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McNair pushes away pain, pulls in respect

NASHVILLE -- He walks normally -- as normally as he can. He talks the same way, doing a good job of masking what is bothering him. And make no mistake: It's bothering him. Not just during games, when the world is watching. But in the locker room, in the trainer's room, and at home.

"Pain?" said Titans quarterback Steve McNair with a smile yesterday as he finished up another session with the trainers in preparation for Saturday night's AFC divisional playoff game against the Patriots at Gillette Stadium. "It's there. All the time. It's something you live with. Just get used to it."

McNair has done that better this season than at any time in his nine years with the team. It is a prime reason why the Titans are still playing football as the mean season known as the NFL playoffs kicks into a high-intensity mode. He is the co-MVP of the NFL, arguably the best of the best quarterbacks in football. But what the Patriots will see Saturday night, what the league has seen for the past few seasons, is not the best McNair has to offer.

Not that the 6-foot-2-inch, 235-pounder is unwilling to give it. But how can he? Do a Google search of "Steve McNair" and "injury" and you will find 10 pages of stories chronicling bumps, bruises, and assorted other ailments all over his body.

The latest is a nagging calf injury and ankle ailments that have plagued him all season.

"I feel better," he said yesterday. "I'll be all right. It's the ankle right now, but there is nothing I can do about it."

McNair, who finished third in the MVP balloting a year ago -- and tied for first with Peyton Manning this year -- blocks out the pain, just as he blocks out the mistakes he makes, such as the three interceptions he threw in last weekend's 20-17 wild-card win over the Baltimore Ravens.

"He let it go," said Titans coach Jeff Fisher. "Steve overcame it. He was fine. I talked to him a couple of times on the sideline."

The talks may have helped, or McNair simply may have listened to his own voice, as he has done many times.

McNair has been overcoming things since he arrived in the NFL in 1995 out of Alcorn State. He overcame the fumbleitis he had as a rookie. In his early years, he overcame an offensive system that focused on not making mistakes rather than on making plays. He overcame all the speed bumps and dips in the road since he emerged as the Titans' quarterback of the future in 1997. And he overcame the injuries: toe, ankle, calf, knee, hand. He even took the Titans to the Super Bowl four years ago.

Sure, there have been times when things did not go well, when McNair let some of the stuff get to him. He has heard boos from the home crowds. Sometimes he shuts people off, taking himself back to his childhood days in Mississippi, when he was a kid focused on hunting and fishing with his brothers and dreaming about what it was like to be a star quarterback.

He has emerged from that and become the guy who can take the Titans back to the Super Bowl.

"We hold him in amazing reverence," said tight end Frank Wycheck, one of McNair's go-to guys over the past few years.

Sometimes the reverence overwhelms him, especially when he does stupid things such as getting arrested for DUI last spring, something McNair acknowledges as an "embarrassing mistake."

Sometimes he is amazed at how things happen, such as the recognition that brought the co-MVP award. The appreciation of that, he said, will come later.

"I'm not going out on every snap saying I'm the co-MVP," he said with a smile.

He is, though. He is reaching the heights of his profession. But he knows he is only as good as his last game, which happened to be a playoff victory despite a less-than-super individual performance.

Showtime is coming again Saturday night. It might be cold. It might be snowy. Doesn't matter.

"Weather is not a problem," he said.

The Patriots have beaten the Titans once already this season, but McNair said those were different times and the Titans have learned from their mistakes. And the pain in his knee, ankle, toe -- whatever -- is also not an issue.

"You want to play every day," he said. "Because of the intensity of the playoffs."

Every day, every play. No matter what. No matter how he feels. That is Steve McNair's way.

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