Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Clash of the Titans—and Ravens: NFL Gypsies Lock Horns Once Again

This weekend’s Baltimore Ravens/Tennessee Titans playoff matchup—Saturday, 4:30 p.m. EST (CBS)—could be a game for the ages. Not only are the teams veritable spiritual clones of each other—big-time physical defenses, strong running games, competent quarterbacks—but the history between the two, while relatively brief, is rich, eventful, and amazingly balanced in the outcomes.

Both teams are also football gypsies with checkered pasts.

The Titans were the original AFL-franchise Oilers from Houston, where they played from 1960 to 1996. Then owner Bud Adams up and moved his team to Tennessee, which then required three halting phases. The team played as the Tennessee Oilers (there’s no oil in the Volunteer State) in 1997 in Memphis. The next year, 1998, still as the Oilers, they made the move to Nashville, where they played their home games at Vanderbilt University’s Dudley Field. Finally, in 1999, they got a new nickname, Titans, and a new stadium to go along with it, called Adelphia Coliseum due to a naming rights arrangement with Adelphia Business Solutions, a subsidiary of the Adelphia telecommunications company. After Adelphia filed for bankruptcy in 2002, the stadium became known simply as The Coliseum for four years, until the current naming-rights deal with Nashville-based Louisiana-Pacific was struck in 2006, and the new name, LP Field, was born.

The Ravens’ lineage, of course, offers an even more bitter tale. From 1950 to 1995, they were the Cleveland Browns, one of the NFL’s more storied franchises. Winners of four league championships in the pre-Super Bowl years—1950, ’54, ’55, ’64—the Browns had suffered through a series of painful postseason losses in the ’80s and ’90s under coaches Marty Schottenheimer, Bud Carson and even Bill Belichick. Then, following a 5-11 season in 1995, longtime Browns owner Art Modell moved the team to Baltimore, earning the undying enmity of Clevelanders, who were essentially promised a replacement team by the NFL—to salve the wounds—as soon as possible. So hostile were Clevelanders to the Browns’ move that they lobbied successfully to retain team records, which would carry over to the expansion team that eventually arrived in 1999. (This was an unprecedented circumstance; normally in sports, when a team moves, passing, rushing, receiving records, etc., follow to the franchise’s next destination.)

Since starting in Baltimore with a clean slate in 1996, the Ravens have an 8-8 record versus the Oilers/Titans, and each team is 1-1 versus the other in the playoffs, with both teams losing the postseason matchups on their home turf. From 1996-2001, both teams were members of the old AFC Central—aka the Black and Blue Division—with plenty of tough, bone-crunching games between them. The historical linkage between the two teams reached critical mass in 2006 when the Ravens won a regular-season tilt in Nashville, 27-26, with longtime local favorite, former Titans quarterback, Steve McNair leading Baltimore to a classic fourth-quarter comeback, throwing a game-winning TD pass to yet another former Titans favorite, Derrick Mason.

In an eerie foreshadowing of this year’s situation, the Ravens, in 2000, entered Nashville as a wild-card team and faced a Titans squad with the best record in football. The Ravens won that tilt decisively, 24-10, and went on to win the Super Bowl, led by a crushing defense headed up by linebacker Ray Lewis. (The quarterback for the loser New York Giants in the big game? None other than current Titans QB Kerry Collins.)

Well, Lewis is still around, now in his 13th season. So is Mason, now in his 12th. And the Ravens enter Saturday’s game with a ton of momentum. After starting the season 2-3, the team has won 10 of its last 12, including a convincing road playoff victory at Miami. Their five losses this year have all been to playoff teams—Pittsburgh (2 losses, by a total of 7 points), Indianapolis, the Giants, and, yes, the Titans, who beat them 13-10 in Week 5 in Baltimore.

Something about the Ravens compels. On Dec. 20, I was heading home after a piano gig, and then remembered they were playing the Cowboys in a night game. Without the NFL Network on my home cable, I decided to head to a bar and watch the game there. They looked potent, defeating the Cowboys in Dallas, 33-24, including two huge long TD runs late in the game by Le’Ron McClain and Willis McGahee, each of whom burst explosively through the Dallas linebackers and were on their way to paydirt.

McClain is a little-known second-year guy out of Alabama, a tough bruiser of a back. McGahee is in his sixth year, out of Miami, and is better known, and maybe a mite quicker, though he has battled injuries during his career. Still he’s gained 5,243 yards in his time with the Bills and Ravens.

The Ravens’ one-two running-back punch is supported by a passing game that seems to get better with every week, mainly due to the rapid growth of rookie quarterback Joe Flacco. Flacco’s numbers aren’t eye-popping, but for a rookie they’re serious: 60% completion rate, 2,971 yards, 14 TDs, 12 INTs, and a QB rating of 80.3. His receivers—Mason, Mark Clayton and TE Todd Heap—are talented and experienced. In fact, Mason’s career numbers are starting to scream Hall of Fame—seven out of his last eight years have been 1,000-yarders. He’s cagey and resourceful for sure, and even though he’ll turn 35 on January 17, he seems as sharp as ever. He is, however, nursing a seriously sore shoulder, so look for Titans defenders to hit him hard throughout.

Now about the vaunted Ravens defense: They are extremely physical. They have Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Trevor Pryce and Bart Scott among the front seven. The secondary features Samari Rolle (another ex-Titan) and the all-world Ed Reed, both very savvy and eager to get their hands on an errant Collins throw.

How the Titans, and head coach Jeff Fisher, counter all this will be interesting to watch. Here’s a statistical wrinkle, though: For all the Ravens’ defensive swagger, in fact there were two teams in all of football who allowed fewer points than they did: the Steelers and the Titans. Tennessee has nothing to apologize for in that department. They have two All-Pros in their secondary (Cortland Finnegan, Chris Hope), one All-Pro alternate (safety Michael Griffin), two of the most underrated linebackers in the game (Keith Bulluck, David Thornton), and a defensive line which, if at maximum strength, stacks up with any. Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch, when healthy, are animals. Problem is, both are on the rebound from the inactive list, and it remains to be seen how strong they’ll be. Their presence is key to this game.

As for the Tennessee offense, well, so far it’s mostly been “Smash and Dash,” which means lightning-fast rookie RB Chris Johnson and bull-headed fullback LenDale White. Running behind an offensive line that’s been healthy and consistent, the duo has gained 2,001 yards in ’08. Nothing to sneeze at there, but the matchup against the Ravens means there’s got to be some meaningful production out of the passing game. In other words, QB Collins and a corps of under-the-radar receivers have to step up and provide a legitimate attack of some kind. Against Reed & Co., that’s gonna be a real challenge. Justin Gage, Justin McCareins and Brandon Jones—not exactly household names—are veterans without much in the way of spectacular talent. They’ll have to be creatively schemed, with Collins using checkdowns to solid TEs Alge Crumpler and Bo Scaife.

But maybe the most intriguing offensive possibility where the Titans are concerned is the use of Johnson out of the backfield on screen passes. The kid is the fastest man on the field, and getting him into fluid, moving situations with the ball in his hands could pay off bigtime. It may also be the only way to thwart Baltimore’s aggressive front seven, who’ll be looking to manhandle the aging (36) Collins.

Now, in case you were wondering, if Collins gets hurt, his backup is Vince Young. If Flacco gets hurt, his backup is Troy Smith. Both are fleet-footed African American QBs who have yet to prove they can consistently run NFL offenses. Behind Young is journeyman Chris Simms. Behind Smith is journeyman Todd Bouman. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves...

I’m not big on predictions, but this one’s hard to resist: Titans 24, Ravens 23.

1 comment:

Henry said...

EXCELLENT entry, Marty, and very insightful.

Also very interesting footnote that Todd Bouman is the Ravens' third-string; I have for a long time (ever since Jake Delhomme finally got his starting shot in Carolina) considered Bouman as the one journeyman QB who is franchise starter material if a team wasn't completely overlooking him. He is extremely savvy and has more tools than people can imagine, but he is getting a bit long in the tooth now for my prediction to be proven right. Oh well.

-King Henry IX The Terrible