Twice now the Ravens have broken Tennesseans’ hearts, come down here and knocked off 13-3 Titans clubs that were seeded first in the AFC playoffs. How they must hate Ray Lewis and Co. in Opryland. How they must dream of Super Bowls denied and Lombardi Trophies lost - all because their team couldn’t beat Baltimore.
Eight years ago, it was because the Ravens’ defense was too good, gave up only 16 points in four playoff games. But there was no shame in losing that year to one of the greatest collections of defensive talent in NFL history.
Saturday’s 13-10 loss, though, in front of another shrieking mob at LP field, was different. The Baltimore ‘D,’ while still outstanding, isn’t quite as impenetrable as it was in the 2000 season. Tennessee made that plain by gaining 251 yards in the first half - more than the Ravens had allowed in eight games this year.
The visitors, meanwhile, didn’t do much of anything offensively. The running game spun its wheels, averaging just 1.7 yards on 30 attempts. And rookie Joe Flacco’s contributions basically boiled down to three throws - a 48-yard touchdown pass to Derrick Mason and completions of 37 and 23 yards to Mark Clayton and Todd Heap, which set up field goals. The rest of the time, Flacco was 8-for-19 for 53 yards.
No, the Ravens are one win away from the Super Bowl again because, this time, the Titans lost the game as much as Baltimore won it. They committed three turnovers in Baltimore territory, the last at the 6-yard line, and compounded their misery with 12 penalties and a missed field goal (albeit from 51 yards).
Of course, that’s what helmet-rattling defensive pressure will do - to even the best of clubs. The week before, Lewis and his mates wrung four interceptions and a fumble from a Miami team that had turned the ball over a league-low 13 times in the regular season. Tennessee (17) was almost as stingy in the giveaway department this year.
But Rex Ryan’s defense, it seems, takes what it wants - despite having such valuable commodities as cornerback Chris McAlister carted off to injured reserve earlier in the season. “We’ve got more guys on injured reserve than anybody,” linebacker Bart Scott said. “You don’t even hear us talk about it. We just try to make it a physical day for everybody [we face], and sometimes they don’t hold up.”
That last reference was to Titans rookie Chris Johnson, who sizzled in the first half with a 32-yard run, a 28-yard catch and an even 100 yards from scrimmage, but didn’t play thereafter because of a bum ankle. Might things have gone differently for Tennessee if Johnson, a blur of a running back, had played the whole game? Possibly. But football is a game of casualties, and the Ravens inflict plenty of them with their ferocious tackling.
Watching this game was like watching the BCS Championship game all over again. But instead of Oklahoma rolling up a bunch of yards and managing only a 7-7 tie in the first half, it was the Titans. And instead of Florida making the biggest stops and the biggest plays, it was the Ravens.
“They were putting some drives together,” Lewis said, “but we were keeping the ball in front of us. We’ve been great this year in the red zone causing turnovers.”
You had to love the calculated risk John Harbaugh took in the second half. The Ravens were due to kick off, but Harbaugh opted to kick into the wind so his offense would have it at its back in the final quarter. It was asking a lot of his defense - especially because the Titans had moved the ball so well up to then - but Tennessee managed only two first downs in the third quarter and failed to score.
“We thought it was going to come down to a field goal at the end,” Harbaugh said.
And it did. Matt Stover booted one through from 43 yards out with 53 seconds left, and another road playoff victory was in the books.
You can overdo comparisons between this Ravens team and the one that won it all after the 2000 season. For one thing, as all-world safety Ed Reed pointed out, “Other than Ray and Stover, only a couple of other guys [from that club] are still here.” But the formula for success is similar: Don’t make mistakes on offense - Baltimore has just one turnover in the playoffs - and let the defense win the game.
“I talked to my wife before the game,” Scott said, “and she said, ‘Don’t come home if you lose.’”
He smiled and looked into the cameras. “Baby, I’m coming home!”
But only temporarily. Next weekend they’ll be on a plane again. Whoever they face, the Steelers or the Chargers, had better be prepared for a slugfest. It’s the only way the Ravens know how to play.
Dan Daly has been writing about sports for the Washington Times since 1982. He has won numerous national and local awards, appears regularly in NFL Films’ historical features and is the co-author of “The Pro Football Chronicle,” a decade-by-decade history of the game. Follow Dan on Twitter at @dandalyonsports –- or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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