Super Bowl bound?

The Pittsburgh Steelers never went to the Super Bowl without first beating the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans in the regular season. Today, they get their chance once again when the 11-3 Steelers travel to Tennessee to take on the 12-2 Titans.

The Titans, of course, used to be the Oilers, the Steelers' main division rival in the 1970s. But the legend continued in 2005 when the Steelers beat the Titans four years after they'd moved out of the Steelers' division.

"I wasn't aware of that," said Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton. "Maybe we need to get a victory this week."

Hampton grew up in Galveston, Texas, as a diehard Oilers fan, and he remained a fan even after the franchise relocated to Tennessee in 1997.

"No question," Hampton said. "I was never a Texans fan. In college I was still a Titans fan. I knew all the players. I cried when they lost to the Buffalo Bills. I cried. That hurt me when Buffalo came back when we had the lead, man. We had the great defense. The offense couldn't run the BALL, man. I remember all that. That hurt me."

Did Hampton cry when the Steelers repeatedly rebuffed the Oilers in the 1970s?

"You've got to THINK, man," Hampton said with a laugh. "I was barely born. That was a little before my time. I was crying, but not over no game."

The Steelers haven't played the Titans since 2005, when they won, 34-7, in the opener to begin their march to Super Bowl XL. The Titans that season went to finish 4-12 that season, 8-8 the next season, and 10-6 in 2007 under Jeff Fisher, who's coached the franchise since replacing Jack Pardee in the middle of the 1994 season.

The Titans have run up the AFC's best record this season by simply tweaking last year's lineup. The changes on defense include Jevon Kearse in place of Antwan Odom at left defensive end and Stephen Tulloch in place of Ryan Fowler at middle linebacker.

The Titans' greatest statistical change is on pass defense, where they rank fifth, up from 10th a year ago. The same starting secondary includes two Pro Bowlers: CB Cortland Finnegan (5 interceptions) and SS Chris Hope (4 interceptions, 1 sack), the former Steeler.

Missing today's game because of injuries will be Pro Bowl tackle Albert Haynesworth and end Kyle Vanden Bosch. Their 121 tackles and 13 sacks will be replaced respectively by rookie Jason Jones and free-agent acquisition David Ball.

Offensively, the Titans have the same run-first mentality as a year ago, thanks to speedy first-round pick Chris Johnson. The rookie runner from East Carolina University was timed in the 40 by the Steelers at 4.32 at last February's combine, but one team clocked Johnson at 4.26. He's rushed for 1,159 yards (4.9 avg.) and caught 41 passes (6.3 avg.) on his way to making the Pro Bowl.

"Yeah he runs fast," said Steelers safety Ryan Clark. "But he's got two legs just like me. Last time I looked he didn't have four. And before he gets back there to me, he's got a lot of guys to contend with. Even a 4.2 slows up when you hit him enough. That's what we have to do: be as physical as we can."

The Steelers, of course, lead the NFL in defense and are on pace to allow the fewest yards per play since the 1979 Tampa Bay Bucs. If form holds, the Steelers figure to stop the Tennessee run game and make 36-year-old quarterback Kerry Collins beat them.

Collins replaced former No. 1 pick Vince Young at quarterback in the second game this season. He's posted a passer rating of 78.7, which lagged a bit with the 73.8 rating Collins posted in the Titans' last four games (2-2).

The Steelers are riding a five-game win streak. Two more wins would mean a No. 1 seed throughout the AFC playoffs, but that's not their ultimate goal.

"It doesn't matter if you have pole position No. 1, it matters if you cross the finish line first and that's our goal," said left tackle Max Starks. "We're not focusing on the pole position, but more importantly getting ready for the playoffs and being successful."

And that always comes down to beating the team that's been trying to kick in the door since the 1970s.

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