Sizzing up the Central


When arriving with the Tennessee Titans, receiver Carl Pickens traded in his accustomed No. 81 for No. 18. This season for Pickens, it's all about a turnaround.

During his eight-year career with the Cincinnati Bengals, Pickens never played on a team with a winning record. The former All-Pro receiver can't even remember the last time he was on a team that had won two straight games.

Now, Pickens enters his first season with the Titans, the defending AFC champion, feeling like a rookie again.

"There's just no comparison between them [the organizations]," Pickens said. "I really feel like I've been reborn."

Pickens fills a big need as a sizable, first-rate wide-out for quarterback Steve McNair and new offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger. Defenses will be stacking eight linemen up front to stop running back Eddie George this year until Tennessee shows a consistent passing game.

But Pickens' ability was never an issue in Cincinnati. After criticizing the Bengals organization, he was labeled a troublemaker who was a bad influence on the young players.

Pickens said his bitterness was just a product of the environment.

"I didn't like losing," Pickens said. "There were times when I said what was on my mind because we were losing."

Pickens caught four passes for 49 yards in limited work in the preseason while picking up the offense quickly.

Only five days after signing a five-year, $20 million contract, Pickens caught a 2-yard fade in the end zone. And Pickens, who has 63 career touchdown receptions, kept the ball as a souvenir.

The Titans are anticipating that a fresh start could return Pickens to his All-Pro form. From 1994 to 1996, he averaged 90 catches and 13 touchdowns a season.

"When Carl brings his 'A' game, he's pretty much unstoppable," Titans cornerback Denard Walker said. "If he's not the premier guy in our conference, he's right up there."

Titans vs. Ravens

Key for Ravens: Keep quarterback Steve McNair in the pocket and force mistakes. The Titans are 20-6 in games when he does not throw and interception and 18-2 when he runs for a touchdown.

Biggest headache: Receiver Carl Pickens. The former All-Pro who came from the Bengals has 20 catches for 307 yards in his past four games against the Ravens.

Stat to watch: Eddie George is attempting to join Eric Dickerson as the only two running backs in NFL history to run for 1,200 yards in each of their first five seasons. Last season, the Ravens held George to 87 yards on 28 carries.

Billick's impression: "They're very talented and extremely confident right now. When you go to a Super Bowl, they're feeling really good about themselves. ... The development of Steve McNair is going to be a big one. They're probably as balanced as anybody, in terms of strengths offensively and defensively."

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