NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- As important as earning home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs was to the Tennessee Titans, re-establishing their edge might have been more pressing. Their two losses in four games after a 10-0 start, especially last week's defeat in Houston, generated some sense of vulnerability inside the locker room -- doubt that was commonplace outside the organization.
But by manhandling the red-hot Pittsburgh Steelers 31-14 on Sunday, Tennessee proved, mostly to itself, its legitimacy. Contributing to its born-again belief was the domination of a supposedly better and more playoff-ready team with a defense that didn't have Pro Bowl defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and standout defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch because of injuries.
Does that mean Tennessee is the league's best team?
NFL playoff picture
If Tennessee wasn't playing well, the jockeying for home-field advantage could be muted by a playoff-opening loss anyway.
"It was a momentum-gainer from us," said Titans safety Chris Hope, who played for the Steelers from 2002 to 2005 and recently was selected to the Pro Bowl. "Coach (Jeff) Fisher said during the week that the last four games, we should have won, but they weren't really good gauges for us to determine whether we were battle-tested. To play against a bruiser like the Pittsburgh Steelers, a battled-tested, experienced team, it was a great chance to see where we were."
The reason why Sunday's showdown was so important to Tennessee was because next week's season finale against the AFC South rival Indianapolis Colts, who have clinched a wild-card playoff berth, probably will resemble a preseason game. Starters likely won't play much in order to avoid injury, even though the Titans did earn an additional week's worth of rest by winning the division and the AFC's top seed.
This was the money game.
Pittsburgh, the AFC North champion, could have wrested home-field advantage from Tennessee with a win, so it was jacked. The Titans were equally as stoked for the chance to claim home-field advantage and prove they could win without Haynesworth, but beating the Steelers, who were widely projected as favorites Sunday, was most important.
On their second possession, the Steelers hit two big plays to get to the Titans' 7-yard line. On third down, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger dropped back to pass, then saw daylight and ran toward the end zone. He was slowed down by Jones and stopped cold at the 1 by a vicious hit from linebacker David Thornton. The ball popped loose, and Tennessee recovered it.
The denial of a score was big. The message delivered by Thornton -- which left Roethlisberger stretched on the field and in need of assistance to hobble off a minute later -- was bigger.
"That got some momentum going back in our favor on defense," Thornton said with a wry smile.
The Steelers, as is their nature, gamely fought back, but the Titans always had an answer, even scoring on a 21-yard touchdown run from Chris Johnson in the third quarter when Fisher opted to go for it on fourth-and-1. That's not the type of play Pittsburgh has allowed of late, but it's also the type of play Tennessee hasn't made either.
With Pittsburgh now among its victims, Tennessee players said it's about time the Titans start receiving mention as one of the NFL's more physical, intimidating teams -- especially since they figure they're not going to be considered among the elite.
"We're the Titans," Thornton said. "We're not America's favorite team. We're fine with that. We know what we're capable of doing. We listen to one voice, and that's Coach Fisher. He sets the expectations for us each week. We hold each other accountable, and we just play hard football."
A yellow Pittsburgh Terrible Towel made its way onto the Titans' bench in the waning seconds of Sunday's game. After waving the towel in a mocking gesture, some Tennessee players dropped it to the ground, then took turns wiping their muddy cleats on it.
"Hopefully, if we do see them again, we can right the wrong and not allow them to step on that towel," Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend said. "We won't forget it."
The Titans could care less. They've felt stepped on all season, despite owning the NFL's best record.
They've done it with a 35-year-old quarterback (Kerry Collins) who opened the season as insurance to the upstart star (Vince Young) who hurt his knee in the opener and lost his job. They've done it with a rookie tailback (Chris Johnson), no wide receivers to speak of and a standout defense that proved it could succeed with a rookie at defensive tackle and its star (Haynesworth) cheerleading.
"I didn't think it would happen like this," Jones said of his performance. "Everything just came, and everything was just opening up. I'm blessed and glad I had this type of game. I'm going to celebrate it."
The Titans have earned the right to celebrate this victory, but breaking out the cigars for what has unexpectedly transpired this season is way too premature. Tennessee still has a lot to prove, as does any team bound for the playoffs.
However, the Titans seem built for a deep postseason run, with tough interior lines, a strong running game, a beast of a defense and, now, home-field advantage. Yet, as Collins said, if they overlook some of the details while thinking they're the best team by virtue of their record -- something Hope said happened when Tennessee made it to 10-0 -- the gains will be for naught.
"I have been in situations where we have had home-field advantage. There are a bunch of guys that have been through it," Collins said. "Knowing that we need to take care of the little things, at the end of the day, (that) gives us a chance."