Steve McNair is playing hurt, Eddie George is closing on a 1,000-yard season and the Titans defense is embracing its once-familiar aggressive and physical style of play. They're back.
But back in mid-October, the Titans were 1-4 when the Jaguars came to town. The Titans appeared to be a capped-out, old team playing for respectability. Then came eight wins in their next nine games and all of a sudden the Titans are 9-5 and headed for the number one seed in the AFC playoffs, if they can beat the 6-8 Jaguars this Sunday at Alltel Stadium.
In Tennessee, success has always begun with McNair. George has always been the Titans' star, but McNair has been their heart and soul; maybe never more so than now.
"He's great. Everybody talks about (Rich) Gannon and Priest Holmes being MVP, but, boy, he's got to be in the running," Titans center Gennaro DiNapoli said of McNair.
Who's more valuable to his team than McNair is to the Titans? Turf toe and sore ribs forbid him to practice in either of the weeks leading up to games against the Giants and Colts, but McNair was the difference on game day, rallying the Titans to an overtime win in New York on Dec. 1, then leading the Titans to a critical win over visiting Indianapolis the following week.
McNair has an 84.7 passer rating and has thrown 21 touchdown passes and is on the verge of becoming only the fifth quarterback in NFL history to throw for more than 18,000 yards and rush for more than 3,000 yards. Fran Tarkenton, John Elway, Randall Cunningham and Steve Young are the other four quarterbacks to have accomplished that feat.
Dare McNair? No way.
Meanwhile, George has rallied from the slowest start of his career to be on the verge of the sixth thousand-yard season in his seven-year career. All of a sudden, the worries that went with having missed the thousand-yard mark last season have been eased.
Times are good for the Titans. Maybe not as they were in 1999, when the Titans were a young team on the rise, but they're satisfied they've been able to make another playoff run with a team for whom the future of the Titans' salary cap was mortgaged. One more run at the Super Bowl? It would seem the Titans are making that run.
"They're getting a personality, and the personality comes from being successful. It comes from winning games," coach Jeff Fisher said.
Fisher instilled in the '99 Titans a kind of inner confidence that allowed that team to beat the Jaguars three times, the final time in the AFC title game at Alltel Stadium. The Titans developed that confidence from a physical style of play some believe intimidated the Jaguars. Now, following a 7-9 fall last season, these Titans are talking as though they've turned the clock back.
"We kind of bring it to you physically and try to disrupt you, and if you make a play, then try to hit you and hit you hard," cornerback Samari Rolle said.
Rolle resurrected that kind of attitude in the Oct. 13 game against the Jaguars in Nashville. Rolle's sideline hit on Mark Brunell in the first quarter caused Brunell to leave the game with a concussion.
The Jaguars complained to the league office that Rolle's hit was an intentional helmet-to-helmet strike. Obviously, that incident will be at the root of whatever ill feelings exist in this Sunday's clash between the two rivals at Alltel Stadium. The Jaguars would certainly like to settle the score with the Titans, who claimed a 23-14 win that began a four-game losing streak for the Jaguars.
"We've gotten more aggressive and that's now our style. We've just got to keep playing. There's some other things we need to do, but we need to just keep playing hard," veteran defensive end Kevin Carter said.
So, the Titans are talkin' big and feelin' good, a lot like the Jaguars were when they were 3-1 and headed to Nashville. Can the Jaguars do to the Titans' season what the Titans did to the Jaguars'?