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Titans, Redskins control playoff spots

Teresa M. Walker and Dave Campbell
Associated Press
Vail, CO Colorado
John Russell/APTennessee Titans defensive tackle Tony Brown, left, is congratulated by linebacker Keith Bulluck, right, after Brown sacked New York Jets quarterback Chad Pennington to stop a late Jets drive in the fourth quarter Sunday.
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. ” The Tennessee Titans are about to find out if they learned anything a year ago.

They went into their regular-season finale in 2006 needing three other teams to lose, combined with their own win, to earn the AFC’s last wild-card berth. The Titans seemed to be counting on their opponent, the New England Patriots, resting key starters for the postseason.

The Patriots didn’t, and the Titans lost 40-23 ” blowing the only component over which they had control.



Flash forward, and the Titans (9-6) have an even simpler formula for clinching the AFC’s final playoff berth as the No. 6 seed: win and in. They also could sneak in with a tie and a Cleveland loss to San Francisco.

But a win means beating the defending Super Bowl champions in Indianapolis, where the Titans haven’t won since Nov. 3, 2002. Whether they get any charity from their AFC South rivals remains to be seen.



“It’s going to be fun,” defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth said. “It’d be like last year. You know, the Patriots played all their starters, then Rodney Harrison went out with an injury. They ended up losing that game in the playoffs. They probably would’ve went to the Super Bowl.”

Harrison strained his right knee when blocked by a Titans receiver in the Patriots’ win over Tennessee as the starters played deep into the second half. He missed the playoffs for New England, including the AFC championship game won by Indianapolis.

The question now is whether Colts coach Tony Dungy will take a preseason approach and rest key starters. The Colts (13-2) have a first-round bye as the No. 2 seed. If Peyton Manning plays a quarter or a half at most, that could give the Titans the room needed to pull out the victory.



Defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch cautioned that the Titans should expect the Colts’ best.

“I think we make a big mistake by thinking we’re going to go in there and beat up on some backups. Indy’s the defending world champs. That says a lot about their depth. They’ve been banged up for a good part of the year, playing with some backup guys,” Vanden Bosch said.

The Colts have dominated this AFC South rivalry in recent years, streaking to seven straight wins in sweeping the Titans in 2003, 2004 and 2005. The series has tightened the past two seasons.

Indianapolis still has won two of three games and can sweep Tennessee with a win Sunday. But the games are much tighter. The Titans beat the Colts in Nashville last December 20-17, and their two losses are by a combined three points, including a 14-13 loss in Indy on Oct. 8, 2006.

Quarterback Vince Young said it will be a big challenge.

“What we’ve got to do is just stay focused and play our game. I really feel like we match up with the guys pretty good. All we’ve got to do is just not think about what’s ahead and just think about that game on Sunday,” Young said.

NBC and the league chose to use the flexible scheduling option and moved this game to Sunday night from a 1 p.m. EST kickoff. The Titans split their other two prime-time games, beating New Orleans in September and losing to Denver in November.

One difference in those games? Haynesworth was healthy in the win and sat out the loss. He started Sunday’s 10-6 win over the New York Jets, and the Titans came up with six sacks and two interceptions while allowing 68 yards rushing.

Tennessee also showed some of its own depth against the Jets.

Starting cornerback Nick Harper had a groin problem in pregame warmups and was deactivated. His replacement, Reynaldo Hill, intercepted a ball, but left with a concussion. Kelly Herndon, who started for Seattle in the 2006 Super Bowl, replaced Hill.

LenDale White, who topped 1,000 yards rushing with his fifth 100-yard rushing game, said this is a different team from 2006.

“This is a playoff game for us, and that’s how we have to play. Every yard we are going to have to fight for. We’ve got to score early and often. I don’t know what they’re going to do, but it doesn’t matter,” White said of the Colts.

“We have to go out there and play as hard as we can and come out with a victory.”

Had the Minnesota Vikings been a little bit better earlier in the season, they wouldn’t have needed to win this one.

Yet in a bitter twist, they lost their biggest game of the season to the Washington Redskins and saw their five-game winning streak stop by reverting back to the mistake-prone, soft-against-the-pass team they were before.

Todd Collins, Clinton Portis and an inspired Redskins defense led a 32-21 victory on Sunday night over the Vikings, who squandered their chance to clinch the NFC’s last playoff berth.

Washington (8-7) is in control of that wild-card spot now, needing only to beat the conference-leading, but-sure-to-be-resting Dallas Cowboys at home next week. Minnesota (8-7) must win on the road against the Denver Broncos ” and hope for the best.

“Obviously this hurts, because what you want is to be in control, and we lost that control,” linebacker Ben Leber said. “Now we’ll just have to put this game behind us and think about the big picture here.”

Honoring the memory of slain teammate Sean Taylor, the Pro Bowl safety who was shot to death in his home last month, the Redskins shut down Adrian Peterson and intercepted Tarvaris Jackson twice. They also recovered a fumble and picked up two points in the first quarter when Tony Richardson was tackled inside his own end zone.

“Hats off to that front seven, because they did a great job,” said cornerback Shawn Springs, whose diving catch of Jackson’s errant throw midway through the second quarter set up a 32-yard touchdown pass from Collins to Santana Moss.

Collins completed 22 of 29 passes for 254 yards and two touchdowns without a turnover, his best game in 10 years. He became a starter again for the first time since 1997 when Jason Campbell hurt his knee earlier this month. After losing by one point the first game after Taylor died, Washington has won three straight.

“You figure all that would take the life out of most teams,” coach Joe Gibbs said. “I don’t know if you can put it into words. It’s been a real long journey.”

Portis gained 124 total yards, threw a touchdown pass and ran for another score, enjoying much more success than Peterson. The Pro Bowl-bound rookie still leads the NFC in rushing, but he has only 108 yards over his past three games.

The Redskins routinely stacked the line of scrimmage to stop him and Chester Taylor, whose six carries netted just 14 yards. Jackson, whose emergence as a reliable quarterback last month had a lot to do with Minnesota’s success, rushed for 44 yards and two second-half touchdowns.

He went 25-for-41 for 220 yards and one score, but the two first-half mistakes were too much to overcome. The Vikings trailed 25-0 before Jackson settled in and started moving the ball.

“I take the blame totally for that,” he said. “It’s my fault.”

Jackson cut the lead to 25-14 on a 6-yard run with just over 10 minutes to go in the game.

On the next possession, Moss made a tough, toe-dragging 23-yard catch at the sideline that Washington was worried could be overturned by a Minnesota challenge. Collins fumbled the hurry-up snap, and Kevin Williams recovered near midfield.

But Gibbs challenged that, and the Redskins retained possession when replays showed the Vikings had 12 players on the field. Coach Brad Childress was livid about the call.

Because Washington made a last-second personnel change before the snap, he contended that the rule ” one of the league’s points of emphasis this season ” is supposed to allow the defense time to match the substitution.

“I just want to see it evenhanded,” Childress said. “That’s all I want to see. The video’s going to show it, and it’s irritating as hell.”

The momentum clearly shifted back after that, and the Redskins used six plays to take 31/2 minutes off the clock and grab a 32-14 lead on Portis’s 13-yard touchdown run.

“We were 5-7,” Collins said. “Backs against the wall, the starting quarterback goes down, the stuff that’s happened with Sean. It’s just such a trying time. The guys had trouble getting up for the game after Sean’s death happened. I think at that time, it seems like everyone is making the decision to go one week at a time. They can’t even think any further with all the stuff that has happened. I think that’s benefited. I think the last three weeks the team has come ready to play.”

Notes:@ Former Minnesota cornerback Fred Smoot had the first interception, returning it 47 yards to the 8. Washington’s safety came after a failed fourth-and-goal play at the 1. … Peterson has 1,305 yards rushing, the second-most in Vikings history. Robert Smith has the record, with 1,521 yards in 2000.


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