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Grueling victory for Titans

Orlando Brown had been out of football three years, nearly blinded by a referee's errant toss of a yellow beanbag. Eddie George, if you listen to the Baltimore Ravens, had been laid to rest three years ago, too, in a playoff game down in Tennessee when the Ravens began to own this rivalry and their rival. In a playoff game with a stage full of characters and juicy subplots, the primary story line still comes back to George, the Titans' running back, and Brown, the Ravens' lineman so massive he's called "Zeus."

The Tennessee Titans couldn't have won this game without George rushing for 88 yards and playing the second half with a harness holding in place a left shoulder dislocated in the first half. The Titans couldn't have broken Baltimore's five-game hold on them if George, as the story has it, let the Ravens take his heart three years ago. They couldn't have won without George making the hard yards, without George being the best running back on a day when he had to duel 2,066-yard rusher Jamal Lewis.

"As happy as I am just to win," Tennessee cornerback Samari Rolle said, "I'm most happy for Coach [Jeff] Fisher, who has had to deal with all the questions about losing five straight to Baltimore, and for Eddie George, who has had to listen to unfair criticism, that one hit ended his career. I'm happy they got rid of the demons."

George's performance comes 10 years and one day after one of the most memorable performances in NFL history: Emmitt Smith's extraordinary ability to beat the New York Giants while playing with a similarly dislocated left shoulder. As Rolle said of his teammate's willingness to play, then play well, "You shouldn't come back from that injury, not at running back. How could people question Eddie's toughness?"

Even so, as critical as George's running and catching and blocking were to Tennessee's victory, the Titans still might not have won except for a crazy penalty on a curious day for Zeus, Baltimore's 6-foot-7, 350-pound right tackle, who had to leave the NFL for three years after being hit in the eye by a penalty flag tossed by referee Jeff Triplette.

Guess who was assigned to referee this game? Yep, Triplette.

"First time I've seen him since that day," Zeus said. At the start of the game, "I went over, hugged him and said, 'Hey, I hope everything is in the past.' And he seemed cool with it."

Well, there was a matter of the personal foul penalty with 3 minutes 1 second to play that gave the Titans a 15-yard head start on their final drive, a penalty that just might have decided the game, Zeus's second such penalty of the game. Maybe Triplette wasn't so cool after all.

The last penalty, the one that forced Baltimore to punt from the 20-yard line instead of the 35 or farther, very likely was the break Tennessee needed in a game where inches were so hard to come by.

It might have come down to Zeus's reaction when he saw Tennessee's Jevon Kearse choking tight end Terry Jones Jr. after a play. Kearse was not penalized, Zeus was. "I screwed up, man," he said afterward. "The dude who throws the first punch never gets the penalty . . . I know that. But to see somebody on one of my players choking him. . . . He was choking one of my boys and I heard him hollering. It was instinct, man. I should have kept my cool, but it was just instinct. I was just pushing him off."

The Titans, you should know, thought they could sucker Zeus into a rage, like the one he had three years ago when he shoved Triplette to the ground when his eye was burning and his vision severely impaired. Kearse, who drew the first penalty on Zeus, too, had his own scouting report. No doubt, Zeus should have been penalized. But Kearse should have been penalized, too, for giving Jones "the business," or for taunting or choking, or something. But the first dude is rarely the one who gets the flag, as Zeus properly stated.

It's a rough game, a playoff game, the stage on which reputations are made or revived, where all's fair. And this particular game was just like all the others the Ravens and Titans have played, which is to say nasty and contentious and, above all else, violent.

And through it all, two men stood out above everybody, taller even than Zeus and Titans quarterback Steve McNair, whose three interceptions the day after being voted the league's co-MVP nearly cost his team dearly, even taller than the Titans defenders who pitched a shutout against Jamal Lewis.

This game belonged to Ray Lewis and Eddie George, bitter rivals and at the same time pretty good friends. The playoff game between these teams, in 2000, is one even many old-timers believe is one of the hardest-hitting games in recent years. And it established the Ravens' identity as a team fond of mayhem, and at the same time relegated the Titans, then defending AFC champs, to the ranks of other good teams. The Ravens came to believe, no matter what they say, that the incredibly productive George was downright afraid and that their repeated manhandling of him ended his ascent as a great running back.

So that's where they picked up today. Lewis made 17 tackles. As usual, he was everywhere, tougher and faster and smarter than anybody on the field. Lewis figured out how to beat all the Tennessee linemen to the running back without being blocked on a certain play or against a certain blocking scheme. Lewis will never get the credit for what he appears to be: the smartest defensive player in the league, maybe the smartest great defensive player since Mike Singletary.

George perhaps now will get a break from all this talk about Baltimore taking his heart. "I told him, 'You look fast today,' " Rolle said. "And he said, 'I am fast. I've never lost a step.' I tease Eddie about a lot of stuff. But I never tease him about that playoff game [in 2000]. That loss hurt us more than losing the Super Bowl."

George shrugged off the talk he had gained a measure of revenge, just as he shrugged off the dislocated shoulder when he told the team physician, "Throw a harness on it and let's go."

In the Ravens' locker room, by himself no less, nearly an hour after his team's loss, Ray Lewis said, "Eddie's going to fight. I'm going to fight. It's always a competitive rivalry between me and Eddie. It turned out to be another classic again today. This is the game of inches that we play. . . . Your flesh goes through a lot out there. I can't be disappointed with the way one guy played today. The Titans came in here and won. It happens."

Lewis left the room knowing his team is the youngest in the playoffs, stocked with talent everywhere. George left with the slightest smile, knowing he'd put to rest the silly talk that he wasn't tough enough to lead a team on the road in a playoff game, knowing he and McNair had survived a hellish trip to Baltimore to earn what they came for: one more shot in the playoffs.