What We Learned
Three things we learned after the Broncos-Ravens game
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
BALTIMORE -- Playing their trademark relentless defense, the Ravens put the city of Baltimore back into the postseason win column for the first time in 29 years, hammering the wind-blown and disheveled Denver Broncos 21-3 in an AFC wild-card game.
1. Sunday was a nice first step. But you can't count on a Trent Dilfer era in Baltimore just yet. And you may never see one truly dawn.
Against Denver, Dilfer helped deliver the first playoff win in the Ravens' five-year history and upped his career playoff record to 2-1 as a starter. But he didn't come close to killing the notion that the Ravens will be in the market for the services of free-agent quarterback Brad Johnson come March.
For the record, Ravens head coach Brian Billick and vice president of player personnel Ozzie Newsome continue to say all the right things about Dilfer, who is now 8-1 with eight consecutive victories since taking over for the struggling Tony Banks in Week 9.
But according to Ravens sources, there remains deep doubt as to whether Baltimore can reach its long-term goals without pursuing a starting quarterback in the near future. Billick and Newsome are both rooting for Dilfer and would love to see the seventh-year veteran seize hold of the job with a run deep into the postseason. But it's also fair to say that neither expect Dilfer's play to force them to rule anything out this offseason.
Dilfer is eligible for free agency as well in March. While Billick loves his game preparation, attention to detail, and team-first attitude, Dilfer's limitations are not being obscured by the Ravens' winning streak. His 9-of-14, 130-yard, one touchdown, no interception passing performance Sunday was good enough to win, but it was fairly typical of the kind of game that the defensive-dominated Ravens have been forced to play this season.
Another couple of wins in the postseason and Baltimore's front office may be forced to re-visit the issue, and public pressure could mobilize on behalf of signing Dilfer. But don't count on it. Johnson, the former Vikings' passer who spent time with Billick in Minnesota, remains the Ravens' most likely opening-day starter in 2001.
2. Denver running back Mike Anderson is a mortal lock to win the NFL's rookie of the year. Baltimore running back Jamal Lewis is just as solid a bet as the runner-up in that derby.
But don't feel bad for Lewis, the No. 5 pick in the draft last April. He won the important battle on Sunday, when his head-to-head duel with Anderson turned out successful on two fronts.
The Ravens beat the Broncos in no small part due to the sledgehammer downhill running of Lewis, who toted the ball 30 times for 110 yards and two of Baltimore's touchdowns. It was Lewis' sixth 100-yard game of the season (the Ravens are 6-0 in those games) and added to the luster of his 1,364-yard rookie debut.
Anderson, a virtually unheralded sixth-round pick out of Utah, won the regular-season competition between the two running backs, rushing for 1,500 yards despite starting just 12 games. But against Baltimore's run-stuffing defense, Anderson was slowed to a crawl. He finished with just 40 yards on 15 attempts, and that includes one 13-yard gain. On his other 14 rushes, Anderson averaged less than 2 yards per carry.
Lewis scored Baltimore's first and third touchdowns, diving over from one yard out in the second quarter to put the Ravens up 7-0 -- his 20-yard run on the previous play set up the score -- and his 27-yard, third-quarter tackle-busting gallop put the nail in the Broncos' coffin.
On that play, Lewis showed why the Ravens rolled the dice and took him higher than many NFL draft experts projected. He ran through the tackle of Denver linebacker Al Wilson, his college roommate at Tennessee, shook off safety Billy Jenkins like he was a bad cold, and showed just enough moves to cause diving safety Eric Brown to whiff on a tackle attempt.
Given his history of injury, Baltimore's choice of Lewis was indeed high-risk, high-reward. But he has paid off handsomely thus far for the Ravens. Asked if Sunday will make up for losing the rookie of year honor to Anderson, Lewis showed maturity beyond his year.
"I'm playing next week," Lewis said. "That's the only thing that matters.
I'd rather get a Super Bowl ring than a rookie of the year [award]."
3. They wouldn't admit if you administered truth serum, but know this: The Tennessee Titans didn't get their New Year's wish Sunday afternoon.
If there's a team that the defending AFC champions would rather not run into next Sunday's divisional playoff, it's these Baltimore Ravens.
The Ravens' tough, tenacious defense presents the Titans with their ultimate test. Not many teams can out-physical Tennessee (13-3), but the Ravens (13-4) are one of the few.
Baltimore will have more than two months of momentum when they hit Adelphia Coliseum on Jan. 7. The Ravens have won an NFL-high eight consecutive games, with their most recent loss coming Oct. 29 at home to Pittsburgh. Included in that streak was a 24-23 Week 11 victory in Nashville, which made the Ravens the first and only team to have ever beaten the Titans at their new home.
Tennessee is 16-1 at home, including playoffs, in the two-year history of Adelphia.
The Ravens just match up well against Tennessee, and it's not hard to understand why. Baltimore stuffs the run, and the Titans rely on the run to set up everything in their offense. The Ravens allowed an NFL-record low of 60 yards rushing per game this season, and they shut down Tennessee's Eddie George as part of the success.
George ran for just 32 yards on 13 carries in the teams' two meetings, with some explanation required. In the first game, in mid-October, George went down with a knee sprain after one 4-yard carry. Baltimore, in the throes of its five-game touchdown drought, lost anyway, 14-6, despite holding the Titans to seven first downs and outgaining them 368-191 in total offense.
In the Ravens' November win at Adelphia, Tennessee finished with just 286 yards of offense, to Baltimore's 361. George carried 12 times for 28 yards in that game, which was decided when Titans kicker Al Del Greco missed an extra point and a last-minute, 43-yard field-goal try.
While the Ravens have slowed the Titans ground game and done a decent job containing quarterback Steve McNair, Baltimore has not had its formula for success ripped up by Tennessee. The Ravens have won this year on defense and Lewis' running. Against the Titans, Lewis ran for 58 yards on 17 attempts in Baltimore's loss, and 99 yards on 23 carries in its win.
Add it up and the bottom line is clear: Baltimore has a better chance than anyone else in the AFC to unseat the defending conference champions.