OWINGS MILLS, Md. | Eight years later, the pain still lingers for the 2000 Tennessee Titans.
“It hurt more than losing the Super Bowl the year before because we knew whoever won that game was probably going to win the Super Bowl,” cornerback Samari Rolle said.
Added fullback Lorenzo Neal: “The most disappointing loss of my career. We knew we were the better team.”
But the visiting Baltimore Ravens pulled off a 24-10 upset in the divisional round three weeks before their only Super Bowl victory.
The scenario is nearly identical Saturday. The top-seeded Titans (13-3), in the playoffs for a second straight year, host a divisional-round game against a 12-5 Ravens team that’s coming off a rousing wild-card victory at Miami last week.
Neal and Rolle both now play for the Ravens, as does receiver Derrick Mason - another former Titans starter. The Ravens have as many players from that 2000 Titans team as the Titans do; defensive end Jevon Kearse, linebacker Keith Bulluck and punter Craig Hentrich are the only holdovers.
The former Titans get a kick out of this turnabout, but Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher doesn’t.
“It’s not funny,” said Fisher, in his 14th full season with the franchise. “If you guys want to find out about 2000, ask your guys. They were on the other side. They’ll tell you how it felt in the locker room.”
Although Rolle and Titans quarterback Kerry Collins - who lost that Super Bowl to those Ravens as a member of the New York Giants - called the 2000 Baltimore defense the best they’ve seen, Tennessee’s ranked No. 1. The Ravens allowed the fewest points and rushing yards in a 16-game season, but the Titans allowed fewer total yards.
“I’m looking at it as payback,” said Kearse, who returned to Tennessee in March after four years with the Philadelphia Eagles. “[We had] so many good things going that year. We did have the better defense. It’s a chance to show who has the better defense.”
That’s as tough a call now as it was eight years ago. This season, the Titans allowed the second-fewest points and seventh-fewest yards. The Ravens allowed the third-fewest points and second-fewest yards.
Neither offense cracked the top 10 in either category despite strong ground games. Collins (12) and Ravens rookie quarterback Joe Flacco (14) combined to pass for 26 touchdowns, fewer than San Diego’s Philip Rivers and Arizona’s Kurt Warner threw on their own.
“If you look at the numbers and the matchups, one could assume it might be a low-scoring game,” Fisher said. “But anything can happen once you get to the playoffs.”
Or in this rivalry.
In Super Bowl XXXIV, Tennessee came within inches of forcing overtime in its loss to the St. Louis Rams. The Titans’ only defeat the previous eight weeks? A 41-14 thrashing from Baltimore, which finished 8-8 that year.
The visiting team won all three matchups in 2000, as well as the 2003 wild-card game in Baltimore, the 2006 November game in Nashville and the Week 5 matchup this season. The most recent game turned when a questionable roughing-the-passer call against Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs ignited a game-winning, 80-yard drive in a 13-10 Tennessee victory.
“Everybody talks about the play, [but] we didn’t lose the game on that one play,” Suggs said. “It could have ended the game, yeah, but they still sustained a drive.”
Rolle said some of his former Titans teammates told him they would see him again in the playoffs, even though the Ravens were just 2-2. Baltimore is 10-3 since, Tennessee 8-3.
“You can’t base your season on, ‘Oh, I hope I get another shot at Tennessee,’” Suggs said.
But it has worked out like destiny.
If the Ravens win, they could travel to Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship game. The Steelers beat the Ravens twice this year by a combined seven points. If the third time proved the charm, a Super Bowl showdown with the Giants - the other team to beat the Ravens in the past 12 weeks - could be next.
But all that is just speculation unless Baltimore wins in Nashville, where the Titans are 7-1 this season.
“It’s a deep-rooted rivalry, a game that people like to see,” Mason said. “They’re always hard-fought battles. Tennessee-Baltimore brings back a lot of memories.”