Offense must reawaken to have Super Bowl shot

January 14, 2001|By JOHN EISNEBERG

OAKLAND, Calif. - The bromide about defense winning championships has all sorts of supporting evidence throughout the chronicle of pro football history. But seldom has a defense alone won a championship.

That's why the Ravens are the underdogs in today's AFC championship game with the Raiders. Their defense obviously is good enough to win a conference title and the Super Bowl. But it usually takes more.

Although the Ravens' magnificent defense has rightfully drawn comparisons to some of the greatest in NFL history, many of which led teams to championships, those teams had offenses, too.

Buddy Ryan's Chicago defenses of the mid-1980s could stand on the sideline and cheer for Walter Payton, the league's all-time leading rusher. Pittsburgh's "Steel Curtain" defense of the '70s didn't have to carry an offense that included Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann and others.

Even lesser champions with a defensive bent, such as the Giants under Bill Parcells, could count on at least a couple of touchdowns a game from the offense.

The Ravens have generally gotten less than that from Trent Dilfer and their offense during their run to a Baltimore team's first NFL championship-game appearance in 30 years. In last week's win in Tennessee, Dilfer completed five passes and the offense totaled six first downs.

That the Ravens still won - by two touchdowns, no less - was the ultimate testimony to their defense and passion, their will and the play-making resourcefulness that has marked them.

"Character and chemistry, that's who we are; that's what we have," coach Brian Billick said.

But substituting those estimable, intangible qualities for an offense is a huge gamble at the level the Ravens have reached, and the team's No. 1 task today is to somehow keep winning that gamble. Somehow get enough out of their defense and special teams to make up for the offense's inability to do much of anything.

Either that or scare up a little more offense.

It won't be easy.

Impossible? You can't say that. The Ravens have gotten this far because they deserved to (with a little help from Al Del Greco's wayward foot and Brian Griese's injured shoulder). Oakland, though balanced and solid, has a pass defense that becomes a sieve at times. Quarterback Rich Gannon might be the NFL's best this year, but let's see how he reacts if the Ravens stuff his running game and he has to throw 40 times to win.

Still, make no mistake, today is the day, more than any other, when the Ravens have to hope that the fact they have beaten long odds to get this far without an offense doesn't finally catch up with them.

Playing the Vikings or Giants on a neutral field in the Super Bowl after two weeks of rest would be less far daunting than the challenge the Ravens face today.

They're flying across the country to play their third game in 15 days and second straight on the road, while all Oakland has done is sit at home and knock out a cupcake Miami team to reach this point. Mix in the Ravens' dependence on blocked field goals and interception returns instead of a consistent offense, and the Raiders have the advantage.

As amazing as it is that the Ravens have gotten this far on defense alone, to go even farther in these circumstances would be the stuff of fairy-tale dust. A trick seldom pulled. The Colts' offense was pretty weak when they beat Dallas in Super Bowl V, and the first of Pittsburgh's four Super Bowl winners didn't have much going on offense, but otherwise, just about every team that gets to the big game has at least an average offense.

All the Ravens' offense has done recently is not turn the ball over.

Which isn't so awful, mind you.

"Our offense has done what had to be done to win," Billick said after the Tennessee game. "If we [now] have to open it up and score more, that's what we will endeavor to do."

It has to happen today, almost certainly. At least to some degree.

Winning playoff games with your defense alone is tough enough. Winning a championship game that way is really tough.

Of course. the entire equation would change if Dilfer and the offense could somehow generate just a little more than expected. Not a lot. Just, say, two touchdowns instead of one. And a bit more ball control.

It could happen. The Raiders are tough against the run but vulnerable in the air, especially over the middle. Those circumstances would seem to presage a big game for Shannon Sharpe - if Dilfer can get him the ball.

Yes, Dilfer was unable to take advantage of Denver's weak pass defense two weeks ago at PSINet Stadium, but the conditions were brutal that day. Last week, he took on a defense almost as tough as the Ravens'. Predictably, he didn't fare well. The Raiders' defense is a bit more forgiving, and Dilfer needs to make the most of that. As fierce and dominant as the Ravens' defense is, asking it to do the scoring as well as the stopping in a game of this magnitude is, well, asking too much.

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