Raiders know gift carries a surprise

Home field, Ravens are group package

January 09, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

OAKLAND, Calif. - The Oakland Raiders had their wish granted by the Ravens on Sunday - a gift-wrapped home venue for the AFC championship game.

Now they get to deal with what's inside the package.

Raiders coach Jon Gruden yesterday admitted some mixed emotions while he witnessed the Ravens' 24-10 demolition of the Tennessee Titans at Adelphia Coliseum.

Gruden loves that the black-and-silver gets to play for a trip to the Super Bowl at Network Associates Coliseum, where the Raiders won eight of nine games this season and 10 of their past 11 dating to 1999. But he also knows the Ravens come with it.

The Ravens (14-4) offer the stingiest scoring defense since the NFL expanded to a 16-game schedule in 1978. The AFC West champions counter with the most dramatic home-field advantage - along with the top rushing offense - in the league.

Including Saturday's 27-0 blowout of the Miami Dolphins, the Raiders have outscored opponents 375-134 in their past 11 home games, an average margin of 31-12.

Gruden spoke analytically of the advantages of home field, calling it "a big difference" and referring to the simpler "mechanics" of preparing for this situation compared with a road trip.

"I think that's big when you don't have to worry about practicing in crowd noise. You don't have to worry about the mechanics of traveling," Gruden said. "You do lose some time and you do lose some focus, I think, when you're on a long airplane flight and you're to and from the hotel."

If the Raiders were preparing for a road game, Gruden said a portion of this week's practice would be devoted to installing a system of audibles and hand signals to counter a hostile crowd. That time now can be devoted to more basic concerns.

"We're going to have the walk-throughs and the meeting times and the meal times at the same time. We're not going to coach or act in a different way just because we're playing for the AFC championship," Gruden said. "We're going to be very consistent with how we've approached other games. We realize the stakes are higher than they were last week and the week before, but we're going to stay very logical and consistent with our approach."

Sunday's atmosphere will be anything but logical and consistent. Ravens quarterback Trent Dilfer doubtless will be hung in effigy from the netting behind the south goal posts. Noise will be deafening.

"Having a championship game here in Oakland, it's going to be big for the fans. It's going to be big for everybody," said Raiders kick returner David Drummond. "Next Sunday, everybody should wear black. I want to see all black so we can dominate."

The mob rule that engulfs every Raiders home game adds to a mystique that has followed the team for decades. Though the outlaw label may not fit this group as well as many of its predecessors, those fans who raise hell behind the south end zone - a k a The Black Hole - provide a powerful presence for their team. Quarterback Rich Gannon cited the crowd as one of the keys to the Raiders' suffocating performance in the divisional playoff against Miami.

"We've got the best fans in football. Whether there are 40,000 or 60,000 of them, they're the best fans in football," wide receiver Andre Rison said. "They're the most intimidating factor in football."

More intimidating than a bull rush?

More intimidating than even a Ray Lewis hit?

"You can't jump in the stands after them. If you did, you might win an individual battle, but you'll have 20 or 30,000 of them all over you. They take it serious," Rison said.

An accomplished trash-talker himself, Rison parried questions about the Ravens' reputation for letting their actions and their words speak for them. But, Rison also promised, "I won't bite my tongue on Sunday."

The Raiders yesterday followed Gruden's example of adhering to "Media 101." No disrespectful words were hurled at the Ravens, who made sport of the Titans last week before taking them apart. Asked if the Ravens had a chance against the Raiders if they duplicated Sunday's five completions and six first downs against Tennessee, Rison only smiled and said, "It would be close."

But Gruden, the youthful coach nicknamed "Chuckie" by his players because of a resemblance to the doll star of a horror trilogy, fully appreciates the havoc created by the Ravens' record-setting defense. He took care to praise a defense that he described as quick and "mammoth." He noted that, like the Dolphins, the Ravens employ a four-man front, but that their greater size and tendency to blitz more often make them an even bigger challenge.

Gruden has called Lewis "probably the best middle linebacker I've seen in my life" and insisted he has never seen a defense "as dominant for as long a period of time as the Ravens' defense has been."

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