poised to get the ball back in the fourth quarter needing only one score to take the lead. But someone, possibly Aaron Smith, was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, and the Titans drive was revived at the three.
Capitalizing on the Steelers’s gaffe, Lendell White punched it in two plays later to give the Titans the led again, this time going ahead by 10.
Enter the fourth quarter. All year long, this is where the Steelers have made hay. Forget that they lead the league in holding opponents to fewer scores in the third quarter than anyone; the Titans showed just how much that mattered by scoring once and threatening a second time before time expired.
No, the fourth quarter has been what has really mattered to the Steelers all year; by keeping their opponents close, Big Ben and the Steelers have been able to engineer game-winning drives to prevail in contest after contest.
Things didn’t start of too well for the Steelers, though; rookie Jason Jones, who got the first sack and forced fumble earlier in the game, garnered another sack on third-and-13, forcing the Steelers to punt yet again.
With three fumbles and a 10-point deficit against the second-best defense in the league, Big Ben was going to need some serious Christmas magic to get out of this one with his skin.
For a few plays, it looked like he might just be getting into the groove. Then, when they needed it least, Roethlisberger coughed the ball up again. Four fumbles, two recovered by the Titans. And the Steelers were forced to punt yet again.
Collins and the gang went right to work. With both team’s defenses giving up over 300 yards for the first time this year, it was apparent that the team that won would be the one who had the better offensive performance. In front of a sold out home crowd, Tennessee set about showing just who that was.
Putting the burden on the running game, the Titans handed off repeatedly to Lendell White, who ran right down the gut of the Steelers line. Ryan Clark learned very quickly how White earned the nickname “Smash.” Clark lowered his shoulder to stop White on one of his runs, and was rewarded with a trip to the locker room with a trainer walking beside him holding his arm.
The Steelers got one last chance to drive down the field, but the Titans weren’t going to make it easy. Rookie Jason Jones, filling in for the injured Albert (I always want to call him “Michael”) Haynesworth, sacked Roethlisberger again, giving him four on the day with two forced fumbles.
So much for the 320-pound hole in the Titans defensive line.
Abandoning the running game entirely—they were inside two minutes with only one timeout left—Big Ben attempted to give the Steelers another come-from-behind win.
Today, however, it just wasn’t meant to be. A false start and an offensive pass interference call backed the Steelers up to midfield, and an ill-fated pass down field floated on Roethlisberger, was picked off by Griffin, and returned 83 yards for a score.
Losing his first game in recent memory when throwing for over 300 yards, Big Ben and the Steelers have to console themselves with the fact that in the grand scheme of things, this may have been the best for them. After all, home field advantage for the Steelers has not served them well in recent years; maybe they will get a chance to come back in January and redeem themselves in the AFC Championship.
Anyone got any ketchup? This bird is pretty dry.