Wide receiver and kick returner Derrick Mason should be the Tennessee Titans MVP when this season is through. Two weeks ago, on Monday Night Football, Mason returned a punt 69 yards for a touchdown to open the game. This past Sunday in Nashville, he caught passes of 14, 16 and 17 yards in the Titans' final drive, to set up Al Del Greco's game-winning field goal and a 9-7 win over the Steelers.
In fact, Mason was the only receiver to catch a pass when the game was on the line. Veterans Carl Pickens and Chris Sanders were out of the contest with injuries, and Yancey Thigpen was inactive for the game. Tennessee needed Mason to rescue an offense that was unable to finish what it started.
The Titans gained twice as many total yards as the Steelers and controlled the clock for twice as long, but succumbed to penalties and mistakes which kept them out of the end zone.
"It never surprises me if we win," said offensive tackle Brad Hopkins. "It just shows that even in our worst games, there's hope."
The Titans have now won eight consecutive games and 21 of their last 23 in the AFC Central. Included in that total is a seven-game winning streak against the Steelers and five consecutive wins against the Jaguars.
Tennessee opened a two-and-a-half game lead over the second-place Ravens, who travel to Nashville this weekend. The Titans will need to catch more passes and commit fewer penalties than they did against the Steelers.
"At halftime, he basically called every one of us out," tight end Frank Wycheck said of a frustrated Steve McNair. "He was pretty vocal. Steve's a pretty laid back, lead by example kind of guy. He pretty much let us have it."
McNair was livid that mistakes cost the Titans two chances to score in the Steelers red zone.
Tennessee got a courageous performance from running back Eddie George, who carried the ball 34 times for 98 yards on a sprained knee, twisted ankle and sore big toe.
George's insistence on playing kept the ball in the hands of the Titans and out of the grasp of Pittsburgh's Jerome Bettis, who had three 100-yard games in his previous four games. He managed just 13 carries and 42 yards, which drastically reduced the effectiveness of the Steelers game plan.
The Titans will need a similar effort from their running game and their defense if they are going to continue their winning streak against the Ravens. "We have the same challenge coming up next week; the exact same challenge," coach Jeff Fisher said.
They could also use some help from their pass-rush, which has struggled in recent weeks. Fisher called defensive end Jevon Kearse on the carpet last week for his ineffective play, suggesting Kearse was "just going through the motions" and was "kind of back to being a one-dimensional pass-rusher."
Kearse responded with a single tackle against Pittsburgh, but did create some pressure on the passer. He acknowledged that he must turn his game up a notch or two as the Titans head down the home stretch.
"He's right," Kearse said. "I find myself not using as much technique as I should."
That home stretch is significantly easier than the first nine games of their schedule. The Titans will face the 2-8 Cleveland Browns twice and Cincinnati, Jacksonville and Dallas.
Up next: Baltimore, 6-4
The Steelers are fuming over the one play McNair was able to make Sunday. Trailing 7-6 and facing fourth-and-eight, McNair found Mason for a 17-yard completion to set up Del Greco's game-winning field goal. For a Pittsburgh defense that had kept McNair from beating them all afternoon and didn't allow George to run wild, that one play was a crushing blow.
"We were playing great defense all day long," linebacker LeVon Kirkland said. "It's a shame it came down to that. McNair can make plays. He made the play he needed to make."
The Pittsburgh defense, which hasn't allowed a touchdown since Oct. 1, kept the game in front of them for most of the afternoon, holding the Titans to only three field goals and twice shutting Tennessee down inside the 20, but the Steelers weren't able to overcome their one-dimensional offense.
"We've had success in running the football against them in the past," tight end Mark Bruener said. "For some reason, they changed up their defensive philosophy against us and put some more linebackers in there and geared up to stop the run."
Bettis was held in check, which left the game in the hands of quarterback Kordell Stewart. Stewart almost pulled it out with a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Bruener, which gave the Steelers a 7-6 lead, but Stewart was inconsistent at all other times, completing just seven of 22 passes and only two of 11 in the second half. It would help if Stewart got some help from his first-round wide receivers. Plaxico Burress and Troy Edwards combined for one catch, which doesn't match the expectations for the young duo, which has three catches in the last two games and no touchdowns on the season.
The Steelers running game can't overcome a passing attack that lacks teeth. They've already lost fullback Jon Witman and on Sunday they were without center Dermontti Dawson, whose recurring hamstring problems are likely to get worse before they get better. Dawson left the Titans game in the second quarter and didn't return.
Up next: Philadelphia, 6-4
Ravens coach Brian Billick joked with reporters after his team's first win in a month and their first touchdown since Sept., telling them he would allow himself "to sleep this week."
Quarterback Trent Dilfer tossed a second-quarter touchdown pass to seldom-used receiver Brandon Stokley, to give the Ravens a 10-0 lead and their first touchdown in 21 quarters, en route to a 27-7 win in Cincinnati. The Baltimore sideline erupted with players jumping up and down and hugging one another in a rare show of emotion for a regular season game.
"It was kind of funny, because it was like we just won the Super Bowl," Dilfer said. "I had to sit back and say all we did was score a touchdown. I've scored a lot of touchdowns before."
Dilfer kept things moving for the 6-4 Ravens, who jumped back ahead of the Steelers and into second place in the AFC Central. Dilfer added a pair of touchdown passes to tight end Shannon Sharpe to give the Ravens a 24-0 lead at halftime.
"We didn't need to be 5-5 going to Tennessee," offered offensive tackle Jon Ogden. "This is a win we needed if we wanted to make the playoffs. I still think we can play better, but it's a step in the right direction."
The Ravens defense showed its gratitude toward the offense by giving them the second half off. Baltimore stuffed record-breaking running back Corey Dillon and never allowed Cincinnati a chance to make a game of it. Dillon, coming off 415 yards in consecutive games, was held to just 16 carries and only 23 yards.
Baltimore has enjoyed uncanny success against Dillon who, in 28 rushing attempts against the Ravens this season, has been dropped for a loss 10 times.
"He's their whole attack," explained defensive end Rob Burnett. "Their passing game hasn't gotten going yet. Corey's been their mainstay, so that was the emphasis this whole week."
Now that emphasis shifts to Tennessee, who escaped Baltimore with a 14-6 win two weeks ago to grab control of the division. In that game the Ravens offense turned the ball over deep inside Titans territory and squandered a strong defensive effort.
Up next: at Tennessee, 8-1
The Bengals were given a dose of reality Sunday. The Ravens ended Cincinnati's two-game winning streak and showed them they weren't quite ready for prime time.
Cincinnati was held to just 174 total net yards. "They were bringing safeties off the corner," Dillon said of his struggles. "It seemed like there were always 11 people in the box. To get big numbers would have been impossible today."
What the Bengals needed was some help from their passing attack, but it wasn't on the way. Struggling second-year quarterback Akili Smith fumbled the ball in the second quarter to set up the Ravens first touchdown, and was ineffective all afternoon. Only one of his 15 completions was anything other than a screen pass or short, underneath route.
It would help dramatically if Smith could develop some sort of rhythm with first-round pick Peter Warrick, but the Bengals haven't been able to put the ball in his hands. Warrick, who took a direct snap from center and ran for a touchdown against Baltimore, averages one touch every 13 times the Bengals offense snaps the ball. That's not enough for a player who has legitimate game-breaking ability.
"We'll do anything we can to get the ball in his hands," said head coach Dick LeBeau, who has used Warrick as a receiver, running back and kick returner. "You can see what he can do when he does get the ball."
Even Dillon, who sets himself up to earn more money in free agency every time he touches the ball, knows how difficult it is without Warrick's involvement. "We have to find a way to get back to throwing. We can't be this one-dimensional," Dillon said.
Warrick's four-yard touchdown run put the Bengals on the board against the Ravens for the first time in the last three games. Baltimore has outscored Cincinnati 64-7 in two games this season, but the Bengals were unable to slow down Dilfer and couldn't contain rookie running back Jamal Lewis, who ran for 109 yards.
"We couldn't stop the run and we couldn't stop the pass," lamented LeBeau. "Other than that, we were doing all right. We lost our poise as a team."
Up next: at Dallas, 3-6
How much do the Browns miss quarterback Tim Couch? Consider that not only have they not won a game since he was placed on injured reserve with a broken thumb, but they haven't scored a touchdown. It's now been 13 quarters with Doug Pederson and Spergon Wynn calling the signals, and still no touchdown.
"I thought we executed better today than we have in the past couple of weeks," coach Chris Palmer said. "We still had some dropped balls, missed blocks and missed tackles in key situations."
The most significant breakdown, for the second consecutive week, came on first-and-goal from the one-yard line. Running back Travis Prentice was stuffed at the goal line on three consecutive runs into the middle of the line, and the Browns settled for a field goal.
"That was big," Giants defensive end Michael Strahan said. "For them to score a touchdown gives them a lot of confidence. They're at home and the crowd gets behind them. By doing that I think we took a little wind out of their sails. That was probably one of the biggest points in the game."
It was also a telling sign of the Browns mistakes on draft day the last two years. Cleveland has used just one pick on an offensive lineman, a sixth-rounder this past spring, in its first two drafts. Sunday, against a powerful Giants front line, players such Roman Oben, Steve Zahursky and Everett Lindsey were overmatched. They had the same difficulty against Cincinnati, and the Browns will likely be overmatched physically in every game they play the rest of the season.
The Browns defense picked up their first fumble recovery of the season against the Giants, which set up the field goal. Safety Percy Ellsworth's reaction to that news in the locker room after the game told the story.
"Is it? What? Man, that's sad," he exclaimed. "I've seen at least 10 balls on the ground. We've got to make more plays. We're definitely making progress. We have to, somehow, find a way. That's not asking too much of us, because I feel like we have that type of talent."
Up next: New England, 2-7