George shoulders the load for Titans

BALTIMORE -- For years, Eddie George handled pain, but on this night it was different. On what could have been his final game as a Titan because of impending salary cap problems, George dislocated his left shoulder trying to tackle Ravens safety Ed Reed following a Steve McNair interception.

Despite eight years of pounding, George's run from the locker room back to the field had to be one of his best. George, wearing a restrictive harness in the second half, pulled an Emmitt Smith, gutting out an 88-yard rushing performance with a totally dislocated shoulder against a Ravens team that believed it had shortened George's football life with a Ray Lewis hit during a 2000 playoff game.

And George's last yard, a painful straight-ahead plowing effort into a stacked Ravens defense, gave kicker Gary Anderson just enough distance to boot the game-winning 46-yard field goal in the Titans 20-17 victory over the Ravens on Saturday in an AFC wild-card game. Anderson, 44, made the field goal by about a half yard with 29 seconds left to allow the Titans to advance.

"I could have read into everything that was being said, how they had my number, and how they were in my head," George said "But I was gong to go battle for something far greater than my personal pride. What happen in the past, happened in the past. I learned from that."

Mentally, it's tough for running backs once they reach the age of 30. The Ravens believe they've contributed to George's aging process by inflicting several hard hits against him twice a year when the Ravens and Titans battled in the old AFC Central. In a preseason magazine, Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister said George hasn't been the same back because of his battles with the Ravens.

Strategically, the Titans entered the season taking the load off of George and moving to an offense that was more pass-oriented. But McNair wasn't McNair on Saturday night. At least twice he re-injured the left ankle that ached with bone spurs and a hairline fracture. The usually efficient McNair was now "Err" McNair, throwing three interceptions and completing only 14 passes for 159 yards.

But George ran as though he were on a mission. He slipped through the Ravens defense on a game-opening 67-yard touchdown drive with 25 rushing yards on his first four carries. By the second quarter, George was on a roll. He had 44 yards on his first 11 carries. The score was tied at 7, and then came disaster.

Trying to strip the ball while tackling Reed, George's left shoulder popped out completely. Suddenly, his career flashed before him.

"I was real nervous for a minute," George said. "I was trying to get it back in place while I was on the ground."

That didn't work. Trainers brought him to the sideline to pop it back in. "Put it back in and let's go," George shouted to the trainers. That didn't work, so they ran into the locker room for x-rays and to try to find a harness. George may not be the back he was a few years ago -- his rushing average is only 3.3 yards a carry -- but he's still an emotional leader on this team.

Without him in the second quarter, the Titans struggled. After all, in eight years, they haven't been without George. He's always been there. The Ravens mounted a field-goal drive before the end of the half to take a 10-7 lead. Chris Brown did a decent job trying to replace George in the backfield, but it wasn't the same.

"You know, what can you say," Titans coach Jeff Fisher said. "His shoulder was out. He went in and took an x-ray to make sure there was no damage and put a harness on it and there he went. That is what he is all about. He surpassed the 10,000-yard mark and has never missed a ballgame. That is why he is a warrior."

McNair wasted no time getting George the ball. He hit the right side of the line for a 3-yard gain on the first offensive play of the second half. On the next series, George got on a roll. He had three rushes in four plays, gaining 12-yards. It allowed McNair to re-establish his play-action passes. It forced the Ravens defense to focus more on the run and allow McNair to hit Justin McCareins with a 49-yard touchdown pass with 7:59 left in the third quarter, giving the Ravens a 14-10 lead.

"Eddie, man, I'll tell you," Ray Lewis said. "Eddie is 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 today. They came back and won, so hopefully, it'll give them the encouragement to keep going."

George has a $7.3 million cap number on a team that in 2004 is a league-high $17 million over the cap. He has a $5.25 million salary and is atop the potential hit list of cap casualties. At 30, he alternates with other backs such as Brown and Robert Holcombe. His longest run this season was a mere 26 yards. Every yard is a struggle for him these days, and the Ravens weren't making it easy.

"It was painful," George said of the shoulder. "There is no doubt about it. The pain was only temporarily. I had to focus on something beyond that."

George focused on winning. In the fourth quarter, Lewis made a mad dash to the sidelines to hold George to a 1-yard run and started yelling in George's face. McAlister had said in the preseason that George tried to curl up like a baby in previous meetings. Not Saturday night. George got right in Lewis's face and started yelling back.

"I was asking him if he had a great New Year's," George said of his shouting match with Lewis. "He said he had a great New Year's and said they had fried chicken, so I should have come by the house."

Sure, George was making a fictional account of his unrepeatable conversation with Lewis, but this game was real. And, for a change, so was the Titans rushing game. George had 88 yards. Brown had 61 yards on 11 carries and a touchdown. McNair had four runs for 16 yards, three that converted on third down. The 165-yards rushing was the most against the Ravens this year.

And the Titans defense held 2,066-yard rusher Jamal Lewis to 35 yards on 14 carries, ending a five-game losing streak against the Ravens.

"We heard about their 2,000-yard rusher, we heard about their defensive MVP, we heard about their rookie of the year but we have the league MVP (McNair)," defensive end Jevon Kearse said. "As a team, we felt we could outplay them because we felt they have all these individuals, and we have the team."

Maybe this is the last fling for George. He vows to play next week despite his dislocated shoulder. He vows to practice for the next playoff game.

On this Saturday night, the Titans needed George, and he responded. It was a blast from the past. As he came off the field through the shower of beers, George kept shouting, "What Now?, What Now?"

Now was George. Like in the old days, the game ball went to him.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.