The Ravens' defensive intensity has been amazing in the postseason. Two tough, physical games and a cross-country flight could take a toll. But this team -- and especially this defense -- won't be denied. Ken Murray's prediction: Ravens, 14-12.
When the Ravens have the ball
The Ravens' offense has been hit-and-miss for a month now, struggling for points perhaps even more than in October's five-game touchdown drought. Back then, it produced field goals. The Ravens are averaging 78.3 rushing yards per game over the last three games, and just 104 passing yards over the last four.
RB Jamal Lewis was held to 47 rushing yards by Tennessee, his lowest total in 11 games, and is averaging a modest 3.3 per carry for the postseason. QB Trent Dilfer has completed just 46.7 percent (14-for-30) in the playoffs, but has hit big plays of 58, 56 and 33 yards. He underthrew WR Brandon Stokley on what should have been a touchdown, too. The best thing that can be said for this offense is it hasn't turned the ball over the last two weeks.
With two top-notch cornerbacks in Charles Woodson and Eric Allen, the Raiders can afford to bring a safety to the line to play the run. Tory James, who had two interceptions last week, is the nickel back. The Raiders blitz selectively, relying more on the defensive line for their pressure.
The Raiders rank fifth against the run and 25th against the pass. DTs Darrell Russell and Grady Jackson are solid in the run game, and MLB Greg Biekert is the clean-up guy behind them.
When the Raiders have the ball
The marquee matchup of this game pits the Ravens' No. 1-ranked rush defense (60.6 yards per game) against the Raiders' No. 1-ranked rush offense (154.4). RB Tyrone Wheatley, a former No. 1 pick with the Giants, is the workhorse with 1,046 yards, although the Raiders will use several RBs during the game. Rich Gannon contributed 529 yards to the running game as a gritty, hard-to-tackle quarterback.
Oakland coach Jon Gruden loves the running game. The Raiders ran the ball 520 times this season, third-most in the NFL and nine more than the Ravens. They pound inside with Wheatley behind a big, physical offensive line. In the passing game, they prefer short crossing routes underneath coverage. WRs Tim Brown, James Jett and Andre Rison are still dangerous. They also like to spread RB Terry Kirby out as a receiver.
Gannon, the AFC's Pro Bowl starter, threw for 3,430 yards, 28 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions. He is elusive in the pocket and throws a nice deep ball. Gannon will face a defense that had 23 interceptions in the regular season, and two more -- both by MLB Ray Lewis -- in the playoffs. The Ravens did not blitz much against the Titans, preferring to rush the passer with defensive linemen.
Keys for the Ravens
1. Re-establish the running game. The Ravens need to play ball control to give the defense a breather. The defenders have been working overtime of late.
2. Protect QB Trent Dilfer better. He's taken a beating in the pocket the past month, getting sacked 15 times over the last five games.
3. Block the passing lanes for Oakland QB Rich Gannon, who throws a lot of timing routes. If Gannon can't find his receivers, he can't hit them.
4. Create more turnovers on defense. It's been the theme all season, and it's the antidote for a lame offense.
5.Stay away from special teams blunders. Two blocked punts last week were nearly ruinous. They were negated by two blocked field goals, though.
Keys for the Raiders
1. Forge a respectable running game. RB Tyrone Wheatley needs to be a threat inside to help Gannon's ability to use play-action.
2. Move Gannon around in the pocket. He'll need to bootleg and sprint out to avoid the Ravens' pass rush.
3. Load eight in the box. If the Raiders can contain Jamal Lewis the way the Titans did -- a big "if" -- they will force Dilfer to make plays in the passing game.
4. Avoid turnovers. It's the quickest, simplest path to defeat against the Ravens. Teams that can't protect the ball can't beat Baltimore.
5. Convert in the red zone. With all their weapons, the Raiders could present some problems inside the 20-yard line. Tennessee was just 1-for-4 down there.
Ravens TE Shannon Sharpe vs. Raiders SS Marquez Pope. Dilfer needs to use the intermediate game to revive the passing attack. Pope is a potential victim. Sharpe has receptions of 58 and 56 yards in the playoffs.
Ravens PR Jermaine Lewis vs. Raiders P Shane Lechler. The Ravens must win the battle for field position, and that starts with Lewis, who was shut down last week by Tennessee.
Ravens DT Tony Siragusa vs. Raiders G Steve Wisniewski. Siragusa has been a vital cog in the Ravens' run defense. Wisniewski, a 12-year veteran, is headed to the Pro Bowl as a reserve. He has a reputation as one of the dirtiest players in the league.