NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Chris Johnson was rolling, and the Titans were ready to ride him to a playoff victory against the Ravens.
Then something happened that remains etched in the minds of the Titans and their fans. Several defenders had the rookie running back stopped when he was suddenly bent backward awkwardly over the pile.
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Yet while that gasp-inducing tackle looked bad, Johnson said he was actually injured a few snaps later on what he called a "fair play." He left the game in the second quarter, didn't return, and the Ravens went on to a 13-10 victory.
While Johnson's explanation cleared up some of the bad feelings that lingered for three seasons, the Titans made one thing clear heading into Sunday's game against the Ravens at LP Field: Don't take any extra shots on our running back.
"I don't know if they tried to hurt him or not,'' guard Leroy Harris said, "but their whole game plan was to be physical and take as many shots as they could since he was a rookie, and a smaller back.
"On that play, I remember he was pretty much was down and they lifted him up off the ground and tried to get physical with him. We don't want those guys taking extra shots. We're going to protect Chris as much as possible."
Said guard Jake Scott, "I am not going to accuse anyone of anything. But if they're going to take their shots, we'll take ours, too. We can play that way."
Johnson, who expects to get a lot more work Sunday after carrying the ball nine times for 24 yards in the season opener, said he doesn't have any hard feelings about what happened against the Ravens.
Midway through the second quarter, Johnson had already rushed for 72 yards on 11 carries (a 6.5-yard average) and had 100 yards of total offense.
Then linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs halted his forward momentum and held on as safety Ed Reed jumped into the pile and pulled the 5-foot-11, 190-pounder's upper body in a different direction.
Reed, on a conference call with Nashville reporters Wednesday, defended his team and pointed out that Johnson was hurt a few plays later when tackled along the sideline by defensive lineman Brandon McKinney.
Johnson agreed with Reed's explanation.
"The play I actually got hurt on was a fair play," Johnson said. " I wouldn't say they are a dirty team. I guess it was a playoff game, and when the playoffs get here teams do what it takes to win."
The Ravens didn't try to hurt Johnson, according to Reed.
"Nothing is ever intentional to try and take any guy out,'' he said. "My game has never been like that and I know these guys don't play like that either."
Although the Titans had 180 more total yards than the Ravens and a 21-9 edge in first downs, they couldn't overcome fumbles by running back LenDale White and tight end Alge Crumpler, and an interception thrown by quarterback Kerry Collins.
The Titans had finished the regular season 13-3, the best record in the league, but their Super Bowl dreams were dashed.
"The Ravens' defense was really on their heels. Johnson was running fantastically well. And the game changed when he got hurt and went out. It changed dramatically,'' said Hall of Fame tackle Dan Dierdorf, who worked the playoff game for CBS. "Games turn on funny things, and that was certainly the turning point of that game. It seemed to flip 180 degrees.''
If the Titans are going to have a chance to upset the Ravens in their first meeting since that playoff game, they're going to need more from Johnson. The Ravens rarely give up 100-yard games to any running back, however. And Johnson had just 44 yards on 18 carries in his only other game against the Ravens, during the 2008 regular season.
"Everybody knows I've got to get in my groove, and get more carries,'' Johnson said. "They are a tough defense. They get to the ball. They are very disciplined. They get around the field sideline to sideline. I really don't have any carryover from then. I'm just trying to win the game."