Prize Fights

Times Staff Writer

OAKLAND -- It's a zero-tolerance policy, one Tim Brown applies to friends and family alike.

"If anybody calls my house," the Raider receiver said, "they don't even have to say 'Super Bowl' together. If they say 'super' and 'bowl' while they're talking, you hang up the phone on them. Because it's all about the Tennessee Titans this week and not about the Super Bowl."

Hard to blame Brown for feeling skittish. In his 15 seasons with the Raiders, his team is 0-2 in AFC championship games. Twice he has been turned back at the doorstep, most recently two years ago when the Baltimore Ravens rolled into Network Associates Coliseum and squashed the Raiders' hopes of playing in their first Super Bowl since 1984.

"My whole thing this year for myself has been to stay in the present," said Brown, whose team will play host to the Titans at 3:30 p.m. today. "You know, don't let your mind run away with the future."

A glance in the rear-view mirror could be dangerous too. The Raiders delivered a 52-25 stomping of Tennessee in Week 4 this season, a game in which they had a 21-0 lead within the first five minutes. But the Titans are a vastly different team since getting off to a 1-4 start. First of all, they're brimming with confidence, having won 11 of 12. But they have learned to survive -- and thrive -- without resting the offense on the shoulders of injury-slowed running back Eddie George.

Quarterback Steve McNair, once charged with responsibility of not getting in George's way, has emerged as a devastating double threat who didn't practice at all in December -- he was nursing rib, back, toe and thumb injuries -- yet somehow led his team to a 5-0 record during that stretch.

"I think McNair is the difference," Raider safety Rod Woodson said. "Two years ago, they were really a running team. He's still a vital part of that offense, but I think when Eddie got hurt last year, you can see that gradual changeover, that shift from being Eddie's offense to Steve's offense."

McNair and George have played together for seven seasons, making them the longest active quarterback-running back tandem in the NFL. They have been together nearly as long as Joe Montana and Roger Craig (eight seasons), and Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas (nine), but have a ways to go to catch Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith (12).

The Raiders know something about longevity. Their roster is loaded with 14 players in their 30s and even a 40-year-old in Jerry Rice, the oldest and best receiver to play the position.

Quarterback Rich Gannon, the league's most valuable player, is 37, as is Woodson. Brown and linebacker Bill Romanowski are 36. All play pivotal roles, prompting many people to wonder whether the team's window of opportunity is slamming shut.

"Everybody always talks about the age factor in the NFL," Woodson said. "But, really, the window of opportunity in the NFL is two or three years. I don't care if he's 22 or 37. You look at Dan Marino who went [to the Super Bowl] in his second year in the league and never went back. You never know when you're going to go, so you have to take advantage of the opportunities when you get them."

One of the lessons Woodson draws on now is the one he learned playing for Pittsburgh in January 1995, when underdog San Diego came to Three Rivers Stadium and pulled off a stunning 17-13 victory in the AFC title game.

"Nobody in the world thought they could beat us in Pittsburgh," Woodson said. "And they came in and beat us. So I'm not taking anything for granted and too lightly against any football team, because anybody can beat anybody on a given Sunday."

Woodson played for Pittsburgh the following season when the Steelers lost to Dallas in the Super Bowl, then played for the 49ers after their heyday, and finally got a Super Bowl ring with Baltimore. Rice won three rings with the 49ers. Romanowski has four -- two with San Francisco, two with Denver. Brown, of course, has none.

"It would mean a lot to him, and it also would mean a lot to me," Rice said of winning a Super Bowl with Brown. "I would love for him to experience that, and hopefully we'll get a chance."

Brown doesn't dare talk about it. The zero-tolerance policy goes into effect when he hears the phone ring.

Did somebody say ring?


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