Titans, Steelers Set to Open Season in Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH, Pa. -- Finally, they're getting around in September to playing the game that was predicted to take place for the AFC championship in January.

Tennessee's 31-14 rout of Pittsburgh on Dec. 21 convinced the Titans that they were the AFC's best team, although the Steelers came in flat following a rugged stretch of games. Almost immediately, the Steelers began eagerly awaiting a rematch.

It never happened. The Titans never won again, losing their final regular season game to the Colts and their divisional playoff game to Baltimore. The Steelers never lost again, beating the Ravens for the AFC title before going on to win a record sixth Super Bowl.

A Super Bowl the Titans no doubt believe they would have won if they had gotten there.

"Being we beat the Super Bowl champions and never had a chance to compete and go play for the Super Bowl left a bad taste in our mouth," said Titans safety Chris Hope, a former Steelers player.

As for the Steelers, they laugh at any talk that Thursday night's NFL season opener will be the real AFC championship game.

Uhh, not quite.

"Last year was last year," running back Willie Parker said. "I guess you can say they did what they did because they felt they were the best team at that time. We would have loved to play them again, but it didn't happen that way. We went our way to the Super Bowl, and they -- well, whatever happened to them. You can't think about last year."

That's been a recurring theme since the Steelers' training camp began, to put last year's season and the Super Bowl far into the past. Coach Mike Tomlin virtually mandated there be no mention of it.

Titans coach Jeff Fisher took a similar tact, all but putting a gag order on his players preventing them from talking about last season's game or the sideline stomping of the Steelers' Terrible Towel by several players, including running back LenDale White.

White apparently didn't get the message, irritating some teammates by bragging he'd gladly do some more towel tromping in Pittsburgh if given the chance.

"I don't think he's trash talking. I think that episode is over with," Fisher said. "I don't think it's going to be an issue (as far as) the game is concerned. It didn't seem to have a too awfully dramatic effect on their organization or their football team last year."

The Steelers also are taking a don't-stir-things up approach, with defensive lineman Casey Hampton saying, "They beat us. They got the bragging rights. If they've got something to say, then they can say it. I know I would."

Still, given the NFL's annual player turnover rate of about 30 percent, this is about as close to a rematch as is possible given the time lapse. The Titans lost only one starter on each side of the ball, although the loss of offense-disrupting tackle Albert Haynesworth to a $100 million contract from Washington is about as big as it gets.

The Steelers are replacing three starters, though there are no guarantees any would have kept their jobs.

Personality wise, these teams simply don't change, and certainly not in nine months' time.

Under Fisher, the Titans lean on their running game and a defense that is one of the NFL's best; they allowed an average of only 14.6 points last season.

The Steelers, no matter the coach, like to control the clock, keep the opposing defense on the field and play the NFL's best defense; they allowed 13.9 points per game last season.

"We go into every season with the attitude that we're going to be the best unit out there on the field throughout the season," linebacker James Farrior said of a defense that was the NFL's best statistically the last two seasons. "This year is no different. We've got high expectations, even higher than we had last year."

A season ago, the Steelers finished fewer than 70 yards away from leading the NFL in overall, passing and rushing defense.

If Titans quarterback Kerry Collins can't throw against the Steelers -- he had only four games of 200 yards or more last season -- White might be too busy to go looking for untended Terrible Towels. Pro Bowl running back Chris Johnson rushed for 1,228 yards and White ran for 773, but they'll be going against a defense that was second against the run.

Not that it's likely to matter.

"Every year, every game, records are irrelevant," Steelers safety Troy Polamalu said. "Prestige and rings are irrelevant. Once the game starts, all that is irrelevant."

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