HOUSTON — It's December and Steve McNair is ailing.
The Titan quarterback, playing with a cracked bone spur in his left ankle and a sore right calf, connected with Drew Bennett on a 23-yard touchdown pass play on fourth down with 17 seconds left Sunday to lead Tennessee to a 27-24 victory over the Houston Texans that helps send the Titans into the NFL playoffs.
Tennessee Coach Jeff Fisher waited until after pregame warmups to choose McNair over veteran Neil O'Donnell, who was signed Thursday after backup Billy Volek went down last weekend with a lacerated spleen. Volek started last week's victory over Buffalo to end McNair's consecutive game streak at 43.
"[McNair] was the difference," Titan defensive end Jevon Kearse said. "If he hadn't been out there, I don't think the result would have been the same."
Tennessee (11-4) fell behind, 24-20, with 1:48 remaining when Domanick Davis capped a four-play drive with a five-yard touchdown run around the left end.
That put the ball back into the hands of McNair, who got the starting nod despite a noticeable limp. He drove the Titans 75 yards in the waning seconds, completing passes to Bennett for 20 and 24 yards before finding him in stride, over cornerback Marcus Coleman, in the end zone on fourth and 10.
"It's always tough, but that's what I get paid for," Coleman said. "I'll forget about it as soon as I leave here. You've got to have amnesia and a short-term memory to play defensive back in this league."
Samari Rolle cinched it for the Titans with four seconds left by intercepting a pass by David Carr, who returned after sitting out four starts because of a sprained right shoulder.
McNair, who led the Titans to five consecutive victories at the end of last season despite not practicing because of injuries, completed 17 of 36 passes for 268 yards and two touchdowns. He had one pass intercepted. The Titans qualified for postseason play when Cincinnati lost at St. Louis a few minutes before Tennessee's victory.
"I didn't feel that I needed to play, but I felt I wanted to go out there and get something started even if I didn't finish," said McNair, who ended up setting a career high with 24 touchdown passes, two better than last year.
It was the sixth consecutive home game decided by less than a touchdown for the Texans (5-10), the expansion team formed to replace the Oilers after they moved to Tennessee in 1997. Houston fell to 0-4 against the Titans, who reached the playoffs for the fourth time in five years.
"Today is one of the most disappointing losses I've been involved with," Texan Coach Dom Capers said. "It's disappointing to me as a head coach because of the way our guys fought."
Things looked promising for Houston when Carr, who completed 17 of 34 passes for 242 yards, connected with Andre Johnson on a 42-yard pass play late in the game to get the Texans within striking distance. Davis, an offensive rookie-of-the-year contender, did the rest with his five-yard run followed by his scoring trot.
The Texans had tied it, 10-10, midway into the third quarter when Marlon McCree picked off a pass by McNair and ran it back 95 yards for the longest play in team history. McNair barely missed a diving tackle on the sideline.
Moments later, Davis fumbled on a hit by Keith Bulluck. Rolle snagged the loose ball and outran Carr for a 61-yard score.
In the third quarter the Texans tied it, 17-17, after Carr scrambled right and connected with Corey Bradford on a 20-yard touchdown strike. McNair and Eddie George, who rushed for 79 yards, led an early fourth-quarter drive that ended with a 26-yard field goal by Gary Anderson to retake the lead.
McNair has 3,215 yards passing through 15 games this season, his fourth with 3,000 or better.