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TITANS COMPLETE 40-YEAR JOURNEY WITH ANOTHER WILD RIDE

Ever hear of a nine-point fumble? In favor of the fumbling team?

Neither did Neil O'Donnell, Tennessee's backup quarterback, who has been playing football as man and boy for more than 20 years. Nor had his Titan teammate, Bruce Matthews, whose family has been playing in the NFL since the Truman administration.

Nor did the fumbler, Frank Wycheck. Yeah him, the guy who lit the fuse under "Home Run Throwback," which sent the Titans on their Super Bowl journey and ended that of the Bills.

Yes the Titans, nee the Houston Oilers, are going to the Super Bowl for the first time in the 40-year history of the franchise. They did it by persevering in a weird game in which there were 10 fumbles, three interceptions, 14 penalties and that aforementioned safety which turned around Wycheck's fumble on the Jacksonville 1 like a boomerang. It helped clobber the Jaguars, 33-14.

Jacksonville finished the season with a 15-3 record. It lost three games to Tennessee and won 15 from the rest of the NFL.

It was fitting that the entire game turned around on Wycheck's fumble, but at the time no one came over to him at the sideline to sing "For He's A Jolly Good Fellow." His teammates instead were looking daggers at him since their 17-14 lead in the middle of the third quarter could have been expanded to a break-open situation if he had hung on to the ball.

"What I did was uncalled for," admitted Wycheck. "Ball protection is a premium in our organization."

Instead of bulling across the goal line, Wycheck gave an opening to Jags linebacker Kevin Hardy, who pulled the ball loose to be recovered by teammate Lonnie Marts. At the same time, Titan hearts sank further when it was announced that their free safety, Marcus Robertson, had a broken left ankle and wide receiver Yancey Thigpen had a broken right foot.

Not to worry. This team's nickname should be the Tennessee Cockroaches. They just keep hanging around. You can't kill them.

Jacksonville still had to get out of its end zone. After a running play was stuffed, the Jaguars called time out to collect themselves. Instead it collected the Tennessee defense.

"That's exactly what it did," said defensive tackle Josh Evans. "I knew I was getting past the guy blocking me when I used a 'swim' move on him. Once I was past him I knew I had the quarterback for a safety. I think it changed the whole momentum of the game."

Did it ever.

That made the score 19-14, but the safety's full bounty hadn't been delivered yet. There had to be a free kick. Bryan Barker boomed it long and fairly low to Derrick Mason, back on the Tennessee 20. Mason took a couple of steps and someone in the press box yelled "It looks like he's got something!" -- exactly what Pat Ryan of the Titans' radio team shouted over his mike when Kevin Dyson took off on the business end of "Home Run Throwback" against Buffalo.

"As soon as I made the move and made one man miss," said Mason, "I knew I was gone."

So were the Jaguars. Out of contention. The Titans were into their heads with an intangible element far beyond their 26-14 lead. The Titans have played in Alltel Stadium six times and they were on their way to their fifth victory. The Jags seemed to sense it.

"Whatever happens," admitted Jacksonville coach Tom Coughlin, "we get a little out of our element and turn the ball over, for whatever reason. We always talk about that, and we know it going in. You say to yourself, 'Boy, I hope it's not going to be one of those days.' "

It was.

Coughlin's play-calling didn't help much. He kept going in all different directions. On Jacksonville's first series after Mason's punt return, he had the Jags in the I-formation for the first time all day. On two third-down, short-yardage situations, as they fought to come back, the Jags lined up in shotgun formation.

Coughlin might as well have picked up a megaphone and announced: "ATTENTION EVERYONE! WE'RE GOING TO PASS!" Both of Mark Brunell's passes were defensed and incomplete.

The result means that the team with the best record in the AFC isn't going to the Super Bowl. Going for the first time in franchise history is the one without established stars; the one whose quarterback, Steve McNair, didn't total 300 yards passing in three playoff games; the one whose best runner, Eddie George, wasn't much of a factor Sunday; and the one that had two starters suffer broken bones.

Out on the field after the game, AFC President Lamar Hunt presented the conference championship trophy to Bud Adams, owner of the Titans. The two old friends smiled at each other in a knowing way. Together in the fall of 1959, when they were two wealthy Texans still in their 20s, they founded the American Football League and thereby changed the face of football.

"I came here without emotion," confided Hunt. "I knew I was going to present it to one of the teams. But when it turned out to be Bud's team, I felt something special. After 40 years it's poetic justice."

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