AFC CHAMPIONSHIP Four-week loss streak left teams feeling weak
The Raiders lost four straight and the Titans dropped four of five early in the season.
OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) -- Raiders offensive lineman Lincoln Kennedy practically shuddered when the dreaded topic arose.
The four-game losing streak.
It's a month of misery punctuated by long practices and second guessing -- four straight weeks of failure, when a game becomes a job and self doubt starts to feel as familiar as strapping on shoulder pads.
Oakland endured it this season. So did the Tennessee Titans. They meet in the AFC title game Sunday, a statement as much about the resiliency of the teams as the forgiving nature of a league built for parity.
"Some teams would have caved it in," Kennedy said. "We had a lot more respect for our game than that. We knew it came during a part of our season we could recover from. We just kept coming back to work and pushing forward."
As with any breakdown of that magnitude, almost anything that could go wrong did during Oakland's four-game slide.
The 28-13 loss to St. Louis: Overconfident from a 4-0 start and the prospect of facing first-time starter Mark Bulger.
San Diego 27, Oakland 21 in OT: Two costly early breakdowns inside the Chargers 20. A blocked field goal and a Jerry Rice turnover doomed them in a 20-10 loss to Kansas City.
The capper came a week later, when the defense let the 49ers control the ball for 15 straight minutes -- seven in regulation and eight in overtime -- in a 23-20 loss.
The Raiders (12-5) finally snapped out of it with a 34-10 win in Denver in a Monday night game. Rich Gannon completed 21 straight passes and Rod Woodson returned an interception 98 yards in what might have been their best performance of the season.
"We stayed the course, didn't flinch, didn't press," coach Bill Callahan said. "We focused on the opportunity to get better."
That was easier said than done.
In the NFL this season, 15 teams combined for 17 losing streaks of four games or longer. Only the Raiders, Titans and Jets came back to make the playoffs.
Those three teams got through their streaks before the second half of the season began -- proof that while it's not impossible to recover from such a string in a league filled with evenly matched teams, the timing is crucial.
"In a situation like that, you have the tendency to come unglued a little bit," Rice said. "This team, we just fought through it. Bill Callahan pretty much left it up to the players, saying, 'It's up to you guys to get the job done.' That's what we did."
So did the Titans.
Their streak was probably more demoralizing than Oakland's because they hadn't already won four games. Then, there was the fact that they kept getting worse as the losing progressed.
Loss No. 3 was 52-25 to the Raiders, a game in which they fell behind 21-0 after six minutes. No. 4 was a 31-14 embarrassment at home to Steve Spurrier and the Redskins. The Titans fell to 1-4 after that game, and owner Bud Adams publicly wondered whether Jeff Fisher was getting outcoached.
"We weren't startled at all," running back Eddie George said of the reaction to Adams' comments. "Pretty much, not only his job was in question but a lot of jobs were in question around here. So we just had to buckle down, win some games and see what happens."
The Titans (12-5) got back on track with a 23-14 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars. It was the start of an 11-1 stretch Tennessee carries into the AFC title game. In that span, the Titans found two pass rushers -- Kevin Carter and Carlos Hall -- to fill the role of the then-injured Jevon Kearse.
McNair became an MVP candidate, on his way to a career-high 3,387 yards. His offense became multidimensional, able to spread teams out when needed instead of just grind.
The Titans won games in just about every way imaginable: High-scoring shootouts (34-31 OT over Pittsburgh last week), late comebacks (32-29 OT over the Giants), boring blowouts (28-10 over Jacksonville) and even on days when they weren't playing their best (13-3 over Houston).