Titans rout Bengals

BY GEOFF HOBSON

NASHVILLE, Tenn. _ Titans quarterback Steve McNair didn't work all week, but he made Sunday's game against the Bengals look as easy as a Wednesday practice in masterminding Tennessee's 35-3 rout with three touchdown passes.

It was a blowout the Bengals (3-11) had feared in their effort to secure a job for coach Dick LeBeau next season as the Titans (11-3) wrapped up a playoff berth.

Running back Corey Dillon and the NFL's top rushing game had seven yards on 13 carries in the first half and on the first series of the second half he couldn't gain a yard on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1. At the two-minute warning, Dillon had only 42 yards on 18 carries.

Plus, middle linebacker Adrian Ross was lost for the game with a broken left hand, tight end Tony McGee was lost for the season when he broke his left ankle, and right tackle Willie Anderson didn't start the second half with an injured lower right leg.

Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse wasted no time early in the second half, beating Anderson backup Jamain Stephens for one of four sacks of Bengals quarterback Scott Mitchell.

This one was at the Cincinnati 9
and the Titans then turned Daniel Pope's short punt into a five-play, 32-yard touchdown drive. The big play was McNair's 15-yard pass to tight end Frank Wycheck when Bengals free safety Darryl Williams overpursued Wycheck.

Then McNair hit running back Eddie George for a three-yard touchdown pass to give Tennessee, the 28-3 lead. On a day he joined Eric Dickerson as the only players to gain 1,200 yards in each of their first five seasons, George caught two touchdowns in a game for the first time in his career while grinding out 81 yards on 24 carries.

On the Titans' next series after George's third touchdown of the game, Bengals defensive end Reinard Wilson sacked McNair to force a fumble recovered by tackle Tom Barndt.

But the Bengals couldn't cash. Mitchell overthrew tight end Marco Battaglia in the end zone, underthrew receiver Peter Warrick at the goal line and came up a yard short when he scrambled up the middle on a fourth-and-goal.

The Bengals had trouble getting Dillon into the offense, giving him just four carries in the first quarter and three in the second quarter, and Mitchell had his worst day since becoming the starter when he hit just nine of 21 passes in the first three quarters for 103 yards.

McNair hit 11 of his first 16 passes against an overmatched Bengals secondary and finished 16-for-26 with 229 yards when he was pulled early in the fourth quarter.

To rub the proverbial salt in the wounds, a pair of former Bengals exposed the woes of the pass defense when quarterback Neil O'Donnell hooked up with receiver Carl Pickens for a 38-yard pass that set up the Titans' final touchdown.

Pickens caught his first pass since Oct. 1 when he outjumped cornerback Tom Carter to punctuate Carter's shaky return to the starting lineup.

McNair threw a pair of touchdowns in the game's first 22 minutes, one a 56-yarder to wide receiver Yancey Thigpen on the second series of the game.

On the next series, McNair found Thigpen for a 33-yard pass that set up George's five-yard touchdown run, and then he hit George on a seven-yard scoring pass that gave Tennessee a 21-3 lead with 8:47 left in the first half.

McNair picked on Bengals cornerback Tom Carter, back in the starting lineup because of Rodney Heath's season-ending shoulder injury.

McNair floated a long pass down the left sideline to Thigpen that appeared to hang up long enough for Carter to intercept the ball.

But Carter stumbled, giving Thigpen room to catch the ball at about the Bengals 20-yard line and Thigpen raced to the end zone for his longest catch of the season.

Moments later, Thigpen beat Carter down the middle for the 33-yard pass to set up George's first touchdown.

Then wide receiver Derrick Mason got into the mix early in the second quarter when his 20-yard catch against a wide-open Bengals zone opened it up for George.

George ripped off a 14-yard gain, and then got loose from linebacker Takeo Spikes on a pass route for his seven-yard catch set up by McNair's play-action fake and roll-out pass.

Peter Warrick's 15-yard catch set up Neil Rackers' 45-yard field goal early in the second quarter to pull the Bengals within, 14-3.

Dillon did salvage one thing from the brutal day. He broke Pete Johnson's 19-year-old club record of 274 carries in a season.

After watching him work in pre-game warmups, the Titans decided to start McNair.

McNair strained his left knee and sprained his left ankle last week during the Titans' 15-13 victory in Philadelphia.

Waiting in the wings was O'Donnell, the former Steelers quarterback who consistently lit up Cincinnati before joining the Bengals for the 1998 season.

O'Donnell had the first 300-yard day and three-touchdown day of his career during Pittsburgh's 1991 overtime victory in Cincinnati and his career high passing yards of 377 in the Steelers' 49-31 victory in Cincinnati in 1995.

The Titans did sit one injured starter Sunday, replacing Marcus Robertson with Bobby Myers at free safety.

Before the game, the Bengals deactivated linebacker JoJuan Armour, cornerback Sirr Parker and wide receiver LaVell Boyd. **

DILLON POPULAR:** If the fans have anything to say about it, Dillon will go back to the Pro Bowl. When the public's voting shut down Friday, Dillon was third among AFC running backs with 77,891 votes.

But that's only one third of the equation. The coaches and players, who vote Monday, also count for a third.

Spikes and Anderson need some help on Monday. Spikes finished 12th in the AFC at his position among the fans with 14,522 votes. Anderson came in 24th with 8,052. The team is announced Thursday.

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