NASHVILLE, Jan. 11 (UPI) -- Joe Nedney brought an end to a bizarre contest with a 26-yard, second-chance field goal 2:15 into overtime Saturday night that put the Tennessee Titans into the AFC Championship game with a 34-31 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
There were three lead changes and two ties in the second half of a game that had one dramatic turning point after another. But the brief overtime period and controversial ending overshadowed all the rest of the often-brutal confrontation between fierce rivals.
Nedney kicked a 42-yard field goal with 5:40 remaining in regulation to tie the game and then missed a 48-yard attempt into the wind on the final play of the fourth quarter to bring about the 17th overtime playoff contest in NFL history.
Tennessee won the coin toss to start overtime and quarterback Steve McNair, one of the many players injured during the course of the evening, teamed up with unlikely hero Justin McCareins to move the ball into field goal range.
A short pass from McNair to McCareins turned into a 31-yard gain when Pittsburgh cornerback Dewayne Washington missed a tackle and McNair then completed a 22-yarder to McCareins that took the ball to the Steelers' 16. Those were the only two catches for McCareins all night.
Robert Holcombe, filling in for the injured Jeff George, gained three yards on first down and Tennessee Coach Steve Fisher decided not to wait any longer to attempt a field goal.
Nedney came on for a 31-yard attempt and just before the ball was snapped, Pittsburgh Coach Bill Cowher called a time out. Nedney went ahead with the kick, which went through the uprights. Thinking the game was over, those in charge of touching off celebratory fireworks did so and the stadium was filled with the sounds of explosions.
Nedney had to try the kick again and this time, he missed it. But Washington, who previously had missed the tackle on McCareins, ran into Nedney, bringing about a five-yard penalty and giving Nedney another chance.
This time the Tennessee kicker was perfect.
"The dream that I had wasn't exactly what took place on the field, but it ended right," Nedney said. "It kind of sums up our season, a lot of highs and lows, but the bottom line is we got it when we needed it. I'm still trying to come down from what happened. It's pretty crazy."
"Wow. I don't know what to say," Fisher said. "From 1-4 to the championship game. I've been fond of a lot of players and fond of a lot of teams, but right now I can't put into words how I feel about these players and what they have overcome, where they are right now."
Cowher ran onto the field and yelled at 18-year veteran referee Ron Blum at the end of the game, enraged that a penalty had been called on Washington. The confrontation was brief, however, and Cowher quickly headed for the locker room as the Tennessee fans celebrated.
"For a game to be decided on that call is ludicrous," Cowher said. "A game can't be decided because a kicker takes two steps and we have someone slide into him. We had some chances to win, but we had some taken away from us, too."
The Titans will play next weekend against the winner of Sunday's Oakland-New York Jets game. A victory in that contest would put Tennessee in the Super Bowl for the second time in four seasons.
McNair ran for one touchdown and threw for two more, but played the final portion of the game with a bruised and bloodied right thumb. Tennessee lost George to a concussion on the first play of the second half on a play that produced one of four Titans turnovers.
Pittsburgh, which rallied from a 17-point deficit to beat Cleveland in the wild card round last week, overcame an early 14-point deficit Saturday to take the lead in the third period and the Steelers then came back from eight points down to take a 31-28 advantage.
Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox completed 21 of 41 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns while McNair was 27 of 44 for 338 yards with two scores and two interceptions.
"This is very hard to swallow," Maddox said. "It's frustrating, it's heart-breaking."
Just as they did against the Browns six days earlier, the Steelers fell into an instant hole and seemed ready to disappear.
The Titans promptly drove 52 yards in seven plays with McNair scoring on a quarterback draw from nine yards out.
Pittsburgh managed to drive out to midfield on its ensuing possession, but a poor punt gave Tennessee possession at its 24 and the Titans ground 9:03 off the clock while marching 76 yards in 16 plays.
Twice McNair hit flanker Drew Bennett on third-down passes, gaining 19 yards when 16 were needed to pick up a first down and gaining nine when eight were needed.
George eventually bulled in from the one-yard line with 17 seconds left in the period, ending a quarter of football during which the Titans had possession for 12:22.
Pittsburgh's opening possession of the second quarter also resulted in a punt from near midfield, but on the first play after that punt, George fumbled the ball away at his own eight-yard line.
George never had control of the handoff and when he ran into the back of center Tom Ackerman, the ball popped lose and cornerback Lee Flowers fell on it.
Two plays later, Maddox hit Ward with a touchdown pass that turned the game around.
McNair then threw an interception at the Pittsburgh 41, which was turned into a 30-yard field goal by Jeff Reed. And when the Titans could not pick up third and one at the Steelers' 44 shortly before the two-minute warning, Pittsburgh was left with enough time to march 61 yards in eight plays en route to a 39-yard Reed field goal on the final play of the first half that trimmed the Tennessee lead to one.
The Pittsburgh momentum carried over into the second half when, on the Titans' first play, George was the victim of a helmet-to-helmet hit by Casey Hampton and the ball fell loose. With George knocked senseless, he was unable to wrap up the loose ball, even though it was lying on top of it.
Pittsburgh defensive end Aaron Smith grabbed the ball from under George at the Tennessee 31 and the stunned Titans immediately allowed Amos Zereoue to run those 31 yards for a touchdown that put the Steelers in front.
Tennessee regained control, however, when George threw two touchdown passes in a span of five minutes. He hit Frank Wycheck with a seven-yarder to give the Titans a 21-20 lead and, after a short Pittsburgh punt, the Titans marched 58 yards and scored on a two-yard throw from McNair to Erron Kinney.
The Steelers had a punt return for a score by Antwaan Randle El wiped out by a penalty early in the fourth quarter, but the Steelers soon scored anyway on a 21-yard pass from Maddox to Hines Ward. Pittsburgh tied it with a two-point conversion pass from Ward to Burress.
And when McNair was intercepted for the second time, the Steelers drove to a 40-yard field goal by Reed that gave them their last lead of the night.
Although the status of George for next week was uncertain, it was obvious McNair would not be affected by his injured thumb.
"I bruised the joints in my thumb," McNair said. "I got the top of my knuckle and thumb off when I hit it against a helmet. It was weak for a point. That's why I didn't go back in immediately. I just couldn't grip the ball."
Among the many heroes for the Titans was tight end Frank Wycheck, who had 10 catches for 123 yards.
"Well, we know how to make things interesting, I'll tell you that," Wycheck said. "Crazy things happen in the playoffs and that's why you work so hard to get here. Anything can happen. It's an up and down game. You gotta give credit for the guys hanging in there all season and it was just a great win."