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Gut Check

With points at a premium, the Ravens will find a way to squeeze by the Giants

By Paul Zimmerman

Sports Illustrated Down they went, all those pretty faces, all the fancy offenses with their genius coordinators. The Rams, the Broncos and the Colts -- with the No. 1, 2 and 3 offenses, respectively, in the NFL -- never got past the wild-card round. The fourth-rated 49ers didn't even make the playoffs, and the conference championship games took care of the Vikings and the Raiders, sitting fifth and sixth.

No Cris Carter and Randy Moss and Robert Smith to quicken the pulses and light up the scoreboard at Super Bowl XXXV. No Daunte Culpepper with his galloping scrambles, or Rich Gannon with his twinkle-toed magic. Gone, all of them gone. The poor devils never had a chance. Swept under by the Big D, as in DEE-fense.

It'll be Giants versus Ravens in the Super Bowl of the Uglies. Yards will be bitterly contested. Quarterbacks will get sacked, runners smacked, guys wearing the 50s and 90s will dictate the tempo, or lack of it.

What's that, you say? The Giants gained 518 yards on the Vikings in their 41-0 NFC title game victory, and Kerry Collins threw five touchdown passes, establishing this club as an offensive force. Oh, sure, but as New York left tackle Lomas Brown, the 16-year veteran, said, "I'm not so much in awe of the 41 as I am of the zero. Zero points for Minnesota -- with that offense they brought in here!" A defense-oriented team got hot against a club that had been struggling on defense -- that explains what the Giants did on Sunday.

The Ravens? Bullies of the league. Road warriors. Three postseason wins, the last two on the road. They should have been tired on Sunday, playing without a bye and coming off a game against the Titans in which the defense was on the field for 81 snaps. Tired? Ask the Raiders, who picked up one first down and 38 yards in the first half and whose running attack, No. 1 in the league, finished with 24 yards and an average of 1.4 per rush.

The Super Bowl has traditionally been the showcase for All-Pro and budding Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Look at the roster since 1990: Joe Montana, Jim Kelly, Troy Aikman, Steve Young, Brett Favre, John Elway, Kurt Warner. Now? Kerry Collins and Trent Dilfer, two guys on the mend, both salvaged from the scrap heap.

Looking for stars at the so-called skill positions? You'll find some willing workers, but no one on either team who got any Pro Bowl mention. The big names are on the other side of the ball: Ray Lewis, Jessie Armstead, Rod Woodson, Michael Strahan. Never has a Super Bowl been so set up for a defensive guy to win the MVP award.

But that's what makes this game so intriguing. A big play on offense will really be big. A touchdown will be huge. Do you know what the Ravens' record is in games in which they've scored more than six points? It's 15-0, counting the postseason.

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Baltimore doesn't figure to score much against New York, unless its defense gets on the board a few times. And after they squelched the Raiders so thoroughly, Ravens defenders admitted they were quite pleased with the prospect of facing the Giants, whose offense had struggled the week before against Philadelphia. Lional Dalton, one of the six or seven players used so effectively in Baltimore's defensive-line mix, echoed the sentiments of his teammates when he said, "We feel the Giants are going to play right into our hands. We've faced them in the pre-season the last five years, and they play the kind of offense we like to see. We love a team that tries to pound the ball. No one's done it to us yet."

Ah, but did he see the NFC Championship Game? No, he admitted. That might change the Ravens' perspective a bit.

Early in the season, Thunder and Lightning was the Giants' trademark -- the twin thrusts of Ron Dayne, the team's 253-pound rookie running back, and Tiki Barber, a slasher who put together a career year. But if you followed that duo through the season, you saw teams load up to stop them, and their numbers hadn't been impressive for more than a month. The Vikings figured to do likewise, bringing their tackling machine, strong safety Robert Griffith, up near the line and defying Collins to beat them.

So New York came out throwing. Four of the first five plays were passes, and two of them went for scores. The Giants threw on 15 of 21 snaps in the first quarter, 34 of 45 by halftime, when the score was 34-0 and Collins already had a record-breaking day with 338 yards and four touchdowns.

Still, the team the Giants will face in Tampa is a lot different from the one they destroyed at Giants Stadium. Two Vikings defensive backs were hurt, so when New York lined up with multiple wideouts, Minnesota was hard pressed to put up a decent nickel defense. When the Vikings had to send out another defensive back, the guy who got the call was Don Morgan, who had played in only two games during the regular season and had been activated off the practice squad during the week. Plus, Minnesota's pass rush was nonexistent, a result that could have earned every one of the Giants' offensive linemen a game ball.

That unit has been the unwritten success story of the year. "Going into the season, we didn't know what we had," said line coach Jim McNally, who has done a terrific job molding a kind of ragtag collection into a formidable unit. "We were just picking up guys, but they were all hard workers, all very intelligent."

Brown, the 37-year-old left tackle, had been cut by Cleveland. "Kind of the end of the line, huh?" he says. Left guard Glenn Parker had been phased out in Kansas City. Ditto center Dusty Ziegler in Buffalo. Right guard Ron Stone was the only holdover at his position, and right tackle Luke Petitgout had flunked his trial on the left side of the line. But the group has been getting better every week -- "kind of like a big surge," Parker says -- and now it's at the top of its game. That's where the real action will be in the Super Bowl, because the Ravens' defensive front has been annihilating people.

Baltimore's ability to rotate its linemen has kept all of them fresh. The scheme has been well documented -- monster tackles who tie up blockers and clear the lanes for Lewis, the All-Pro middle linebacker, and pass-rushing ends Rob Burnett and Mike McCrary. Against the Raiders, though, the unexpected push came from the inside, from 340-pound Tony Siragusa and 330-pound Sam Adams, who collapsed Oakland's line and pushed the pocket into the quarterback's lap, forcing him to hurry his throws.

It's unlikely that the Giants will come out running the ball. It seems that their best chance is to go with multiple wideouts, force the Ravens into nickel and dime packages and throw early and often. A Baltimore attack that hasn't gained 300 yards in any of its last six games doesn't figure to put much of a dent in New York's defense, unless it has the luxury of a short field by way of turnovers. During the regular season the Ravens led the league with 49 giveaways, and they've collected another seven in the postseason, including five on Sunday.

The best thing the Giants have going for them is that they're peaking at the right time, on both sides of the ball. But Baltimore's defense, which should have been heavy-legged against Oakland and wasn't, will now have an extra week to rest.

The pick: Ravens 16, Giants 13 , with turnovers deciding it.

Issue date: January 22, 2001

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