Someone turned out the lights, but the party is far from over for the Tennessee Titans.
Thanks to an electrical problem at LP Field, the Titans spent halftime and the postgame in a locker room of mostly darkness, but still shone brightly enough to top the Cleveland Browns 28-9 Sunday and claim their first AFC South title in six years.
“They’re cutting back around here, I guess. They’ve got to buy us these hats,” cornerback Cortland Finnegan joked, referring to the caps that proudly advertised their being the first NFL team to clinch division championship this year. “So they cut back on the lights, which is totally understandable if that’s what they’re doing.”
The only thing cut back on Sunday was the number of victories needed by the Titans to go ahead and clinch home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. Thanks to a loss by the New York Jets at San Francisco Sunday, the Titans have also clinched a first-round bye and with two more wins will earn the No. 1 seed for the playoffs.
Even in the semi-darkness of the home locker room Sunday, the Titans paused long enough to celebrate their accomplishment, and recall the dark days of a few years back when the franchise was in shambles.
“I take a lot of pride in being part of the rebuilding process here,” said defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, who arrived in 2005 when the Titans went 4-12. “I’m proud of the steps this team has taken. For this season, this is our first step. We need to keep things rolling. What we’ve done is we’ve set ourselves up to do some good things this year. I’m happy with where we’re at. Especially these last two games, we haven’t tried to coast and hopefully, we can continue to keep this momentum going.”
On Sunday, the Titans started slowly, allowing the Browns to take a 6-0 lead on a pair of Phil Dawson field goals before the Titans got things going in the second quarter. After White was stopped on a third-and-1 play on the second quarter’s opening play, Collins went to play action on fourth down from the Browns 28 and found fullback Ahmard Hall in the flat. The fullback did the rest, racing into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown.
“When we call that play, I know there’s a high probability that I’ll get the ball,” Hall said. “I felt like I might be able to slip out there and once I get the ball in my hands, I try to do something with it.
“I definitely saw nothing but green. I saw one guy to my side, but I felt I could outrun him, and I did.”
It was the Titans who were off to the races from that point, never trailing again against an overmatch Browns team, whose last touchdown came three games and two quarterbacks ago.
“We felt like they gave us their best punches in the first quarter, and after that, it was dead,” cornerback Nick Harper said. “After that, they had no answer for anything we did. They had a quarterback that didn’t really know the system, and it felt like they didn’t really have any more drive in them after that on offense. So it made our job easy.”
Cleveland struggled to find any consistency with third-stringer Ken Dorsey forced to start because of injuries. Evidence of that showed in that Titans turned the ball over three times and were also flagged for 13 penalties for 131 yards, yet still maintained complete control of the game.
The Titans still managed to take care of business in methodical fashion, going up 14-6 with a 93-yard second-quarter march capped by White’s 3-yard run.
Tennessee continued to employ the rushing of Johnson and White in the second half to put the game, and the division title and the first-round bye away.
“We knew eventually they were going to wear down and those three and four yard gains were going to turn into long ones,” said Johnson, who became only the third rookie in franchise history to rush for 1,000 yards. He finished the day with 136 yards on 19 carries, including a 25-yard touchdown run to account for the Titans’ final score.
Despite the Titans’ unwillingness to talk about the division title in the weeks prior, it had been a mere formality for weeks after a 10-0 start to the regular season. But with that goal accomplished, it was not what was on their minds once they had finally reached it on Sunday.
“We didn’t know how fast or soon we’d get it, but us in the locker room, we knew we’d get it done,” White said. “We knew as long as we stuck to the game plan and listened to the coaches, and came out and worked hard, that we can do anything we want. This is just the first step. We’ve got two more steps.”
That was a sentiment echoed throughout the postgame locker room — even in the darkness.
“This is a special team, and I feel lucky to be a part of it,” said receiver Justin McCareins, one of a handful of current Titans to have been a part of the 2002 division title team. “The coaching staff, all the players, and all the people involved have worked together toward this goal. We still have some work to do, but this has been so much fun so far.”