Wyche: Titans send loud, clear message

Steve Wyche reports from the Steelers-Titans game. Check back later for his complete column.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The road to the Super Bowl in the AFC goes through Nashville, and it won’t be an easy ride for whoever tries to pass through here.

By beating the Pittsburgh Steelers at their own game — being tougher and more precise when it counts most — in a 31-14 victory on Sunday, the AFC South-champion Tennessee Titans re-asserted themselves as not only the best team in the conference, but the NFL. Their 13-2 record isn’t a mirage, and the Steelers (11-4), the second-hottest team in the league coming into the game at LP Field, have the bruises to prove it.

The Titans fell off their undefeated perch and lost twice in the past four weeks. Their less-than-dominating play in that stretch resulted in questions about their postseason longevity. Yet, against a Pittsburgh team it could very well see in the AFC Championship Game, it not only regained its swagger, it heisted the Steelers’ edge.

It started with just more than six minutes left in the first quarter when Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took off from the Titans’ 7-yard line and was obliterated by Jason Jones (Albert Haynesworth’s stand-in) and linebacker David Thornton. Roethlisberger fumbled the ball, and Tennessee’s William Hayes recovered it.

It was a boom-bang sequence that sent a message and reverberated through the rest of the game. Pittsburgh punched back but steadily was worn down by more and more haymakers. Roethlisberger fumbled four times, threw two interceptions and was under duress for most of the game. There was little semblance of a running game for the Steelers, too, but that’s nothing new.

Meanwhile, Tennessee quarterback Kerry Collins, who hadn’t played well over the past month, was beyond efficient. He used his tight ends and wideouts (particularly on the sideline) to throw for 216 yards, and his stellar offensive line kept him upright.

Tennessee visits AFC South-rival Indianapolis — the hottest team in the NFL — in next week’s regular-season finale, which will be more like a practice game as both playoff-bound teams are locked into their playoff positions and likely will play backups. Pittsburgh, which has clinched the AFC North, will play Cleveland and try to re-group from a loss that will resonate not only for the outcome but for the way it was administered.

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