The salary cap crunch the Tennessee Titans faced in the offseason cost them defensive linemen Jevon Kearse and Robaire Smith, who left as free agents, and prevented the club from even thinking about making any significant additions until draft day. But it also may have given the Titans the breakaway running threat they lacked in recent seasons when Eddie George was their featured runner.

Tennessee released George in July after months of negotiations failed to produce an agreement on a reworked contract, which the Titans said they needed to retain the veteran workhorse. George signed with Dallas, and Tennessee turned over its tailback position to second-year pro Chris Brown, who served as George's understudy last year and was to be worked gradually into the mix this season had George stayed.

The change has been dramatic. Brown has had four 100-yard rushing performances in his first five NFL starts and ranks second in the league in rushing with 556 yards, 21 behind New York Giants tailback Tiki Barber. He still must learn to grind out the tough yards the way George could, but he's had three 100-yard first halves and is averaging 5.2 yards per carry. George never averaged more than 3.7 yards per carry in his final four seasons with the Titans. His hallmarks were durability and toughness, but not explosiveness.

Brown ran for 148 yards in Monday night's 48-27 trouncing of the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. He had touchdown sprints of 37 and 29 yards in the game's opening 5 minutes 15 seconds as the Titans raced to a 17-0 lead and never looked back in improving to 2-3. They reached the playoffs after a 1-4 beginning in 2002, but weren't eager to try to duplicate the feat.

"That's not something you want to get into if you can avoid it at all costs," Coach Jeff Fisher said after the game. "We wanted a fast start, and Chris certainly helped us."

Meantime, Titans wide receiver Tyrone Calico is scheduled to undergo knee surgery tomorrow and could be sidelined for the remainder of the season. He will have cartilage repaired and also might need to have his anterior cruciate ligament repaired.

For Patriots, Now Is Not the Time to Relax

The New England Patriots have won an unprecedented 19 games in a row but will be severely tested in their next two games, with Seattle (3-1) and the New York Jets (4-0) visiting Gillette Stadium. Perhaps the Patriots will have a letdown after setting the record with last Sunday's 24-10 triumph over Miami. But with Coach Bill Belichick around, that does not seem likely. His players have bought into his one-game-at-a-time approach, echoing his words.

"We're happy to own a piece of history," cornerback Ty Law said, "but we're not done."

The defending Super Bowl champions aren't earning many style points in running their record to 4-0 this season. Their 14-point margin of victory over the Dolphins matched their largest of the season in a game that probably should have been much closer.

But that's been the trademark of the Patriots' remarkable run since the last time they lost, 20-17 to the Washington Redskins on Sept. 28, 2003. Neither the Patriots nor Belichick had any complaints, not when they were missing two of their best wide receivers, Troy Brown and Deion Branch, and starting cornerback Tyrone Poole. Several reserves came up large against the Dolphins. Rookie Kendall Gray had a key interception.

"It's weird," tight end Christian Fauria said after the game. "I came into the locker room wondering, 'Why are we so bummed out? We just won.' The problem is we have such high expectations for ourselves and sometimes we don't reach them. Our best game is still out there." . . .

Tampa Bay Buccaneers Coach Jon Gruden said the team doesn't intend to trade its recently demoted quarterback, Brad Johnson. "Brad Johnson is a big part of the football team and will continue to be that," Gruden said Monday.

Gruden switched starters, from Johnson to second-year pro Chris Simms, for last weekend's game at New Orleans. Johnson dropped all the way to third on the depth chart, and Gruden went to former Denver starter Brian Griese when Simms sprained his left (throwing) shoulder in the first quarter of his first NFL start. Griese completed 16 of 19 passes for 194 yards and threw for a third-quarter touchdown that proved to be the winning margin as the Buccaneers got their first victory of the season, 20-17. Griese remains the starter for Monday night's game at St. Louis and inherits a team that, despite an 0-4 beginning, finds itself only one game out of second place in the NFC South.

"You have to live in a brick house," Gruden said. "You have to be strong internally. There is a lot of huffing and puffing going on out there. There are a lot of analysts trying to blow your house down. . . . We've had chances to win other games and we'll have chances to win more.''

Meantime, holdout wide receiver Keenan McCardell traveled from Houston to Tampa to meet with Gruden on Monday, but said nothing changed in his contract impasse. . . .

Minnesota wide receiver Kelly Campbell had better not count on Vikings Coach Mike Tice as a character witness if he's fined by the league for his excessive celebration penalty during Sunday's overtime win at Houston. Campbell came off the sideline to join quarterback Daunte Culpepper's celebratory dance of a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to wideout Randy Moss. It was Campbell's second celebration infraction of the season, and the Texans took advantage of the 15-yard penalty on the ensuing kickoff to drive for the first of two late touchdowns that tied the game.

"You're talking about fine lines between enjoying the plays that we make, which I want the players to do -- I want them to play with emotion -- and being dumb," Tice said. "That was just flat-out dumb. . . . The league can take the money from him and dock his pay and hopefully he'll realize, 'Gee, that wasn't worth 10 grand. I think next time I'll just stand over here with a cup of Gatorade and be quiet.' On second thought, I don't think he can be quiet.'' . . .

Wide receiver Jerry Rice told a Sacramento radio station he thinks he could be dealt by the Oakland Raiders before next Tuesday's NFL trading deadline. There have been recent rumblings about a possible trade of Rice to Detroit. . . .

The Dolphins are averaging only 8.4 points a game and might be down to third-string quarterback Sage Rosenfels for Sunday's game at Buffalo in a matchup of the two winless teams.. . . Lawyer David Cornwell has asked to meet with NFL officials this week to discuss the status of retired Dolphins tailback Ricky Williams. Those in Williams's camp are hopeful he could be cleared to play this season. But the NFL's stance is that Williams is ineligible to play this season under terms of the league's substance-abuse policy. . . .

The Carolina Panthers expect to get tailback Stephen Davis back this week after losing his replacement, DeShaun Foster, for six to 10 weeks because of a broken clavicle. Foster has started the last three games since Davis underwent arthroscopic knee surgery.

Chris Brown, named a starter after the Titans released Eddie George when reworked contract talks broke down, ran for 148 yards in Monday's 48-27 thrashing of the Packers.