Los Angeles Times

Tennessee luck runs out when Titans need it most

One yard, 36 measly inches.

For a month now, Tennessee had been getting that extra break. On Sunday night, the Titans fell a Tennessee two-step short.

"It's ironic isn't it,'' Kevin Dyson said. "We're 16 seconds away from not even being here and not even being in this game. It's ironic.''

Dyson, who pulled out a victory over Buffalo in the AFC wild-card game with a last-second return, couldn't do it again Sunday night.

His right arm fell a yard short of the end zone as time expired, just missing what could have been the tying touchdown in a 23-16 loss to the Rams.

"We knew we had an opportunity to go down and score. Unfortunately, we got down there and just fell short,'' said quarterback Steve McNair, who helped bring back the Titans from a 16-0 deficit.

"Falling short like that,'' left tackle Brad Hopkins said, "really tears your heart out.''

Ever since Jan. 8, the Titans had been calling themselves a team of destiny. That was the day they trailed Buffalo 16-15 with 16 seconds remaining, then stunned the Bills when Dyson caught a cross-field lateral from Frank Wycheck and ran 75 yards untouched for a touchdown and a 22-16 victory.

Instant replay helped them twice in the divisional round against Indianapolis. One replay gave them the inches they needed for a first down on a carry by McNair, and a second replay nullified a Terrence Wilkins' punt return to the Tennessee 3 and preserved the Titans' lead.

They got no such help against the Rams.

The Titans tied the game at 16 on a 43-yard field goal by Al Del Greco, who missed one attempt left and had another blocked, with 2:12 remaining.

Kurt Warner needed just one play to find Isaac Bruce on a 73-yard touchdown pass play. Titans cornerback Denard Walker was running with step for step with Bruce until the receiver stopped for a half-stride, enough space to catch the ball and lose Walker for what would be the winning TD.

Coach Jeff Fisher said that Walker, who dressed and quickly left the locker room after the game, tripped on the play.

"We have made those kind of plays all year and this particular play we didn't,'' Fisher said.

The Titans had made a habit of rallying in the second half. They won five games in the regular season and all three of their playoff games by doing just that.

They thought they had plenty of time left with 1:54 to go. McNair drove them down the field and found Dyson slanting across the field just inside the 5 in the last seconds.

"It's set up exactly like we worked on it in practice,'' Dyson said of the play called "Sliver Right.'' "It came down to the linebacker making a great tackle.''

Dyson caught the ball and thought he would score. Then, Rams linebacker Mike Jones grabbed him.

"I realized as soon as I stretched out and was going down that I didn't get the point of the ball over the goal line,'' Dyson said. "When he got his hands on me, I thought I'd break the tackle, but he slid down to my foot like you're supposed to and made a great play. Maybe I should have pitched it back to somebody.''

Offensive coordinator Les Steckel said Dyson, who had four catches for 41 yards in the game, cut the play a little early. The Titans had practiced it three times in the past week.

"In the intensity of the moment,'' Steckel said, "people cut things a little short.''

With the Titans realizing their run finally had stopped, their dressing room was quiet enough to hear a pin drop after the game.

Eddie George, who scored two touchdowns within 7 minutes, 53 seconds of the second half to put the Titans in position to tie, said he never doubted that they would send the Super Bowl into overtime. He said coming so close will drive him throughout the offseason to try and get back to the Super Bowl next year.

But he took a minute and thought about the Titans' run through the playoffs, a 16-4 record and the franchise's first-ever Super Bowl. He reflected on the victory over Buffalo, the win over Indianapolis and becoming the first NFL team to beat a team (Jacksonville) three times in one season, including twice on the road.

"It was one hell of a ride,'' George said. "It will always be special to me. We just fell short. We didn't make enough plays to win it. That's just the bottom line.''

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