Wrong ways make a right for Ravens

Ravens 24/ Titans 10

January 08, 2001|By JOHN EISENBERG

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - They're doing it their own way. And you couldn't dream up a more unthinkable, outrageous way if you tried.

They're turning long-odds, game-winning plays into a personal art form. They're going almost nowhere on offense, yet living to tell about it. They're talking a lot of trash - too much, really - but they're backing it up.

That's the Ravens in a nutshell as they make their way through the AFC playoffs, soaring beyond even their own greatest expectations.

One win from a trip to the Super Bowl? After generating six first downs to Tennessee's 23 yesterday at Adelphia Coliseum? After winning a game that turned on, of all things, a pre-game video shown on the scoreboard and a blocked field goal returned 90 yards for a touchdown by a Raven so obscure he was wearing someone else's T-shirt underneath his jersey?

Come on, who is writing this stuff, Poe himself?

Yet Ravens coach Brian Billick was furious after his team's greatest win yesterday, feeling he'd been cheap-shotted by the Titans, who used video clips of several of his strong-talking speeches and interviews to incite the crowd before the opening kickoff.

"Totally classless," Billick called the move, adding that whoever was responsible was "an idiot."

He was right. It was a low blow. And it backfired, firing up the Ravens more than the Titans, who had gained the emotional high ground after quietly listening to the Ravens' impudent crowing before the game. As the video played, the Titans lost whatever edge they'd gained.

"You saw smiles on our sideline," Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe said. "We saw that stuff playing [on the board], and we knew we were in for a real brawl. We knew we had to back our guy up."

Of course, the Ravens had helped incite the "brawl" with their own talk, which included Patrick Johnson saying the Titans were "all hype," Billick predicting the winner of the Baltimore-Denver game would go to the Super Bowl and Chris McAlister saying the Titans' Eddie George had "folded like a baby" after a Ray Lewis hit the last time they played.

Such chest-beating in the face of a respectable opponent doesn't portray the image any franchise would want, and Ravens owner Art Modell reacted yesterday, saying he would demand a cooler tone from now on.

At the same time, Modell said, "we were just a supremely confident team," and indeed, talking the talk obviously is an emotional ploy that works for the Ravens, who continued to crow in the locker room after yesterday's win.

"We beat them by two touchdowns with Trent [Dilfer] playing quarterback; how bad would it have been with a good quarterback?" Sharpe said sarcastically.

Then he added: "We won here twice this year, so I guess I just foreclosed on this place."

Then he turned to receiver Qadry Ismail and said, "Hey, Q, you want to buy a house?"

As furious as Billick was about the Titans' inference he has a big mouth, a team that consistently talks so boldly has to be ready to live with such accusations. Either shut up or live with the heat.

And given where they are now, in the NFL's final four, maybe they should just keep talking and live with the heat. Whatever they're doing, it's working.

"I know I felt very motivated to back up what I had said, as much as I regretted saying it once it came out," McAlister said. "That's just the way we operate."

Big talk off the field. Even bigger plays on it.

"All you can say is it must be destiny," Ravens linebacker Peter Boulware said.

Destiny? Hmmm. That's usually the straw you grasp for when you can't explain a phenomenon, but, in this case, the Ravens have a ready explanation for their sudden, dramatic rise. It's called having a defense.

Everything else about their postseason run might smack of destiny, but the defense simply refuses to budge. The Titans managed one field goal in the last 53 minutes yesterday, failing to deliver even though they controlled the ball for two-thirds of the game and started a pair of drives just 27 and 25 yards from the end zone after blocking punts.

"I say it every week and I'll say it again: Our defense is just amazing," Sharpe said.

Just as amazing but harder to fathom is everything else about the Ravens' run to the AFC championship game Sunday in Oakland.

Last week, it was the wind wreaking havoc with Denver coach Mike Shanahan's precision passing game and Sharpe grabbing the Immaculate Deflection out of the air. Yesterday, it was Tennessee kicker Al Del Greco cratering again against the Ravens, missing three of four field-goal attempts, and someone named Anthony Mitchell making the game-breaking play.

Anthony Mitchell? Wearing jersey No. 42 (and T-shirt No. 26 under his jersey)? Go ahead, raise your hand if you knew he was a Raven before now.

Didn't think so.

OK, that's unfair. Mitchell, a safety from Tuskeegee, has performed well all season on special teams. But still, there was no reason to think he was capable of turning the tide in a playoff game until yesterday, when he grabbed a blocked field goal, turned upfield and raced 90 yards for a touchdown that broke a 10-10 tie with 12 minutes to play.

"Anthony Mitchell sums this team up," Billick said.

An unknown NFL Europe grad, hardly the prototype for a playoff difference-maker.

But the Ravens are doing it their own way, combining a lot of talk, even more defense and a penchant for the borderline miraculous.

Six first downs to 23, no running game, little passing and they're in the AFC championship game. One win from Baltimore's first Super Bowl trip in three decades.

It's almost time to start casting the movie.

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