Titans paved Ravens' road, now block it

January 05, 2001|By John Eisenberg

OK, NAME a team featuring a strong defense and a strong running game, competing in the playoffs for the first time as the AFC's No. 4 seed.

Easy, right? It's the Ravens.

But did you know the exact same description fit the Tennessee Titans just a year ago?

Yes, the Ravens' opponent in Sunday's divisional playoff game at Adelphia Coliseum finished second in the AFC Central a year ago, was host to and won the franchise's inaugural playoff game in the wild-card round and then turned to the challenge of winning twice on the road to reach the Super Bowl.

A year later, the Ravens are in precisely the same position. And though the odds might be against their reaching the Super Bowl when you consider recent NFL playoff history, the Ravens can draw confidence, oddly enough, from the team they'll try to eliminate Sunday.

A year ago, the Titans followed up their first-round win with two victories on the road, including an upset of the AFC's No. 1 seed, and reached the Super Bowl.

"It's not easy," Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher said Wednesday of getting to the big game as a first-year playoff team. "But once you get by your first-round game, it gets easier."

Historically, the Ravens face extra-long odds. Since the NFL expanded from four to six playoff teams per conference in 1990, only three of the 40 teams that won first-round games have gone on to the Super Bowl. As well, 17 of the past 20 Super Bowl teams benefited from a first-round bye.

None of that favors the Ravens. But on the other hand, the Titans delivered in the same situation a year ago, so it's possible. And the Titans lost the Super Bowl to another first-year playoff team, the St. Louis Rams, who were, in fact, the second straight NFC champion to reach the game in their first shot at the playoffs (in the recent past, with this coach and nucleus).

In other words, three of the past four Super Bowl qualifiers were first-time playoff teams, as the Ravens are now.

So it can be done.

Until recently, it was almost unthinkable that such a first-year playoff team could reach the big game, especially as a wild-card qualifier. The time-tested method for getting to the Super Bowl was losing nobly in a middle round in your first trip to the playoffs, then reaching the promised land as a more experienced favorite in your second or third trip, with another noble loss sometimes required.

That's the model the Denver Broncos followed before winning back-to-back Super Bowls a few years ago, a model Ravens coach Brian Billick said he studied and hoped to emulate here.

But parity scheduling and the salary cap have changed the working conditions, and the stair-step, multi-year method is no longer the only way to get to the Super Bowl.

If it were, either the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or Washington Redskins would go from the NFC this year; they were the teams that had taken the first steps in a methodical progression, but now they are gone, offering further proof that playoff experience isn't as important as it used to be, and that, well, this is no longer your father's NFL.

It's a league in which hundreds of players change uniforms every year and many teams' fortunes rise and fall sharply every year, a more frantic, less patient, less forgiving league in which you need to make the most of the rare Super chance that arises when everything is breaking right for you, even if it's in your first trip to the playoffs.

That's what the Rams did a year ago, when the jelling of a high-powered offense with Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk coincided with a soft regular-season schedule, courtesy of a last-place finish the year before. The result was a division title, the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs and a Super Bowl win over the Titans. Not bad for a first trip to the playoffs.

With that memory still fresh, Billick doesn't have to try to convince his players that their own Super Bowl dreams, while seemingly far-fetched until recently, are now quite legitimate.

Of course, the notion that everything is breaking right for the Ravens isn't quite accurate. If it were, the Ravens wouldn't be on the road for the rest of the playoffs, and they'd be getting more effective play at quarterback.

But otherwise, it's fair to suggest the Ravens won't often find themselves in much more positive circumstances in relation to the rest of the field, even as a No. 4 seed. Tennessee is the chalk, the top seed in the AFC and probably the best team in the NFL, and the Ravens not only match up well, but also know they can beat the Titans, even in Nashville. They did it earlier this season. After that, what isn't possible?

Why do the Ravens match up so well with the Titans? Simple. Offensively, the Titans establish the run with Eddie George and blend in the passing game after that, but the Ravens' run defense is so stout that no one establishes the run, forcing the Titans - or any opponent - out of their normal game.

Quite simply, the Ravens take away what the Titans do best on offense, leveling the playing field. And hey, it's pretty level between these teams anyway when you consider all that separated them over a 16-game season: If Tennessee's Al Del Greco had just missed a last-second, game-winning kick from 50 yards out in Philadelphia in early December, the Ravens would be the No. 1 seed today and the Titans would be No. 4.

"I think we're the two best teams," Tennessee safety Blaine Bishop said Wednesday, "and the winner has a good chance of going on to the big game."

It can be done, from where either team is coming in the playoff field.

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