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Oakland hosts Titans for AFC crown

OAKLAND, Calif., Jan. 18 (UPI) -- The Tennessee Titans, who were crushed the last time they visited the "Black Hole," will give it another try Sunday.

This time a berth in the Super Bowl will be on the line when the Oakland Raiders host the Titans in the AFC championship game.

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On Sept. 29, NFL Most Valuable Player Rich Gannon threw for 381 yards and four touchdowns and Pro Bowl safety Rod Woodson had three interceptions, including one he returned 82 yards for a score.

Oakland scored 21 points in the first 5:24 while running just one offensive play -- a 17-yard touchdown pass from Gannon to running back Charlie Garner 21 seconds into the game. The score came after an interception by Woodson.

Rookie Phillip Buchanon and Terry Kirby then returned punts for scores before Gannon took the field again.

"I remember we didn't play much in the first quarter," said Gannon, who completed 29 of 39 in the regular season meeting. "Overall, everything went our way. We don't expect that this time. That was four months ago and Tennessee is the hottest team in the league now."

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"We fell behind early and could never catch up," Titans Coach Jeff Fisher said. "But the fact is that we got outplayed by the Raiders in all phases of the game."

That loss dropped the Titans to 1-3 and they lost again the following week to Washington before reeling off 11 wins in their next 12 games, including a 34-31 overtime victory over Pittsburgh last week in their divisional playoff.

The Raiders enter Sunday's game with eight wins in their last nine games, including a 30-10 triumph over the New York Jets last week.

Sunday's game is expected to be played in excellent conditions with partly cloudy skies and temperatures in the high 50s forecast.

Fisher, quarterback Steve McNair , running back Eddie George and the rest of the Titans are seeking their second Super Bowl trip in four years. They won at Jacksonville, 33-14, in the AFC championship game after the 1999 season as McNair ran for 91 yards and two touchdowns and Derrick Mason scored on an 80-yard kickoff return.

Despite their rich history under owner Al Davis, the Raiders have not been to the Super Bowl since the 1983 season. That year, when they were situated in Los Angeles, they routed the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII, 38-9.

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The Raiders previously won Super Bowl titles for Oakland in 1976 and 1980.

Bill Callahan, who was promoted by Davis after Jon Gruden was traded to Tampa Bay, is trying to become the first rookie coach to lead his team to a Super Bowl since George Seifert guided the San Francisco 49ers to a win over Denver in Super Bowl XXIV. Don McCafferty of the Baltimore Colts has been the only other rookie coach to win a Super Bowl (V).

The Raiders were previously in the AFC championship game two years ago under Gruden, but lost at home to the Baltimore Ravens .

They are hoping the "Black Hole" is not as hospitable to the Titans, who won here last season, 13-10.

In his meeting with Oakland earlier this season, McNair completed 33 of 47 passes for a career-high 398 yards.

"We had to abandon the running game to a certain extent to get back into the game," McNair said. "We wanted to establish the run but we had to throw the ball. We don't expect to get into a 21-0 hole again. We better not."

McNair's 49-yard touchdown pass to Justin McCareins pulled the Titans within 38-25 in the fourth quarter. But the Raiders pulled away again as Gannon threw a 10-yard scoring pass to Jerry Porter and a 41-yarder to Tim Brown.

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Jerry Rice, the NFL's all-time leading receiver, scorched the Tennessee secondary with seven catches for 144 yards and a touchdown. He is tied with running backs Thurman Thomas and Emmitt Smith for most playoff touchdowns with 21 and is the all-time postseason leader with 2,133 receiving yards.

Samari Rolle is Tennessee's best cover corner, but the Titans ranked just 25th in pass defense, yielding an average of 221.3 yards per game.

Gannon, who led the NFL with 4,689 passing yards, completed 20 of 30 for 283 yards and two touchdowns in last week's win over the Jets and should be able to exploit Tennessee's secondary with his arsenal of weapons -- Rice, Brown, Porter, rookie tight end Doug Jolley and Garner, who had 91 catches this season. Porter had six catches for 123 yards last week, including a 29-yard touchdown.

Pittsburgh's Tommy Maddox threw for 266 yards and two touchdowns against Tennessee in the divisional playoff.

McNair does not have similar weapons to Gannon, but will spend most of the day throwing against the NFL's 23rd-ranked pass defense, yielding 220.4 yards per game.

Tight end Frank Wycheck caught 10 passes for 123 yards and a touchdown in Tennessee's win over Pittsburgh. Wycheck and Mason are McNair's favorite receivers, but he also did not hesitate to go to McCareins and Drew Bennett last week. McCareins caught passes of 31 and 22 yards to set up the winning 26-yard field goal by Joe Nedney in overtime. McNair finished 27 of 44 for 338 yards and two touchdowns and also ran for a score.

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Despite Oakland's low ranking against the pass, cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Tory James and free safety Rod Woodson contained New York's trio of receivers to a total of nine catches for 82 yards last week.

It helped that the Raiders received a strong pass rush, sacking Chad Pennington four times. Defensive tackle Rod Coleman, the team leader with 11 sacks during the season, had 1 1/2 sacks.

Both teams are strong against the run, which could mean limited carries for Tennessee's Eddie George, who fumbled twice last week before leaving with a concussion, and Garner, who had 93 yards on 21 carries against the Jets.

The Titans are second in the league against the run with rookie defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth clogging the middle in front of linebackers Keith Bulluck and Randall Godfrey .

The Raiders are third in the league defending the run with John Parrella, Sam Adams and Coleman rotating at the tackle positions.

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