Titans hungry for deep run after first-round loss

Postseason experience will come in handy for Titans veterans like Chris Hope in the upcoming playoffs.
Turns out their biggest help sat on their bench.

With Kerry Collins calmly replacing the injured Vince Young after the opener, the Titans ran up the NFL's best record at 13-3 to grab the AFC's No. 1 seed and home-field advantage. That includes a bye this weekend before their divisional playoff game Jan. 10.

"A veteran quarterback that's been around like Kerry has, they've seen everything," center Kevin Mawae said. "They stay cool under pressure, and guys believe in them. ... Kerry's been fun to play with. He's a great field leader. He knows what's going on, and he never gets rattled. I think that's one thing in common with great veteran quarterbacks."

Only Indianapolis (9) and Philadelphia (7) have reached the playoffs more over the past 10 years than the Titans, making their sixth appearance this season.

Young did his part in helping the rebuilding Titans get within one loss of a playoff berth as a rookie in 2006. He started as they went 10-6 in 2007 and earned the AFC's sixth playoff seed by winning their final game. But the Titans lost that first-round game 17-6 in San Diego when the offense couldn't find the end zone.

Fixing that scoring problem was a top priority in the offseason.

Coach Jeff Fisher fired offensive coordinator Norm Chow and brought back Mike Heimerdinger, who was so key in deep playoff runs in 2002 and 2003. They signed veteran tight end Alge Crumpler and used the No. 24 pick overall in the draft on speedy running back Chris Johnson.

But Young sprained his left knee in the season opener against Jacksonville, and Fisher turned to Collins. The veteran guided the Titans to the winning touchdown in a 17-10 victory that was the first in a 10-0 start.

The 14-year veteran isn't known for his mobility, but he did more than his part. He was sacked only eight times and was intercepted seven. He threw 12 touchdown passes, three better than the team totaled in 2007.

"He's winning games for us because of his experience," Fisher said of Collins. "We're doing a good job protecting. We're running the football, and he knows what to do with the football. If for some reason it's not there, he's not going to take any chances. He's just going to throw the ball away and give us a chance to fight again."

When defenses tried to stack the line of scrimmage to stop Johnson and LenDale White, Collins showed off his still strong arm by connecting with 10 different Titans on plays of 15 yards or longer. Justin Gage became his favorite target, and Collins rallied them to road wins at Baltimore, Chicago and Jacksonville and from home deficits to Indianapolis and Pittsburgh.

Mawae said Collins isn't a big talker and just plays hard, which teammates respect.

"When he does say something, people listen because he is a guy of few words. When he does have something to say, his actions have spoken for him. Guys are willing to follow him," Mawae said.

The Titans scored 13 more TDs than last season with White and Johnson combining for 24, a nice change for a team that outscored opponents 301-297 in 2007. They didn't have to sweat out games, not with the defense finishing second in the NFL in points allowed per game with 14.6.

Only Pittsburgh (21) allowed fewer touchdowns than Tennessee (25).

If the Titans win their divisional playoff game, Collins would become the first NFL quarterback in history to win at least one postseason game with three teams. He led the Carolina Panthers to the NFC championship game and the 2000 New York Giants to a Super Bowl appearance.

"There's something to be said for that as a player," Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak said of playing in a Super Bowl.

"So, nothing rattles him. He's surrounded by a football team that can help him a lot from a defensive standpoint, a running game that can help him a lot. He's being coached extremely well. So, all of those things add up to a veteran being successful, and he's taking advantage of it."

Collins, who turned 36 on Tuesday, understands how special this is for a quarterback with his fifth team.

"The chances that I'm going to get another opportunity like this are probably pretty small. I realize that. I'm going to take full advantage of it. I'm going to prepare well, try and get better this week and whoever we play next week, just get ready," he said.

Not that Collins will spend time worrying about who that opponent will be. He planned to spend part of the bye sitting in a tree stand hunting deer eight years after he last guided a team with the No. 1 seed -- the Giants -- into the playoffs.

"I definitely have a better appreciation for where we're at right now," he said.

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