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Central likely to have homefield advantage


The Tennessee Titans control their own playoff destiny and the entire AFC playoff seeding, as the season comes to a close this weekend.

A Tennessee win on Christmas night against Dallas would allow the Titans to claim their first AFC Central Division title since 1993 and, by virtue of the tie-breakers, homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.

Advantage is the crucial word for the Titans, who are 14-1 in 15 regular-season games at Adelphia Coliseum.

Jeff Fisher won his 60th game as the head coach of Bud Adams' franchise on Sunday in snowy Cleveland, where the Titans rolled the Browns, 24-0. The win moves Fisher past Bum Phillips on the franchise's all-time wins chart.

"Jeff, in my opinion, is probably the most underrated coach in the league," offered running back Eddie George. "He has done an outstanding job with us, especially during the tough times."

Fisher's job is considerably easier with a player such as George to lean on. With heavy snow and howling winds, the Titans abandoned their passing attack in favor of their horse. George carried the ball 34 times for 176 yards and all three of Tennessee's touchdowns. His 176-yard performance gives the four-time Pro-Bowler a career-high 1,426 yards with one game left to play.

"This is Cleveland in December and you're supposed to have weather like this," said George, who played college football at Ohio State in nearby Columbus. "But I don't think I've ever experienced anything like today. Usually when it snows it's a little bit warmer, but the combination of snow and a vicious wind chill, it was like a razor blade out there."

Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair and his backup, Neil O'Donnell, combined to complete 12 of 20 pass attempts for 105 yards. Offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, at one point early in the game, asked his quarterback the likelihood of completing a pass downfield and was quietly rebuked.

"If the wind is blowing so hard that you can't throw the ball down the field, then what better way to win a ballgame than to give it to old 27?" left tackle Brad Hopkins asked. "This game was perfect for that."

Kick-returner Derrick Mason passed a milestone on Sunday in Cleveland. His 92 yards in returns pushed him to 2,568 for the season, surpassing the NFL record of 2,535 set in 1985 by San Diego running back Lionel James.

The Titans defense passed a mark of its own with the first shutout for Adams' franchise since 1993. Of course, they were playing the Cleveland Browns, who were shutout four times in 2000 by four different teams, but they did hold them to only 113 yards and just six first downs, which had the Tennessee defense flying high after the game.

"This defense has been talking about getting a shutout and we let a couple of games slip away," said safety Marcus Robertson. "It's a wonderful feeling when you get one. It's something you always want to do, but with the type of talent in this league, it's very difficult to do."

Up next: Dallas, 5-10

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens sewed up their first-ever playoff berth the previous week with a win over San Diego, and assured themselves of at least a home wild-card game with their 13-7 win in Arizona this past Sunday. The Ravens are going to call all of their friends in Dallas this week to encourage the Cowboys for their showdown in Tennessee on Monday night.

If the Ravens beat the Jets and the Cowboys upset the Titans, the Ravens would not only win the AFC Central, but because of conference tie-breakers, would own homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. It appears that one way or another, a team from the Central will own homefield advantage for the second consecutive season.

The Ravens own the NFL's longest current winning streak, which stands at six games. They had to do it with defense against Arizona, but defense is something the Ravens are content to play.

"A win is a win," said head coach Brian Billick, whose offense managed only 214 total yards and converted only six of 16 third-down attempts. "I appreciate a win. Going into the playoffs, you need a few challenges. It was a challenge today and that's going to serve us well."

The Ravens defense answered the bell in the third quarter after Cardinals quarterback Jake Plummer put Baltimore behind in a game for the first time in 21 quarters. Linebacker Jamie Sharper intercepted a Plummer pass on Arizona's next possession and returned it 45 yards to the Cardinals six-yard line to set up a Jamal Lewis touchdown that regained the lead.

Then, with less than 12 minutes to play, Plummer hit tight end Terry Hardy with a short pass he took toward the end zone, but Sharper caught him from behind and stripped him of the ball at the five-yard line.

"Jamie's a big player on our defense," said linebacker Peter Boulware. "He has the potential to make big plays almost every time he's out there. It just showed today what he could do. That was huge for our team and that really turned the game around for us."

Sharper wasn't the only member of the league's top-ranked defense to turn in a big play. Defensive end Rob Burnett came up with two sacks and defensive tackle Sam Adams stopped a Cardinal drive with an impressive stuff of Plummer on fourth-and-one.

Middle linebacker Ray Lewis made two pass deflections on fourth down in the second half to stall other Arizona drives.

Now the attention has to turn to the offense, which had been on somewhat of a tear since going the entire month of October without scoring a touchdown. Trent Dilfer completed only 12 passes for 70 yards and threw a critical interception in the end zone to halt a drive. In the last four games he's thrown six interceptions, but with a defense like the Ravens, he wasn't alarmed.

"You don't want anything to happen that's going to be habitual, and the reason that I am not overly concerned is, up to this point, this is the first time it has been like this," Dilfer said. "Obviously, I will take a great amount of responsibility for this, but there's something to be said for not panicking, playing smart."

Rookie running back Jamal Lewis has been the reason the Ravens have gone from a team with a good defense to a potential championship team. Lewis ran for 126 yards to become the 14th running back in league history to run for 1,300 yards in his first season. Lewis has run for at least 90 yards in each of the Ravens six consecutive wins.

Up next: New York Jets, 9-6

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers, while not quite in control of their own destiny, will have their heads on a swivel this weekend. If they can beat the 1-14 Chargers in San Diego and if the Jets and Colts each lose, the Steelers could make the playoffs for the first time since 1997.

"Really, the only thing we can do is take care of ourselves," said center Dermonti Dawson. "Winning is important, and everything else that happens, happens."

The Steelers closed out their 31-year run at Three Rivers Stadium with a 24-3 win over Washington. The history and tradition of the Steelers, which was on full display, was more impressive than the game on the field. Former Steeler greats Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, Mel Blount and Franco Harris were on hand to witness the closing of the stadium and were on the field for the coin toss, which the Redskins won.

"Jack just got fired up and said, 'All right defense! Let's kill! Let's go!' " said current linebacker LeVon Kirkland. "That was great, man. You could see how intense he was. It just made us go out there and play better."

The Steelers defense looked like those great teams from the 1970's, as they put the clamps on Washington, forcing and recovering three fumbles and intercepting two passes. They sacked quarterback Jeff George three times and knocked him from the game and held running back Stephen Davis to only 39 yards.

The offense resembled the one led by quarterback Terry Bradshaw and running back Franco Harris. Kordell Stewart completed 11 of 21 passes for 175 yards and led a pair of touchdown drives, while running back Jerome Bettis ran for 104 yards.

"All those great players being here," Bettis said. "It reminds you that when you put this jersey on, you don't put it on only for yourself."

Bettis has run for 1,290 yards with one game left to play, and is assured of owning three of the Steelers' top four single-season rushing performances. Perfect timing for the bruising back, who becomes a free agent in March.

"Hey, they should definitely re-sign him," said Franco Harris. "He runs so hard and with so much enthusiasm. You can tell it's infectious with his team."

Up next: at San Diego, 1-14

Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals aren't playing for the postseason, but on Sunday they were playing for their coach and they will do so again this Sunday in Philadelphia. The Bengals' 17-14 come-from-behind win over Jacksonville made Cincinnati 4-8 under Dick LeBeau, since he replaced Bruce Coslet in September.

Owner and General Manager Mike Brown has been looking for a way to keep the 63-year-old LeBeau, who is popular with his players. Brown needs to sell club seats and luxury boxes and to do so he needs a team that gives fans hope.

"It's important for Dick to get a win like that," explained Brown afterwards. "We've got one more game left and I'd like to see us play out the season with effort."

The Bengals have lost at least 11 games in seven of the last 10 seasons and haven't had a winning season since 1990. They have a lot to prove to the city of Cincinnati in seeking their support.

Brown and Bengals fans may need to see more, but his players were adamant. "I think it's our leader," said defensive tackle Oliver Gibson. "No offense against coach Coslet, but, like he said, he was burned out. With coach LeBeau, hey, we're all fighting. We're all fighting for respect. We're fighting for our jobs, we're fighting for everything. His positive attitude keeps you in it."

Quarterback Scott Mitchell will likely return to Cincinnati in 2001. Brown has expressed his desire for Mitchell to compete with Akili Smith next summer, but would not comment after the game. Mitchell is a free agent and Brown is unwilling to give the quarterback any negotiating leverage, but Mitchell has led the Bengals to all four of their wins and on Sunday orchestrated an 80-yard drive in which he scored the game-tying touchdown.

The cold weather didn't just affect the visitors from Florida. Temperatures in the single digits and a wind chill that made it feel anywhere from 19-26 degrees below zero made the conditions uncomfortable for everyone.

"I felt like we were playing at the South Pole," exclaimed linebacker Takeo Spikes. "It was cold man. During the TV timeouts, we asked the officials, 'Can't we just skip these and keep going?' We wanted to get out of there."

Up next: at Philadelphia, 10-5

Cleveland Browns

The first two years of the Chris Palmer era ended Sunday in the snow at Cleveland Stadium. Unfortunately for Palmer, the 24-0 loss was all too typical of his team's performance since rejoining the league last season. The Browns lost their last five games of the season to finish 3-13 and are 5-27 since 1999. They were held scoreless four time this season by four different teams.

Palmer now finds himself fighting for his job in a war against team President Carmen Policy and General Manager Dwight Clark, whose philosophies of football are radically different than Palmer's. Policy and Clark are said to place the blame for all the injuries on Palmer's rigorous practices, which players have complained about publicly. They are also said to be upset with what they perceive to be a lack of imagination in the offensive game plans. Palmer disputed that there was trouble in his dealings with the two men.

"I've never felt we weren't on the same page," he said. "My communication with Dwight, I would call outstanding. Very open. I don't know that we've had two disagreements in the two years I've been here."

But the differences have been too dramatic to ignore. Palmer wanted the Browns to pursue running back James Stewart in free agency and they went instead for defensive linemen Keith McKenzie and Orpheus Roye. He's asked for offensive linemen in the draft and received two, a sixth and seventh-rounder in last spring's draft.

There is talk that meetings in the coming weeks will force Palmer to away from the Bill Parcells school of football. Policy and Clark want to continue to use the San Francisco style of play, which emphasizes a creative passing attack and no-contact practices.

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