Stunned Titans failed to answer critics

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans were convinced nobody liked them. They were an unappreciated small-market team, a workmanlike bunch that lacked the gloss or controversy that sells or attracts attention.

As the hype around the Baltimore Ravens grew, they grumbled.

Then, on their home field with a chance to quiet the critics -- real or imagined -- they produced a dud similar in scope to the last time when they were the AFC's No. 1 seed.

With large statistical advantages across the board, they handed the ball away three times, missed a field goal, gave up a big pass play on each of Baltimore's three scoring drives and watched the Ravens, a wild-card team driven by defense, win 13-10 and celebrate on their turf just as they did in January 2001.

"We had a chance to prove our critics and our doubters wrong and we just didn't do it," defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch said. "It erases a great regular season. I think there are a lot of great things we take away from the season, but ultimately we are judged as players on what we do in the postseason and we just came up empty."

"I guess you all proved us wrong," Albert Haynesworth said. "I felt like we definitely should have won this game, it shouldn't have been close. But the way things turned out, too many mistakes and not enough time."

Jeff Fisher, the league's longest-tenured coach, is now 5-6 in the playoffs, with a first-game loss in three of his six playoff seasons.

"He just felt for everybody, he knew that everyone was hurting," special-teamer and backup linebacker Ryan Fowler said. "He expressed his gratitude and his sorrow for the team. He said this was one of those things that was going to be hard to get over, but we'll get over it eventually and see you guys on Monday."

Players talked about the magnitude of the lost opportunity and recounted their mistakes.

Running back LenDale White lost a fumble just before halftime, with the Titans in range of a field goal that would have put them ahead 10-7.

"The momentum with the fumble that I had before the half, if we'd have been able to get three points right there, probably could have boosted us up in the second half," White said. "So I am definitely taking the blame for losing this game. I feel like I could have stepped up a lot more, I could have held on to the ball and gave us momentum going into the second half."

He said a 10-game Ravens-Titans series would produce nine Tennessee wins.

Tight end Alge Crumpler spoke softly of a pass he coughed up near the goal line and the disappointment of the sudden ending.

"This is the sickest feeling I ever had," he said. "This team was ready to take the next step. I firmly believed this was a Super Bowl team and felt the magic when I first walked in the locker room. This hurts because we didn't get it done.''

Strong safety Chris Hope was unable to make a play on the Ravens' two longest pass connections -- he was late to get to Derrick Mason on a 48-yard touchdown pass and got mixed up with Cortland Finnegan on a 37-yard pass to Mark Clayton.

Finnegan, a recently anointed All-Pro, said the Ravens tried to avoid him but probably shouldn't have.

"The one time they went to me, they got action," he said with a forced laugh. "I would have kept going at me."

Eight seasons ago, in very similar circumstances, a Titans team that included only three of the same players statistically dominated Baltimore and watched its Super Bowl hopes disappear in a fourth-quarter collapse.

Leading up to this game, those players dismissed that history and talked of writing a new ending.

Instead they allowed the Ravens an encore.

Fisher will review the season in a Monday news conference when players clean out their lockers. By then, he will have found multiple ways to spin things positively. His team overachieved and surpassed expectations, but as it did, it gained the most advantageous position and setup possible. It was an eight-year wait from the last time they were in this spot, and if it's another eight, who knows who might be left to recount this experience and cross fingers that Baltimore isn't the opponent.

"All the hard work you did, all the dreams you had at the beginning of the season just go down the drain in one game," Hope said. "The thing is that you don't have the same team next year, nothing is guaranteed."

Quarterback Kerry Collins said: "Right now, it's hard to feel good about this year. I know we really accomplished a lot, put ourselves in position to make a run at it. But when you fall short it's hard to see the positives. I know there are some, I think we all need to realize that, but it's disappointing to end like this. To think that we'll feel any better about it because of our regular season I think is not going to be the case."