It's Another Tennessee Waltz

Times Staff Writer

On an afternoon of eye-rubbing upsets Sunday when there were stunning victories by the hapless (San Diego), hopeless (Jacksonville) and Vick-less (Atlanta), at least one NFL truism survived:

Nashville is still smashville.

The largely unheralded Tennessee Titans, proving yet again they are too good to be ignored, made a convincing argument for national attention with a 31-7 throttling of the Miami Dolphins at the Coliseum.

It was the sixth consecutive game Tennessee has scored more than 30 points, a franchise record, and a resounding reminder from a team that had zero players voted into the Pro Bowl last season.

And what of quarterback Steve McNair, who was 0-3 in his previous three games against Miami with five interceptions and one touchdown?

He threw two touchdown passes, no interceptions, racked up a gaudy 129.1 rating and giddily watched from the sideline as backup Billy Volek performed mop-up duties.

"[McNair] did a decent job, I'd say," Coach Jeff Fisher said with a smile.

The victory was especially satisfying to McNair in light of his nightmarish history against the Dolphins. In the week leading up to this game, he did some "self-scouting" by studying videotape of his three prior debacles against them.

"I forced the ball in those games," McNair said. "This time, I wanted to let the players around me make plays rather than trying to make them all myself."

McNair made his share of big plays Sunday, and so did the defense, which forced five turnovers and kept Miami out of the end zone for all but the final 20 seconds.

A lot of Tennessee players looked disappointed after that meaningless touchdown. Then again, when you're as good as the Titans (7-2), you can afford to be picky about the cosmetic details of a victory.

"We played hard the whole game, and then they got a cheap one on us at the end," said linebacker Keith Bullock, one of several starters watching from the sideline in garbage time. "We pulled everybody, and they got seven points. It's kind of frustrating when you put together a game like that.... We wanted the shutout, but we'll take the victory."

Minutes after the game, Tennessee players gathered around the televisions in their locker room and watched the end of Jacksonville's 28-23 victory over Indianapolis. That gave the Titans the same record as the Colts, who still have the advantage in the AFC South by virtue of a victory over Tennessee two months ago.

"I guess the race is on," Fisher said.

Meanwhile, the Dolphins (5-4) did a Tennessee two-step -- both of them backward. They have lost three of four, with their only victory in that stretch coming against San Diego, which was 1-5 at the time.

"We didn't get the job done anywhere today really," said Coach Dave Wannstedt, whose team had a 4-0 road record. "When you go on the road and play a very good football team ... you need to not give them anything from a turnover standpoint, and make things happen from a defensive standpoint. We didn't do either."

It didn't help that the Dolphins were missing two key players on defense, middle linebacker Zach Thomas and left cornerback Patrick Surtain, both of whom are injured.

In the last three games, quarterback Brian Griese has been sacked 10 times and has committed seven turnovers. He replaced Jay Fiedler, who has sat out three games because of a medial-collateral ligament strain in his left knee. Fiedler said Sunday he's unsure about when he'll be able to return.

"It's not an injury I've experienced before so I don't know if all of a sudden I'm going to feel better one day and I'll be able to play," he said.

Despite Wannstedt's declaration that the Dolphins would lead the league in rushing in the second half of the season, Ricky Williams had only 37 yards in 13 carries.

"Their coach is screaming he's going to lead the league in the second half, well, he's got seven more games," defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth said. "Not this game."

Sunday was a showcase for McNair, who had directed three touchdown drives before the Dolphins got their fourth first down.

McNair, who came into the game with a league-leading 105.1 passer rating, has quietly developed into one of the NFL's most accurate passers. He's the unquestioned leader of the Titans, and last season finished third in most-valuable-player voting, even though he was near the bottom of the pack among AFC quarterbacks in fan voting for the Pro Bowl.

"I always thought the guy [McNair] was great," said rookie receiver Tyrone Calico, who caught a pass over the middle in the first quarter, was hit as he crossed the goal line, and flipped into the end zone for a 12-yard touchdown. "Even though when everybody said he wasn't doing that good, I thought he was a great athlete. When I was in high school, junior high watching this guy, I thought he was a great athlete. Now, everybody's seeing what I saw."

That might not guarantee the Titans any more national attention. But keeping a low profile does have some benefits, though.

"I don't want nobody to know about this team," Haynesworth said. "I want us to be a secret. Everybody's on Tampa Bay, everybody's on the [St. Louis] Rams. Keep staying on those guys. We like being in the shadows."

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