An expert's view: Billick likes Eagles and Raiders

January 19, 2003|By MIKE PRESTON

FOR THE FIRST TIME in three years, Ravens coach Brian Billick has been outside the NFL playoffs looking in, but he still has an inside look at the participants in today's conference championships.

Billick is a disciple of the West Coast offense, which is run by the Philadelphia Eagles, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Oakland Raiders. The Ravens played the Buccaneers and Tennessee this season, and maybe no other coach knows the Titans as well as Billick.

So, who is going to play in the Super Bowl next week in San Diego? In between scouting players at the Senior Bowl and trying to keep his coaching staff and front office intact, Billick had time for a brief analysis of both of today's games.

Like most of us, Billick suggests Oakland and Philadelphia will win. And like most of us, he knows how hard it has been to predict winners this season.

"It has been a crazy year for the whole league. If I were a betting man, I wouldn't bet two cents on a game," Billick said, laughing. "But if you look around, with the exception of Tennessee, these are the teams everyone expected to be here at this point."

Of the four teams, Tennessee seems to be the least favored to advance to the Super Bowl. The Titans played a physical, emotional game last week against a former division rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and their two marquee players - quarterback Steve McNair and running back Eddie George - aren't at full strength because of injuries.

Plus, the Titans are on the road in Oakland, a tough place to play because of a weird and wacky fan base.

Billick, though, says playing in front of the Raider Nation isn't that much of a handicap.

"I'd rather play in Oakland than in Tennessee, which I believe has the loudest orchestrated crowd noise in the league," Billick said. "Certainly, you can't underestimate playing on the West Coast; the New York Giants can attest to that. But to have some 86-year-old grandmother dressed up like Darth Vader, who cares?

"A major key here is experience," said Billick, referring to defensive veterans such as Bill Romanowski, Rod Woodson and Sam Adams as well as older offensive players like Tim Brown, Jerry Rice and Rich Gannon. "Oakland has plenty of it on both sides of the ball, even though Tennessee has a certain level of experience. But that's an edge that clearly belongs to Oakland."

There are other advantages that work in the Raiders' favor. Tennessee's top two receivers - Drew Bennett and Derrick Mason - aren't impact players.

"The Raiders have a solid secondary, and you have to question Tennessee's receivers and their ability to make big plays," Billick said. "Going in, you know you're going to have to watch [Titans tight end] Frank Wycheck, and the Raiders will clamp down on him. They'll try to keep McNair inside the pocket, even though he has proven in the past he can win games from there. They just don't want him outside with those receivers.

"What I like about Tennessee is that they run when you think they should pass, and pass when you think they should run," he said.

Billick said the Raiders are unpredictable on offense, unlike in the 2000 season's conference title game against the Ravens. The Titans have two good safeties in Tank Williams and Lance Schulters, but cornerbacks Samari Rolle and Andre Dyson will have problems matching up with Rice, Brown and third receiver Jerry Porter.

"Their running game was the key to their offense," Billick said of the Raiders. "They thought they could run against us, and we knew that they couldn't. So we spent most of the week focusing on their intermediate passing game. This time around, you don't know if Oakland is going to come out over the top with 50 passes."

Neither Philadelphia nor Tampa Bay plan to throw that much in the NFC championship game. Cold weather is expected at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium, where Tampa Bay has had its playoff hopes ended the previous two seasons. Most people expect the Eagles to ice the Buccaneers again today.

"How can you feel differently?" Billick asked. "The question is, can Tampa go up there and beat Philly? I have respect for Jon [Gruden, Tampa Bay's coach], but I have just as much respect for Tony [Dungy, who was fired as Bucs coach after last season]. It's the same team as last year, the same players. Are they playing with a better mind-set? Are they playing with more confidence? Until proven otherwise, you have to like Philadelphia's chances."

Billick also likes Philadelphia's dominating defense. He believes the Eagles can shut down Tampa Bay's running attack with run blitzes and can stymie the Bucs' passing game. The Bucs have two, big physical receivers in Keyshawn Johnson and Keenan McCardell, but the Eagles have two tough cornerbacks in Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent.

"The secondaries and receivers are equal," Billick said. "But I like the Eagles' [offensive] line, and [Philadelphia quarterback] Donovan McNabb has a tough running style. This isn't Michael Vick just running around back there, but McNabb runs to make plays and he can be tough to bring down. He'll make a difference. The Eagles just seem to play Tampa Bay very well, and they are familiar with their schemes.

"For Tampa to win, the Bucs are going to have to make plays," Billick said. "When they get inside the red zone, they are going to have to play for touchdowns instead of field goals. In the other game, I think it's going to be a close one.

"Overall, it should be an interesting weekend," Billick said. "It certainly has been an interesting year."

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