It was supposed to be a blowout _

By David Carducci Record-Courier staff writer Published:

It was supposed to be a blowout _ a game in which Las Vegas considered the AFC Central Division contending Titans an 11-point favorite.

Yet, after 30 minutes of near-perfect football, the expansion Browns waltzed into the locker room with a 14-13 lead and high hopes for a major upset that would yield the team's first home victory.

Those hopes were dashed with two key breakdowns on special teams in the third quarter, allowing the Titans to take command in a 33-21 victory.

A fumble by Browns rookie Kevin Johnson on a punt return deep in Cleveland territory led to the first score in a 13-0 third quarter for the Titans.

Poor coverage on special teams led to the Titans' second touchdown of the quarter _ a 65-yard punt return by Derrick Mason.

"The fumble and the punt return that they took in for scores hurt us a great deal," said Browns coach Chris Palmer. "Those two plays were key in the game. I thought everything else was pretty even."

The fumble by Johnson, which was forced when Tennessee's Anthony Dorsett punched the ball free near the left sideline, came after the defense had held the Titans three-and-out on their first possession of the second half.

"I was just out there trying to make something happen," said Johnson. "My fundamentals were all correct. I tried to use a stiff-arm and then (Dorsett) stuck his hand in and popped the ball right out. It was tough for me because we still had the game in our hands at the time. The score was 14-13, and for them to get the ball in that type of field position, any good team will capitalize on that, and they did."

Tennessee capitalized four plays after taking over at the Cleveland 21-yard line, taking a 20-14 lead on a 1-yard touchdown run by quarterback Steve McNair.

Browns linebacker Jamir Miller appeared to have McNair dropped for a loss as he ran for the right sideline, but the Titans quarterback managed to cut back, eluding the tackle and allowing him to dart into the end zone with 9:58 left in the third.

The missed tackle on McNair was one of several in the game by Miller.

"He is a very strong guy and he is fast as well," said Miller. "What I was guilty of a lot was misjudging. I would think he would try and outrun me, and he would stop. He's a strong enough guy that even when he stops, he can still manage to shed you off. Thumbs up to him, he's a real good quarterback."

The Titans extended their lead to 26-14 on the punt return by Mason, which was a result of both poor coverage and Chris Gardocki's short, 34-yard punt.

Gardocki, who came into the game with an impressive average of 44.3 yards per punt, had a disappointing afternoon, which included three punts under 40 yards, including an 18-yard shank.

Cleveland's inept running game kept the Browns from sustaining a drive to answer the Titans' scores.

The Browns' makeshift offensive line, which included last-minute starter Chris Ruhman at left tackle in replace of Scott Rehberg (flu), simply could not open any holes in the Titans' 14th-ranked rushing defense.

Starting running back Karim Abdul-Jabbar, who was hit in the backfield almost every time he carried the ball, managed 35 yard on 15 carries _ a paltry average of 2.3 yards per attempt.

The Browns' problems with the running game could be summed up by one play _ a fourth-and-one early in the fourth quarter when Titans defensive lineman Mike Jones dropped Abdul-Jabbar for no gain near midfield.

Meanwhile, Tennessee flourished on the ground, as Eddie George rushed for 113 yards on 26 carries, including touchdown runs of 14 and 5 yards.

George's first scoring run gave the Titans a 7-0 lead, capping a 10-play, 67-yard drive on the game's opening possession. His second touchdown put the Titans ahead 33-14 with 3:29 left in the fourth quarter.

The loss spoiled another impressive game by Browns rookie quarterback Tim Couch, who completed 19-of-35 passes for 261 yards, a pair of touchdowns and no interceptions.

Couch was also the team's lone rushing threat, running five times for 29 yards.

A four-yard touchdown scramble by Couch with 11:52 left in the second quarter pulled the Browns into a 7-7 tie.

Couch gave the Browns their first lead two and a half minutes later, throwing a perfect strike to running back Terry Kirby on a seam pattern, for a 78-yard touchdown run.

The score, which was the Browns' longest play of the season, was made possible by Couch looking off safety Marcus Robertson, allowing Kirby to take advantage of single coverage by Titans linebacker Joe Bowden.

The Titans cut the lead to 14-13 on second-quarter field goals of 27 and 31 yards by Al Del Greco.

After the Titans regained the lead in the second half, Cleveland's failure to mount a rushing attack allowed Tennessee's defense to sit back and focus on stopping the Browns passing game.

Couch refused to blame the lack of a running game on the Browns' inability to cut into the Titans' lead.

"I think when we get behind, a team understands that we have to throw the ball to catch up, so they will put a little extra pressure on me," said Couch, who was sacked six times. "But I think it is part of my job to step up and put some points on the board, even when they know I'm going to throw."

Couch could not lead the Browns to a second-half touchdown until there were 15 seconds left in the game, when he fired a 6-yard bullet to Johnson in the back of the end zone.

The closing touchdown capped a 14-play, 65-yard drive that helped the Browns post comparable offensive numbers to the Titans.

The Browns gained 308 yards, compared with 337 by the Titans. They ran only three fewer offensive plays (69-66) and had just four fewer first downs (22-18).

"I think we are in a situation where statistically, we are making strides and getting better," said Palmer. "But are we there yet? No, we are not. You just look at the stats and it is a close game. But when you have two key plays that change the course of the ballgame, it kills you. You can not do that in this league."

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