Kearse of the Titans

Published: Thursday, January 9, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 9, 2003 at 12:17 a.m.

In what was a homecoming of sorts for Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse, Tennessee clinched the first AFC South Division title Dec. 22 in Jacksonville in a 28-10 win against the Jaguars.

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Tennessee Titans' Jevon Kearse eyes running back Mike Green, right, during practice. Tennessee will host the Pittsburgh Steelers on Saturday.

AP Photo/John Russell

Afterward, the former Florida Gator said that having home-field advantage in the playoffs is the best and that it would not be a bad Christmas gift - although belated - for him and his team to have.

The Titans (11-5) got their wish. After a first-round bye as the AFC's second-seeded team, they will host the AFC North Division champion Pittsburgh (11-5-1) in an AFC Divisional Playoff game Saturday at 4:30 p.m.

The Steelers hold a 40-27 advantage overall in the series between the two clubs which started in 1970. The Houston/Tennessee franchise has taken eight of the last 10 meetings, but also owns an 0-3 mark in the playoffs against Pittsburgh.

These two teams met once already in the regular season, a game the Titans won 31-23 on Nov. 17. However, that game is remembered more for the injury that Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox sustained, which left him motionless and forced him off the field in a stretcher.

Maddox is back and threw for three touchdowns and 367 yards in the 36-33 win over the Browns in the wild-card round last Sunday. So is Kearse, who also suffered a serious injury while facing the other team in Pennsylvania.

The 6-4, 295-pound Kearse, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, broke a bone in his left foot early in the season opener against Philadelphia. Prior to this season, he had played in and started all 53 games of his NFL career, including five postseason appearances. The injury sidelined Kearse for 12 games this season, before he returned in limited action against New England in a Monday night game Dec. 16.

But it seemed appropriate, that a week later, in his home state, Kearse, the 1999 Defensive Rookie of the Year, would show signs of playing like the "Freak" again. He still didn't start, but he was able to use his unique combination of power, speed and intensity to register two quarterback sacks - his only two this season.

"I told my coaches that I had two homecomings, getting back on the field Monday night and then coming down here to Florida, a couple of miles up the road from where I played college ball," said Kearse after the division-clinching win. "There couldn't be any better place than down here in Florida with my teammates and with my old fans from Florida."

Because of his foot injury, the Fort Myers native missed an opportunity to play against his former coach at Florida, Steve Spurrier, now coach of the Washington Redskins.

"When they (the Redskins) came to Nashville (on Oct. 6) I was banged up," said Kearse, who saw his team lose 31-14 to the Redskins. "So I didn't really get a chance to talk to him."

But when the Gators traveled to Nashville, Kearse, a Walter Camp and Football News All-American selection as a junior at UF, visited with his former team.

"I try and talk to the players (at Florida) when I can and I talked to a lot of them at Vanderbilt," said Kearse, who follows that Gators as much as he can. "On Saturday, the day before our games, I love turning on the TV and seeing the boys in orange and blue get a win."

In addition, Kearse added that he plans to do anything he can to help first-year Florida coach Ron Zook with recruiting.

"He (Ron Zook) was put in a tough situation to come in and follow Spurrier," Kearse said. "He didn't have a chance to go recruiting or anything. I think the job that he did and with the time that he had, he did a pretty good job."

Although that point might be disputed, there is no arguing with what the Titans have done after struggling out of the gates with a 1-4 start. Since that point, Tennessee has been one of the hottest teams in the NFL, winning 10 of its last 11 games and outscoring its opponents 260-165 during that span.

And with the steady increase in production from Kearse, who entered his fourth season in the NFL with 233 tackles and 36 sacks, the Titans have to be considered a legitimate threat to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XXXVII.

Tennessee advanced to Super Bowl XXXIV, earned a wild card-berth the following season, but failed to make the playoffs last season.

"A lot of people gave up on us. But the coaches and the players stuck in there," Kearse said. "We just started winning some ball games and got momentum going our way. We are just taking advantage of it right now."

The Tennessee Titans clinched the first AFC South Division title by defeating the Jacksonville Jaguars, 28-10 on Dec. 22, in what was a homecoming of sorts for defensive end Jevon Kearse.

Tennessee defensive end Jevon Kearse goes through drills this week as the Titans prepare to play Pittsburgh on Saturday.

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