Call it the game within the game.
The Tennessee Titans host the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday at LP Field with home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs hanging in the balance.
But within that context, a skirmish on the fringe of the proceedings could be well worth keeping an eye on — the inevitable one between Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan and Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward.
Ward plays much bigger and more physical than the 6-0, 205 he is listed as. Ward already has the reputation for being one of the NFL’s most physical receivers, and perhaps the best in the league at blocking downfield and being the instigator of contact versus opposing defenders.
Add that to Finnegan, named to the Pro Bowl on Tuesday perhaps in part because of his own growing rep as a physical and chippy player, and it should make for some interesting clashes in Sunday’s game.
“With Hines, you’ve definitely got to keep your head on a swivel. He’s going to come after you,” Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck said. “He’s physical when he has the ball, and he’s physical without the ball. He’s the type of football player you would want on your team. He’s gonna bring it, talk the talk and walk the walk and try and take people out. He plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played.”
The same type of things have been said of Finnegan, who at 5-10, 188-pounds, racked up a pair of personal foul penalties in Sunday’s 13-12 loss to the Houston Texans — one a helmet-to-helmet hit on Houston quarterback Matt Schaub and the other for spearing against tight end Owen Daniels.
Earlier this season, Finnegan drew a pair of personal foul penalties on another drive for altercations and jawing with former Titan Derrick Mason, now of the Baltimore Ravens.
But those things sound like small potatoes compared to Ward, who broke the jaw of Cincinnati linebacker Keith Rivers with a block in a game earlier this season.
Will the trash talk and physical play be at a premium between the two?
“I don’t know. We’ll see on Sunday. I would assume it’s going to be all you can eat on words and definitely on play,” Finnegan said. “I guess it’s going to be a fun time. He’s definitely a great player I look up to. So it’s going to be fun for the both of us.”
Ward and Finnegan have never faced each other before and won’t be matched up against each other every single play, but have admired each other’s style and talents from afar.
“He’s a great player, there’s no question,” Ward said. “He brings a lot of attitude towards the game and he’s a Pro Bowl player, which is well deserved. It’s just going to be another matchup, another challenge for us receivers as we step out on the field.”
Said Finnegan, who plans to introduce himself and talk to Ward before the game and the potential battle starts, “We’ve got to bring our big boy pads this week. They’re a really good football team. Hines Ward, for myself, that’s something I really look forward to. He’s a great receiver.”
Finnegan said he won’t change his style, but plans to play aggressively within the whistle. Earlier in the year at Baltimore, Bulluck was seen shoving Finnegan after one of the penalties, trying to make sure Finnegan didn’t let Mason get the better of him. For his part, Finnegan said he felt he had maintained control of his emotions in the game.
“I think that Cort has a good sense of how to keep himself in control, because if you thought Derrick Mason was a handful, Hines Ward will definitely give you everything that you want,” Bulluck said. “I think Cortland is aware of that and he’ll be prepared for that matchup on Sunday. As feisty or whatever you guys think Cortland is, Hines is times 10.”
But Finnegan, of course, isn’t likely to be intimidated by Ward or anything else.
“I think I was in control last time [against Baltimore]. That’s just the way I play. You learn to live with that. We’ll see how it goes,” Finnegan said.
Titans vs. Steelers