Super highway or end of road?

Resolute Ravens face toughest test: playing in Oakland for AFC title

Winner gets XXXV berth

Frenzied fans, fatigue latest challenges, but ferocious D is equalizer

January 14, 2001|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

OAKLAND, Calif. - The Ravens' enchanted journey has come to this:

One more road stop in one more town of unbelievers.

Fighting fatigue, a rambunctious crowd and the Oakland Raiders in today's AFC championship game at Network Associates Coliseum, the wild-card Ravens will try to secure a reservation for Super Bowl XXXV two weeks hence in Tampa, Fla.

Last September, this scenario seemed unthinkable. Four months later, it seems predestined.

"I don't know if I believe in destiny," said defensive tackle Tony Siragusa. "I believe whatever you put into something, you get out. But I do believe in luck."

Already in two playoff victories, there has been a twice-batted pass that tight end Shannon Sharpe turned into a 58-yard touchdown, a deflected field-goal attempt that special teamer Anthony Mitchell returned 90 yards for a score, and a bobbled pass that linebacker Ray Lewis intercepted for his first NFL touchdown.

Finding a way to win has become the mantra of a team many expected to finish third in the AFC Central. Instead, the Ravens take a 14-4 record, a nine-game winning streak and their indomitable defense into the biggest game of their five-year existence.

If they complete the trek, it will be the first Super Bowl for a Baltimore team in 30 years, since the Colts beat the Dallas Cowboys, 16-13, in Super Bowl V on Jan. 17, 1971, in Miami.

The Ravens also would become the AFC's third wild-card team in four years to reach the Super Bowl.

Winning in Oakland, where the Raiders (13-4) have won seven straight games - and a total of eight this season by an average of 22 points - has its issues, however. At least part of the challenge is enduring the bizarrely dressed zealots who populate the Black Hole in the south end zone.

Not to worry, Lewis says.

"We're not playing their fans," he said. "We're playing the Raiders, and once we step on the field, the fans have no control over the outcome of the game. They can scream loud and that's great for them, but it comes down to what happens on the field."

Playing on the road has its own hazards. Playing under these circumstances is another matter, coach Brian Billick said.

"You've heard me talk about winning on the road in the NFL is the hardest thing to do in all of professional sports," Billick said. "Winning on the road in the playoffs magnifies everything. Whatever was hard, this makes it harder.

"We realize the task in front of us, having played the extra game, having to go across the country. But this team has faced those challenges all year long, particularly early in the season when we had five out of seven [on the road].

"The mind-set is just what it needs to be. Now, is the body willing and able?"

The Ravens will be playing their third game in 15 days. The Raiders, who drew a first-round bye as AFC West champions, will be playing their second in 21 days.

Fatigue, Billick said, is his biggest concern. But he already had factored freshness into a season-long strategy that reduced the practice load the deeper into the season the Ravens went.

That's why cornerback Chris McAlister doesn't believe the Raiders have an advantage of fresh legs.

"I think [the Raiders] got beat up more during the year and training camp than we did," he said. "Billick has done a great job of keeping us off our feet, shortening down practices, getting the pads off us midway through the season to keep us fresh for this playoff run."

McAlister didn't hesitate when asked if he could match the speed of Raiders wide receiver James Jett, a world-class sprinter and former Olympian.

"I can match any speed in the NFL," he said.

The Ravens' defense has been magnificent in the postseason. It has surrendered just one pass play of more than 20 yards, none over 25, and only one touchdown in eight quarters.

The offense, meanwhile, has been spotty and inconsistent. In last week's 24-10 win over the Tennessee Titans, quarterback Trent Dilfer completed just five passes, but two went for gains of 33 and 56 yards. The offense generated only 134 yards and six first downs in that game.

"We are going to have some offensive productivity," Billick said. "We have done that to a certain degree. We need to have more. It was good enough to get us here. We are a little like the Raiders' defense. That side of the ball has done its job when it has needed to - I'm talking about the Raiders' defense now. But both could use a little more productivity."

Dilfer is just 14-for-30 (46.7 percent) in the postseason, but has not throw an interception. That's not unlike his postseason performance with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"I think the one thing Tampa did was tell Trent, `Don't lose the ballgame,' " Sharpe said. "They never said, `Trent, win a ballgame for us.'

"What Brian says is that if there is a play to be made, make the play. But by the same token, don't put us in a position where the defense has to come on the field and the [other] team has to go 20 or 30 yards for a touchdown.

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