Ravens, Titans flex muscles

Rivals carry top defenses, formidable running games into postseason showdown

`It's the best against the best'

January 07, 2001|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Round 3 of a heavyweight grudge match between the Ravens and Tennessee Titans will unfold today in an AFC divisional playoff game at Adelphia Coliseum.

It will feature the two best defenses in the NFL, two of the most relentless running games and two AFC Central Division rivals that respect - but don't like - each other.

Asked if respect or animosity best characterized the feeling between the teams, Ravens defensive tackle Sam Adams cut to the heart of the matter.

"Both, I'd say," Adams said. "We beat them, and everybody [in Tennessee] is like, `That was a fluke.' But it doesn't matter. After this week, if we beat them, it can be a fluke, as long as I get that ring on my finger."

The Ravens (13-4) handed Tennessee (13-3) its only loss at Adelphia the past two years on Nov. 12, giving rise to the belief they can do it again in the glare of postseason play.

While it's not quite time to crown a champion or earn a ring, the consensus of both teams is that today's winner will go on to the Super Bowl.

In fact, today's winner will advance to next week's AFC championship game against the survivor of yesterday's semifinal between the Miami Dolphins and Oakland Raiders.

The fourth-seeded Ravens, coming off a 21-3 rout of the Denver Broncos, are attempting to become the AFC's third wild-card entry in four years to reach the Super Bowl. They have won an NFL-best eight straight games.

The first-seeded Titans, coming off a bye, are attempting to defend the AFC championship they won as a No. 4 seed a year ago. Denver also reached the Super Bowl as a fourth-seeded wild-card team in 1997.

"These are the two best teams [in the AFC]," said Tennessee safety Blaine Bishop. "No question, the team that wins it has the best shot at winning the big one."

This appears to be a combustible mix of withering defense and bone-jarring running games. The Ravens set NFL records for fewest points and rushing yards allowed in a 16-game season, but finished second in total defense to Tennessee.

The Ravens, behind Jamal Lewis, ranked fifth in rushing offense. The Titans, behind Eddie George, ranked seventh.

The bigger debate last week was over who had the better defense.

"It's just a numbers thing," said Ravens defensive tackle Tony Siragusa. "I don't have any problem with that. To be the best, it doesn't matter what you are in someone else's eyes, it's what you are in your eyes.

"We are the best. We have had to prove it week in and week out, and we have to go and prove it this week. I guess it's the best against the best. They think they are the best in their eyes, and we are the best in ours."

The Titans achieved a split of the season series despite having 252 fewer total yards on 52 fewer offensive plays in the two games. They won, 14-6, in Baltimore on Oct. 22 with only seven first downs. They won with a defense that produced five sacks, four interceptions and one touchdown.

"That's just a challenge among our defense to prove we're a better defense than those guys," Bishop said. "You always want to go out there and prove you're the best at what you do. It's no different this game."

These teams mirror each other in strengths (smashmouth style), weaknesses (deep passing game) and attitude (nasty). Tennessee leads the series 6-4, but the Ravens have won two of the past three. Most of the games go down to the end. Five of the past seven have been decided by four points or fewer.

"This will be two teams that know each other well," said Ravens left tackle Jonathan Ogden. "There's no trying to out-scheme anybody. We just want to outplay the other one."

Said Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis, the Defensive Player of the Year in the NFL: "There's nothing about this game that says fancy. There's nothing that says put on a tuxedo to come to this game."

Bare knuckles suit better.

George rushed for 1,509 yards this season for the Titans, but only 32 came against the Ravens. He missed most of the first game after spraining a knee ligament on his first carry. He has a keen appreciation for the Ravens' ravenous defense.

"You just see they have a lot of speed and they penetrate to the point of attack," he said. "And they disrupt your reads to where you are running into an unblocked linebacker, and that linebacker being Ray Lewis, that gets you out of your rhythm rather early, and they do that on a consistent basis."

Jamal Lewis has been the Ravens' workhorse running back with 1,037 rushing yards in the past nine games. The Ravens are 6-0 when he runs for 100 yards. Last week, he had 110 on 30 carries. Not surprisingly, playoff teams are 31-0 when a running back gets 30 carries.

Establishing the run will be big for both sides, but the game ultimately may come down to who throws it better - Titans quarterback Steve McNair or the Ravens' Trent Dilfer.

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