Pennington's aggressive first-down passing won it only because, with the game on the line, Tory Tennessee Coach Jeff Fisher kept trying to run the ball with over-the-hill tailback Eddie George.
At that late hour, McNair, the NFL's MVP heir-apparent who had begun the scoring in the game's first minutes with a 59-yard touchdown bomb, showed what else he could have done if Fisher had taken the rest of the night off. First, McNair, with 12 consecutive pass plays, moved the Titans 73 yards to the Jet three-yard line, where he lost the touchdown only when Fisher sent George back in to buck the ball over, which he couldn't do.
Then McNair, restricted by an injured leg that kept him from the scrambling that makes him really dangerous, drove Tennessee 50 yards on seven consecutive pass plays to the touchdown that wasn't enough when an onside kickoff failed. And so, going into the NFL's Game of Week 14 at Nashville next Sunday, Tennessee and Indianapolis are locked at 9-3.
More Turnovers and Triumphs
A DAY EARLIER, Indianapolis had also lost the same way: by running the ball too much instead of calling on passer Peyton Manning. The New England Patriots won that one at Indianapolis on quarterback Tom Brady's aggressive passing, 38-34, in a game demonstrating that they and the St. Louis Rams share three traits in common this season.
The Patriots and Rams both throw critical interceptions, both keep throwing the ball anyway, and both usually win.
So look for both to ignore turnovers and win again next Sunday — the Patriots over Miami in the AFC East's Game of the Week and the Rams over Cleveland next Monday night. For, at both St. Louis and New England, head coaches Mike Martz and Bill Belichick understand that turnovers are overrated. Consider:
Last Sunday when Minnesota caught up with the Rams in the second quarter, 17-17 — after Ram quarterback Marc Bulger's fifth interception in his most recent six quarters of football — the Ram pass offense sailed along anyway, completing 16 of 21 for 255 yards and an easy 48-17 triumph.
On that afternoon at Indianapolis, a 21-point Patriot lead disappeared in the fourth quarter in a flurry of three turnovers as the Colts caught up, 31-31, on Manning's three touchdown passes. In the last eight minutes, though, the Colts reverted to their running-play style as Manning kept handing off while Patriot quarterback Brady, disregarding the possibility of more turnovers, kept throwing to win by four points.
Play Selection Proves Decisive
THE PLAY-CALLING was the whole difference in those final minutes at Indianapolis, ending a struggle that had segued into one of the most competitive and dramatic games of a competitive, dramatic NFL season. These are the series of plays that decided the game:
With 10:10 remaining, the score tied at 31 and a first down at the Indianapolis 31-yard line, the Patriots called passes on every play, four in a row, and completed three of them — the last a 13-yarder from Brady to 5-foot-9 wide receiver Deion Branch (on a fake draw) for the winning touchdown.
Down 38-34, the Colts, with 40 seconds left and a first down at the New England two-yard line, began with two Edgerrin James runs and followed with a poorly designed and executed third-down pass play. Then they ended the series with another James run to nowhere, meaning the Colts messed up all four plays.
Willie McGinest, who lined up as the Patriots' left outside linebacker, deservedly got the credit for the winning defensive play on James' fourth-down run. Sneaking along the line of scrimmage, former USC Trojan McGinest came in from far outside on his bad leg, and, timing his charge exquisitely, stuffed James before the great Colt back could get moving.
The Patriots' four-play defensive sequence on the Colts' final series is likely to be remembered in Indianapolis until the end of time as a historic goal-line stand, though it wasn't that. Rather, in light of the Colts' conservative calls, it was a remarkable goal-line folly. It's impossible to believe that Manning would have thrown nothing but incompletes if the Colts had come up to first and goal at the two-yard line intending to throw on all four downs — or, alternatively, to throw twice, run once, and throw again on fourth down. Their great weapon is Manning's arm, not James' power.
Colts' Coaches Beat Themselves
EARLIER, WHEN THE Patriots kept throwing the ball with a seemingly secure 31-10 lead as the second half ticked away at Indianapolis, every conservative asked the same questions: Why take that chance? Why don't they run?