Eddie George was 15 when his mother, Donna, changed the course of his life. Alarmed by his poor grades and lack of discipline, Donna stunned Eddie before what would have been his junior year at suburban Philadelphia's Abington High by insisting he attend Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy. "We both cried when he left for school," she recalled on Sunday, after Eddie had rushed for 162 yards and the go-ahead touchdown in leading the Tennessee Titans to a 19-16 victory over the Indianapolis Colts in an AFC divisional playoff game, "but if I'd left him at Abington, there's no way he'd be here today, and there's no way he'd have turned into the man he is."
The youngster who lived on the edge of mischief a decade ago has matured into the NFL's new Mr. Inside-Mr. Outside. His 68-yard, third-quarter touchdown run against the Colts gave the Titans a lead they would not relinquish. Now Tennessee needs only a victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars this Sunday to secure the franchise's first Super Bowl appearance. The Titans swept the Jaguars this season, 20-19 on Sept. 26 and 41-14 on Dec. 26, and the thought of a rematch has Rocky Top's new darlings giddy. "Can you imagine the Jaguars' sitting at home, watching this game?" Tennessee's backup quarterback, Neil O'Donnell, said, chuckling, after Sunday's win. "They've got to be saying, 'Oh, no! Not again!' "
Especially given the way the Titans manhandled Indianapolis. Everybody in America knew coach Jeff Fisher would feed George the ball 25 or 30 times and get frisky quarterback Steve McNair a few forays outside the pocket. Everybody knew, but the Colts were unable to stop George and McNair from combining for 197 yards on 33 carries. No one would have figured, however, that Fisher and his risk-loving defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, would come up with a game plan that featured nearly all man-to-man coverage against the conference's scariest passing attack. Imagine single-covering All-Pro wideout Marvin Harrison and living to tell about it.
It helped that Tennessee's brutish front seven kept hitting playoff rookie Peyton Manning (19 completions in 43 attempts, no touchdowns) in the mouth and that its magnetic cornerbacks, Samari Rolle and Denard Walker, frustrated Harrison (five catches, 65 yards, two drops). If McNair starts making plays in the passing game, the Titans will be scary.
So much about this franchise has been a surprise. After playing in Houston in 1996, in Memphis in 1997 and in Nashville, at Vanderbilt Stadium, in 1998, the Titans moved into shiny 67,000-seat Adelphia Coliseum, also in Nashville, this fall still not sure that the state's college-oriented sports fans cared about them. What they've gotten has been University of Tennessee-like support. About 2,000 fans jammed the Nashville airport last Saturday afternoon, making the players and coaches wriggle through the crowd to reach their Indianapolis-bound charter. That night 750 well-wishers packed the lobby of the Westin hotel in Indy, where the Titans were staying. An Elvis impersonator wore the number 23 jersey of Tennessee safety Blaine Bishop. A Fisher sighting provoked Beatles-style shrieking. "This season has blown us away," George said last week. "Since I've been in the league, Houston didn't care about us. Memphis hated us. Last year in Nashville we struggled for support. I feel like this is my first year of NFL football—real NFL football, like the kind I watched on TV growing up."
What was amazing on Sunday was hearing Titans fans—maybe 10,000 of them—whooping it up in the RCA Dome, where Indy had lost only once all season. They had much to cheer about. The defense penned in AFC rushing champ Edgerrin James and held the Colts to three first-half field goals. After Manning threw for 105 yards in the second quarter, Williams thought the quarterback might be getting too comfortable and switched the coverage at halftime, isolating the 6-foot, 177-pound Rolle on the 6-foot, 180-pound Harrison. "That's the fun part of coaching—the chess match," Williams said later. "When I told Samari at halftime, his eyes lit up. Eighty-five percent of their offense this year has been played against zone. We played zone maybe five or six snaps all day."
Harrison, with three catches for 46 yards in the second half, was a nonfactor. "We fear no receiver," said Rolle. " Harrison was supposed to shred us. But you get in a receiver's face, and you give him some contact, and he doesn't like that. That's how we play."
Tennessee's biggest play of the game came on the third snap of the second half. Let's set the stage. When Walter Payton died in November, George went to Payton's former Chicago Bears teammate, Fisher, to learn what had made Sweetness great, and Fisher told him that Payton always wanted to play the perfect game and live the perfect life. So George decided he wanted to play the perfect game and live the perfect life. "I got to thinking, If I want to be the best, I have a window I have to use. So use it," he said.
Use it he did when, trailing 9-6 and with the ball at their own 32, the Titans called a counter play—17 Counter Switch—for the first time all afternoon. "We were just trying a bunch of different things, seeing what worked," said Fisher after the game.
"I get the handoff," George said, "then take one step downhill [to the left]. Then I turn and run the other way. The first hole I see, I take. I had a good hole."