Since toughness rules, so will Ravens


January 28, 2001|By JOHN EISENBERG

TAMPA, Fla. - All the hot air that blows and drifts through the Super Bowl for a week before the kickoff tends to cloud one of the game's simplest realities: The toughest team is the one that usually wins.

Not the team that talks the most trash (unfortunately for the Ravens, who have easily beaten the Giants in the pre-game squawk-off with their various pronouncements and guarantees).

Not the team that has the fanciest playbook (although that can make a difference at times, as with the Rams a year ago).

The outcome of this game - and most football games, for that matter - usually boils down to who is the toughest.

You know, like, duh.

But that's why the Ravens figure to beat the Giants tonight at Raymond James Stadium and return pro football supremacy to Baltimore for the first time in three decades.

For the simplest of reasons. They have the toughest guys.

Not guys who think they're tough. Guys who really are.

The ultimate advantage in football.

That was certainly the difference in the AFC championship game two weeks ago. The Raiders thought they were tough. The Ravens actually were.

Same thing against the Titans the week before. The Titans are tough, no question. But on that day, the Ravens were tougher. More punishing. More defiant. More willing to cross whatever physical lines needed to be crossed.

Sometimes you can overcome a shortfall in that area with schemes and trickery and modern football monkeyshine. Pro football was all about that a year ago.

But this season has evolved into a throwback campaign, a year in which the best defenses have thrived and the best offenses have vanished. Pay heed to the trend. It's the Year of the Tough Guy. And no one is tougher than the Ravens.

Sure, the Giants are, too. Absolutely. Their toughness is the quality that has lifted them out of a mediocre pack of NFC contenders and into pro football's biggest game.

But in a black-and-blue season, no one is more brutal and withering than the Ravens.

It starts with Ray Lewis, the forbidding, relentless figure at the heart of the defense, and spreads from there. Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams, the immovable objects in the middle. Peter Boulware, gentle off the field, as fierce as they come on it. Michael Mc- Crary, who never stops. A secondary that hits as hard as any.

Other championship teams have had more talent, but not since the unforgettable Bears of Mike Ditka and Buddy Ryan has a team exhibited such a focused fearlessness. That's what sets the Ravens apart in the end, not the cartoonish strutting that has made headlines all week.

"I think every hit by our defense is the most ferocious hit in the NFL," Siragusa said.

Does that make them dirty rather than tough? Some think so after Lewis and Siragusa were fined for hits that didn't draw penalties but knocked opposing quarterbacks out of consecutive playoff games.

It's a bad rap.

The NFL is a rough place, a league in which veterans routinely twist opponents' limbs at the bottoms of piles, and blocking at the knees is bad only if you get caught. It's not as violent as you think - it's worse. Sportswriter Roy Blount Jr. once described line play as resembling "cows falling off trucks."

The Ravens don't play dirty in that realm, just tough. They might talk dirty and trashy and a little more than they should, feeding a bad-guy perception. But even if the Lewis and Siragusa hits crossed over the line - debatable - NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who issued the fines, said yesterday that such play from those players was "an aberration."

Added Tagliabue: "These are guys who know how to play the game."

Tough. The way any coach would tell you football should be played.

It's hard to imagine a team going all the way in today's NFL on that quality alone, given the emphasis on offense. It's amazing the Ravens haven't needed quarterback Trent Dilfer to come through in the clutch even once in three playoff games. Their nightmare vision, no question, is finding themselves down four points with five minutes to play, needing Dilfer to drive the offense 80 yards for a touchdown and the win.

But being the toughest team on the field has kept them out of that pickle so far, and that's not likely to change now.

Forget the Giants' 41-0 destruction of the Vikings in the NFC championship game. As impressive as it was, it holds little currency today. Minnesota's defense was an embarrassment, the easiest mark imaginable, as forgiving as the Ravens' defense is unforgiving. The Ravens' victory in Oakland that day was far more telling, coming on the road, in an extremely hostile environment, against one of the NFL's most balanced teams.

Anyone who had picked the Raiders to win (blush) couldn't possibly go against the Ravens after that one. Their toughness was just too much to bear.

The Giants are tough, smart, well-coached and certain to test Marvin Lewis' defense, but their running game isn't going anywhere and their passing game is no better than solid. Advantage, Ravens.

Give the Ravens one touchdown, their usual allotment, and a few of Matt Stover's scraps. Then stand back and let the hitting begin.

Ravens, 16-10.

It's simple this year. Toughest guys dance in the end.

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