NASHVILLE, TN, Nov. 2, 2008 — Tennessee Titans center Kevin Mawae couldn't help himself.
"We don't have a Terrell Owens," he said. "We don't have a Chad Johnson. We don't have Tony Romo dating superstars. We just have a bunch of guys that play hard and work hard."
In his own backhanded way, Mawae described the formula for undefeated Tennessee's unmatched midseason success. It's pretty much the same model the Tampa Buccaneers and Baltimore Ravens used when they churned to championships earlier this millennium: No-frills quarterback, no-frills offense, minimizing turnovers, opportunistic defense and linemen on both sides who'd be bending metal with their hands (or teeth) if they weren't playing football.
Style points don't mean jack to the Titans. Case-in-point: They won for the eighth consecutive time on Sunday by kicking four field goals -- the last one a 41-yarder by Rob Bironas in overtime to give Tennessee a 19-16 victory. Bironas' 47-yard miss at the end of regulation set up his redemptive strike.
"We found another way to win," said quarterback Kerry Collins, who matched his season high in pass attempts (37) but completed just 18 for 180 yards. "I didn't play my best game and I think a lot of guys here will say the same thing."
Not their best game, but they did win their second game in one week.
Six days after Tennessee came from behind to defeat the Colts in an emotionally taxing game, the Titans beat a physical Green Bay team in overtime. Not only were the Titans dealing with a short week, the Packers were coming off a bye and were getting back two starters on defense -- strong safety Atari Bigby and cornerback Al Harris. Green Bay engaged the Titans in a chin-strap adjusting smash-fest that made ammonia caps more desirable than hydrating fluids after the final whistle.
The test of physical wills alone was captivating. Yet, it was the Packers who appeared gassed and broken and the Titans who had the mental gumption and late physicality to close things out. Not succumbing to the built-in excuse of playing consecutive tough games in a short week proved to several Tennessee players that they are legitimate.
"We got a good thing brewing," tight end Alge Crumpler said.
How Tennessee emerged with the victory over Green Bay was the manner in which games will be won in December and January by the real contenders -- and almsot assuredly the eventual champions. The Titans never panicked by throwing the ball to gain every inch of churned-up turf. They stuck to their mauling run game and they wore down a Packers team that should have been fresher because of the free week it had to recoup.
On the last series of regulation, Tennessee took possession at its 8-yard line with 1:49 remaining. The first two plays were runs by rookie Chris Johnson. It appeared as if coach Jeff Fisher was playing for overtime. Then Collins completed a series of passes to get the Titans to Green Bay's 32 before Johnson ran 3 yards to set up Bironas' miss, which banged off the right upright.
Just when it appeared the Titans' good luck had run out, something happened to signal that this just might be their year: The Packers made the wrong call on the coin toss to determine overtime possession.
"I was like, 'Yes,' " recalled Mawae, obviously unaware that only three of the seven overtime games coming into Sunday were settled on the opening drive of the extra period.
It was anything but luck that determined the Titans' fate in overtime. Taking possession at their 22, they proceeded to thrash the Packers' suddenly vulnerable defense by pounding the ball on the ground. Seven of their nine plays were of the running variety, including five straight (four by Johnson) for 35 yards before Bironas redeemed himself.
It was a display of brute determination.
While Bironas and a few of his teammates wildly celebrated the heroics, most of Tennessee's players walked off the field, regretting the failed plays that prompted such theater. Winning hasn't become matter of fact with this team. Perfection requires perfection.
Safety Chris Hope, whose third-quarter interception of Aaron Rodgers in the end zone -- one of many plays Tennessee's vaunted defense made to keep the Titans in contention -- was one of the more stoic players after the game. He played on Pittsburgh's Super Bowl championship squad in 2005, a team made up of similar talent, styles and approaches.
The similarity between that Steelers team and these Titans, Hope said, is their unselfish, workmanlike manner.
"We're a good team," Hope said. "It's too early to say we're a championship team. The last two games we played against good-caliber football teams and showed we are a good football team. A lot of people didn't believe in us when we started out 3-0, 4-0. Now we're playing against good competition. Good football teams. We're just finding a way to win."
It rarely seems the Titans play their best game, which is why doubters believe their 8-0 start is nothing more than them capitalizing on a docket of rudderless, wounded -- or simply lousy -- teams. And they aren't likely to gain conversions anytime soon with a second-half schedule that looks about as formidable as their first-half slate.
Soon, about the only drama left in the Titans' season will be when they clinch home-field advantage in the playoffs, which could be by the end of the month.
However, the Titans seemingly insurmountable perch atop the AFC South and their unblemished midseason record won't mean much three months from now unless they're holding up the Lombardi Trophy. What does matter now is that they are setting the table for a successful run to get to that point.
The Titans play three of their next four games on the road against Chicago, Jacksonville, the Jets and Detroit. They close the season against Cleveland, Houston, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis. Winning most or all of those games is possible. So is losing some, most, or all of them, too.
But the Titans seem to have the formula in place to prevent a total collapse. At some point, however, they may need that T.O.-like playmaker or want the additional attention that a celebrity girlfriend brings.
"We don't have distractions, and the distractions we have had, guys have overcome them," Mawae said. "There's no superstars. Everybody is part of one big machine."