NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans had a lot to lose Monday night, and they played like they were afraid of blowing it. Their defense wouldn't let them.
The Titans turned four third-quarter turnovers into 24 points to beat the Dallas Cowboys 31-0 and secure the home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
Tennessee, which finished the regular season with the NFL's best record at 13-3, had to win or switch positions with the Baltimore Ravens as the No. 4 seed. The Titans won the AFC Central title for the first time since 1993 and third overall.
Titans coach Jeff Fisher said the defending AFC champions accomplished their goals for the regular season by returning to the playoffs in style.
''Now the fun starts,'' he said. ''Now it's time for us to play, and we're very much looking forward to the fact that we're playing at home.''
Playing on a frozen field with temperatures in the mid-20s, the Titans turned the ball over four times in the first half.
But the Cowboys (5-11) had Anthony Wright making only his second start at quarterback, not Troy Aikman, and they couldn't do anything with the ball. Not even an onside kick on the opening kickoff could jumpstart their offense.
The Titans, who shut out Cleveland last week, allowed only 67 yards in the first half and 95 overall. That allowed Tennessee to pass the Ravens for the NFL's top defense this season.
The honor was fitting for a defense that hasn't gotten much recognition.
''Being No. 1 is a plus for us,'' linebacker Randall Godfrey said. ''We've just got to continue doing what we're doing.''
It got worse in the third quarter as the Cowboys turned the ball over twice in a 2 1/2-minute span.
Pro Bowl safety Blaine Bishop started the turnover spree, sacking Wright and knocking the ball loose. Linebacker Eddie Robinson recovered, and Eddie George scored on an 11-yard run a minute into the quarter for a 14-0 lead.
Four plays later, linebacker Randall Godfrey broke through the line untouched and hit Wright. End Henry Ford fell on the loose ball, stood up and rumbled 30 yards escorted by several teammates before diving in the end zone for a 21-0 lead.
On Wright's next play, he tried to find Emmitt Smith on a swing pass, and rookie linebacker Keith Bulluck got into the act by stepping in front of Smith at the Dallas 8 and walking into the end zone for a 28-0 margin.
Before the quarter ended, the Titans tacked on a 21-yard field goal by Al Del Greco for a 31-0 lead after Godfrey recovered a fumble by Michael Wiley.
It was the most points the Titans scored in a quarter all season long, and that took care of any hopes the Cowboys had of avoiding their worst season since 1989 when they went 1-15 in Jerry Jones' first year as owner.
HEAD:What a long strange trip NFL season has been
BYLINE1:By BARRY WILNER
BYLINE2:AP Football Writer
NEW YORK -- What's up Doc? Try six new division winners in an NFL season Bugs Bunny truly could appreciate, filled with upside-down standings, virtually no home-field advantage and a wild final weekend.
Welcome to Looney Tunes Football.
The St. Louis Rams, whose machine-like efficiency carried them to their first Super Bowl crown a year ago, squeezed into the playoffs Sunday only because a rookie kicker for the Bears nailed a 54-yard field goal. And the Rams couldn't even win the NFC West, which went to -- get this bit of daffiness -- the New Orleans Saints.
The Saints were part of the all-new lineup atop each division, which also featured the unsurprising Tennessee Titans along with such longshots as the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins.
Miami's celebrations after winning the AFC East at New England on Sunday were cut short when the players were summoned back onto the field after officials determined three seconds remained. Several Dolphins wore shower slippers and sweatsuits on the sideline as the last play was run.
''I just went out there as is,'' said Dolphins offensive lineman Kevin Donnalley, who returned to the field in a towel covering his bare legs. ''I was bitter. We were all in here celebrating. But I knew our defense was going to shut them out. I just wanted to get it done quickly and get out of here.''
Patriots DT Chad Eaton didn't appreciate the extra work to end his team's awful (5-11) season.
''If I get pneumonia out of this, somebody is going to hear about it,'' he said.
They'll be hearing about Paul Edinger's kick throughout the St. Louis area at least until the Rams return to New Orleans for Saturday's wild-card game. After the Rams beat the Saints, they were catapulted into the playoffs when Edinger's line drive at the Pontiac Silverdome easily cleared the crossbar, knocking the Lions out of a postseason spot.
''The whole Chicago Bears organization can come to my house for dinner,'' Rams defensive tackle D'Marco Farr said. ''I'll put Edinger, the kicker, at the head of the table.''
Sit him next to Marshall Faulk, one of the normalities of a year in which the Eagles soared from 5-11 to 11-5, the Redskins had a $100 million payroll that got them an 8-8 record, and the Bengals opened a new stadium whose turf looked like a minefield.
Faulk broke Emmitt Smith's record by scoring 26 touchdowns despite missing two games with an injury. He had 11 TDs in the final three weeks and rushed for a career-high 220 yards at New Orleans.
''He gashed us, he made us miss, he did what he wanted more or less,'' Saints defensive lineman Norman Hand said. ''You have to give them credit, they came out and ran the ball on us, something I didn't think they could do.''
Along with the Lions, the New York Jets were the biggest chokers. After winning their first four games and going 6-1 and 9-4, the Jets lost their final three and didn't make the playoffs. Then again, after going 1-3 in December, the Jets are 7-30 in that month in the last nine seasons that Bill Parcells was not their head coach.
''We had it right there,'' linebacker Roman Phifer said. ''Three strikes and you're out. We had ample opportunity. It hurts.''
Usually, it hurts to go on the road for the playoffs. But in this wacky season, visitors had plenty of success. Home teams were 137-110, not counting Monday night's finale between Tennessee and Dallas. That's just a .554 winning percentage.
Last year, home teams finished 148-100 (.596). They were 151-89 (.629) in 1998; 144-94-2 (.594) in 1997; 141-91 (.607) in 1996; and 144-96 (.600) in 1995.
One team that couldn't win almost anywhere was San Diego. The Chargers became the sixth club to go 1-15, and they couldn't blame everything on disappointing quarterback Ryan Leaf -- although they could blame a lot on him.
''I don't think we're a team that has to start over and put ourselves in a position where we can't have some immediate gratification next year,'' coach Mike Riley said. ''I'm not saying that we won't go through some anguish and hard times getting there, because there will be some changes. But maybe part of those changes will help us be better.''
What does all this Y2K shenanigans mean? Well, if the playoffs are as unpredictably loony as the regular season was, let the fun begin.
Peninsula Clarion ©2015. All Rights Reserved.