In overdrive, Ravens find need to refuel

Team's `emotional fatigue' biggest concern for Billick after gritty Sunday win

Real wild card is quick recovery

McNair, top run defense make Titans formidable

Ravens - Titans -- Afc Wild-card Game

December 30, 2003|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

A five-game winning streak over the Tennessee Titans gives the mental edge for Saturday's wild-card game to the Ravens.

But emotionally, the Ravens admit they have some ground to make up.

Following the Ravens' intense and hard-hitting 13-10 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, their worries extend beyond matching up with top-rated quarterback Steve McNair or cracking the league's No. 1 run defense.

"My biggest concern right now is the emotional fatigue this team has gone through," coach Brian Billick said.

"We'll have to rebound that way. Physically, we'll be fine. But getting them back emotionally is crucial."

Despite having clinched the franchise's first division title before Sunday night's kickoff, the Ravens heavily invested themselves in a game that had no bearing on the playoff picture.

Amid the trash talking and violent collisions, Billick made a debatable decision to keep his starters in for all four quarters and overtime just six days before the Ravens' first playoff game since the 2001 season. In Billick's mind, the chance to end a roadblock against their chief division rival put meaning in a technically meaningless game.

"We knew we weren't going anywhere until we beat the Pittsburgh Steelers," Billick said. "This was the biggest, most significant regular-season win we've had, clearly, since I've been here when you factor in all that was involved. I think we've gained a certain playoff mentality.

"To come out of that with a loss, it would have been difficult to go forward. I can't conceive of us having any success going forward had we not won that game."

The roles have been reversed this week.

Just like the Steelers had the Ravens' number, the Ravens have dominated Tennessee in similar fashion.

The Titans haven't beaten the Ravens since Oct. 22, 2000. So, stirring up emotions won't be a problem for Tennessee.

"They've been a thorn in our sides, and sometimes to move on in the future you have to be presented with the past," Titans running back Eddie George said Sunday. "Maybe this is one of those times."

In winning the past five meetings, the Ravens celebrated the Titans' first loss at the Coliseum, knocked them out of the playoffs in the 2000 season and handed them their only loss in the last 11 weeks of 2002.

In fact, Tennessee has lost only 27 times since 1999, and more than one-fifth of those losses have been to the Ravens.

"Who said we don't want to play them? That's what I want to know," Tennessee receiver Derrick Mason said.

"That never came out of this locker room. Whoever said it, tell them to come talk to me."

It's a familiar rival for the Ravens, who enter the playoffs on familiar footing.

The Ravens may have gone from one of the most experienced teams in 2001 to the youngest team in the playoffs this season, but their method of winning remains the same.

Like their playoff teams in 2000 and 2001, the Ravens have a rushing offense ranked in the NFL's top 11 and a defense among the top three. They even have the same seed - No. 4 in the AFC - that set their path for the Super Bowl title.

"Our profile is what it is," Billick said. "We are the youngest team in the playoffs, I don't have a Pro Bowl quarterback, we have one hell of a defense, we are running the ball well, and we are showing the ability to make big plays under the right circumstances."

Defense is what makes the Ravens dangerous in the playoffs.

The Ravens are on a streak in which they have not given up an offensive touchdown in nine quarters. They have set a physical tone, roughing up quarterbacks and delivering punishing blows to receivers.

In the regular-season finale, the Steelers managed only 133 yards of total offense, not counting the 81-yard pass on a fake punt. That's an average of 2.2 yards per play.

"It was an unbelievable, historic effort on the part of our defense," Billick said. "To keep a very good offensive group absolutely stuffed for the whole game was an unbelievable effort on their part."

The focus now is recuperating. How far the Ravens advance in the playoffs likely hinges on how quickly they rebound from Sunday's fiery finale.

"Whenever you play a game like that and you're always up, it doesn't just have an effect on your body physically," cornerback Gary Baxter said. "Mentally, you can get drained from it."

Next for Ravens

AFC wild-card game

Matchup: Tennessee Titans (12-4) vs. Ravens (10-6)

Site: M&T Bank Stadium

When: Saturday, 4:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: Chs. 2, 7/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Ravens by 1

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