The Tennessee Titans can take heart in this: The last three teams to win the AFC championship did so on the road.
For the Oakland Raiders, who play host to the Titans on Sunday, the inspiration is more personal. In the last two seasons, they were knocked out of the playoffs by Baltimore and New England, both of whom went on to win the Super Bowl. Maybe that’s why defensive end Regan Upshaw didn’t even bother to turn on his TV to watch.
“I hated that feeling of getting close then watching other guys play in the Super Bowl, just knowing that we could have beaten those guys,” Upshaw said Monday. “We felt like we were a better team than New England. We still feel like we were better. We just didn’t take care of business.”
Two years have passed since the Ravens rolled into town, knocked Rich Gannon around, then sauntered away with a 16-3 victory that spoiled the Raiders’ best season in a decade. The Raiders say they are more focused now and unwilling to serve as a Super Bowl springboard for another franchise.
“We aren’t the same team,” Upshaw said. “We’re two years older, two years wiser, and on the defensive side we just have guys who are more committed to winning. Everybody wants to win now. Everybody. It’s like a sickness.”
In their victory over the New York Jets on Sunday, the Raiders drew inspiration from what they perceived was a lack of respect. The Titans have used the no-respect theme as fuel throughout the season. They overcame a 1-4 start -- a bumpy stretch that included a 52-25 loss to the Raiders -- to right themselves by winning 11 of 12. Their only loss during that stretch came by one point to Baltimore. Despite that turnaround, and an MVP candidate in quarterback Steve McNair, nary a Titan made the Pro Bowl. The fact the team played only one prime-time game probably contributed to that oversight.
Raider players took pains Monday to say they hold the Titans in the highest regard, a stark contrast to the way they talked about the Jets, with whom they almost brawled during pregame introductions.
“We had a lot of hate for the Jets,” said guard Frank Middleton, one of the players in the middle of the pregame skirmish. "[But] this game Sunday isn’t about embarrassing anybody. This is just down and dirty, try to get to the Super Bowl. Everybody picked the Jets to beat us, and [the Jets] got embarrassed. We’re past that.”
Meanwhile, the Titans aren’t ready to let go of the memory of their lopsided loss to Oakland. In that game, the Raiders took a 21-0 lead in the first five minutes with two punt returns for touchdowns and an interception by Rod Woodson that also set up a touchdown. By halftime, it was a laugher.
Titan Coach Jeff Fisher said Monday he has no plans to shelve the film from that game, agonizing as it is to watch.
“We have to learn from that,” he said. “There were a lot of good things that happened in the game. There were some good plays and it was a physical game. We obviously allowed them to make a lot of plays.
“We’re going to have to play our best game of the year, there’s no question, considering how well they’re playing. But we’ve been improving.”
The Titans beat Pittsburgh in overtime Saturday despite four turnovers.
“If you do that in a divisional playoff game and still win,” Fisher said, “you’ve got to be doing some good things somewhere along the road.”
If the Titans win Sunday, this will be the sixth consecutive season in which one of the Super Bowl participants won its conference title game on the road. Denver did it in the 1997 season, followed by Atlanta, Tennessee, Baltimore and New England. Tennessee tight end Frank Wycheck remembers when his team pulled off the feat at Jacksonville in January 2000.
“I think it’s up to the guys who have been in this situation before to talk to the guys who haven’t been there,” he said. “Just to realize that, hey, Jacksonville was 14-2 and they beat up Miami pretty good the week before us. They were expected to win. They were the favorites to go to the Super Bowl and win it.
“We’re taking the same attitude that we did back then. No one has really given us a chance. We’re just going to go out there and play and see what happens.”