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Titans use special teams to beat Browns

The Associated Press

Tennessee got its ninth win Sunday as George rushed for two TDs and the Titans’ special teams came up with two huge plays in the third quarter in a 33-21 win over the Cleveland Browns.

Monday, November 29, 1999

Tennessee got its ninth win Sunday as George rushed for two TDs and the Titans’ special teams came up with two huge plays in the third quarter in a 33-21 win over the Cleveland Browns.

With its 13th straight win in the AFC Central, Tennessee improved to 9-2 for the first time since 1991 by displaying many of the same qualities that have made the ’99 Titans different from the past three Tennessee teams which all finished 8-8.

”We’re out to win ball games,” said tackle Brad Hopkins. ”It may not be pretty at times, but we’re doing it effectively and consistently. That’s what separates us from the teams we had the past few years. We maintain our poise, we have a confidence about ourselves.”

Maybe these Titans are a special team.

Trailing 14-13 at halftime, Tennessee’s special teams set up a go-ahead score with a fumble recovery and Derrick Mason ran a punt back 65 yards for another TD.

George rushed for 113 yards and Steve McNair ran for another as the Titans remained one-half game behind division-leading Jacksonville in the Central.

”You can’t say enough about the special teams,” said Titans coach Jeff Fisher. ”The fumble recovery, and then of course, Derrick’s return really got us out of the hole and got us going.”

Tennessee’s resurgence hasn’t gotten the national exposure of the ones going on in St. Louis or Indianapolis, but forced to rally in the second half on the road, the Titans did what good teams are supposed to – they took advantage of an opponent’s mistake, made them pay and put them away.

”We capitalized and took the life out of them,” George said. ”It was nice to put a team away. We’re finally over the 8-8 hump.”

Al Del Greco kicked two field goals and Tennessee’s defense sacked Cleveland rookie quarterback Tim Couch seven times.

”It felt good not to worry at the end of the game,” said McNair. ”We are starting to gain more confidence, getting things done.”

The Titans hadn’t returned a punt for a TD since Ernest Givins’ 78-yard return on Dec. 11, 1994, before Mason’s game-breaker.

”We’ve been so close to breaking big plays but haven’t,” said Mason. ”Not in three years, or 10 years I guess. I could feel this one coming.”

So could the Browns.

For 30 minutes, it looked like the expansion Browns (2-10) might finally give Cleveland fans a chance to celebrate a first win at home since 1995. Cleveland took a 14-13 lead before honoring more than 120 of its former players during halftime ceremonies.

But an emotion-filled day would eventually turn somber.

”Just look at the stats and it’s a close game,” Cleveland coach Chris Palmer said. ”But when you have two key plays that change the course of the ballgame, it kills you.”

Couch shook off a vicious hit in the first half to finish 19 of 35 for 262 yards and two TDs, including a 78-yarder to Terry Kirby. He also ran for a score.

Couch sustained a cut eye and had his mouth bloodied when he was picked up and slammed to the ground in the first half by Jevon Kearse and Kenny Holmes. The rookie QB lost his helmet on the play and got up wobbly and spitting blood as he staggered back to the huddle.

”I didn’t think he was getting up,” said Titans offensive guard Bruce Matthews, who tied an NFL record by playing in his 259th game.

Leading 14-13, the Browns forced Tennessee to punt on its first possession of the third quarter. Rookie wide receiver Kevin Johnson fielded Craig Hentrich’s punt cleanly but was stripped near the sideline and reserve linebacker Greg Favors recovered at the Cleveland 21.

From the 1, McNair rolled right, threw aside linebacker Jamir Miller, and scored to give the Titans a 20-14 lead with 9:58 left in the quarter.

”He’s a strong enough guy that even when he stops, he can still manage to shed you off,” said Miller, whose high tackling allowed McNair to get away a few other times. ”I misjudged him.”

On Cleveland’s next punt, Mason, whose longest return entering the game was 15 yards, found a seam and went up the right sideline to make it 26-14.

”That was very satisfying,” Mason said. ”My first thought was to just catch the ball. But then I made a move, got a great block and I knew I was gone.”

Notes: Browns tackle Orlando Browns blasted sick teammate Scott Rehberg for not playing. Rehberg was made inactive after becoming ill Saturday night and didn’t feel better despite getting IVs. He never made it to the stadium. ”To not play because you’re sick – I’ve never seen that from a lineman,” Brown said. ”I’m going to give him grief all week. I’m going to tell him he owes the unit an answer, because I’ve never seen that before. No heart. I’m upset with him.” … Matthews tied Jackie Slater for the most games played in NFL history by an offensive lineman. ”I’m proud of the fact,” said Matthews, whose brother, Clay, was a linebacker for the Browns. ”It means that I have been blessed. It was pretty cool to do it here.”

… Kearse, who had three sacks in the first meeting between the teams, recorded one and has 8 1/2 this season.