Tension Between Teams Could Be Just Simmering

Times Staff Writer

Welcome to the Soup-er Bowl.

Amid the heated war of words between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans in advance of today's playoff game at Nashville, there came the accusation of hot liquid intentionally tossed on a Steeler player by a Titan coach during their regular-season matchup in November.

Steeler linebacker Joey Porter said that Steve Watterson, Titan strength and conditioning coach -- actually, "that little bald-headed guy," was how Porter referred to him -- tossed coffee on him after Porter had tackled Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair out of bounds.

Watterson said it was soup, not coffee. And any pouring was done accidentally. (On television footage of the incident, it appeared that Watterson attempted a surreptitious splash on Porter's leg.)

We might have identified the liquid, but there are lingering questions ... including whether the soup was made by official NFL sponsor Campbell's. The incident took on such major proportions that it was the first thing asked of Titan Coach Jeff Fisher after practice Thursday.

"There's a lot more things more important to discuss right now than chicken broth," Fisher said. "But if there was some spilt, or something like that, then so be it. We'll invite [Porter] over during pregame warmups for some broth and hope we can make amends, I guess."

There are plenty of other angles to this game, so here's the breakdown -- from soup to nuts:

* Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair plays with a hole cut in his shoe to accommodate the tape wrapped around his aching toe and didn't practice for much of the season to avoid further abuse of his aching ribs but says he feels better than at any time in recent memory.

That's pretty good for a guy who finished third in MVP voting.

* Pittsburgh quarterback Tommy Maddox, on his last trip to Nashville, was temporarily paralyzed after a legal hit by Titan linebacker Keith Bulluck. He lost feeling in his arms and legs, and missed the next two games.

Maddox has said repeatedly that, unless he's asked about it, he doesn't think about the situation. Maybe so, but Michael Jordan broke a bone in his foot against Golden State his second season, and for the next several years you could count on him having some of his worst scoring nights in Oakland.

Bulluck called Maddox in the hospital, but he doesn't plan on bringing flowers and a card to the game.

"If I get an open shot, I am going to hit him like I am going to hit anyone else," Bulluck said.

"I don't care -- Tommy Maddox, Joe Montana, Kordell Stewart, it really doesn't matter. I am out to win."

* With Jerome "the Bus" Bettis slowed by injuries, Amos Zereoue has emerged as Pittsburgh's top running threat. Zereoue is versatile, a better receiver than Bettis, but he's not built for banging for tough yardage the way Bettis is. That could mean Maddox will be lofting more balls in the air for Pittsburgh's potent receiving tandem of Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward.

* Jevon Kearse, Tennessee's freaky pass rusher, has a fracture in his left foot that he aggravated during practice this week. Kearse took it easy and toward the end of the week, Fisher said, "I'm quite confident he'll be OK."

Just in case, perhaps he should try some of that magic healing potion used by mothers down through the years -- chicken soup.

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