Touchdown returns difference-maker for Ravens
By Jon A. Dolezar, CNNSI.com
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Baltimore Ravens had many happy returns in their second visit to Nashville in eight weeks.
Well, maybe not many, but two was enough to dethrone the defending AFC champion and stick a black feather firmly in the turf of Adelphia Coliseum to claim it as their home away from home.
In dropping the Tennessee Titans to 16-2 at their two-year old home stadium, Keith Washington, Anthony Mitchell and Ray Lewis provided the heroics, combining for two game-turning plays in a 5 1/2-minute span of the fourth quarter that broke the hearts of a franchise-record crowd of 68,527.
Titans kicker Al Del Greco had already missed two field-goal attempts when he lined up to try to give the Titans a 13-10 lead with 12 1/2 minutes to play. Ravens reserve defensive end Keith Washington plowed through the line, and despite losing his helmet, blocked Del Greco's 37-yard attempt, sending the ball twirling in the air across the line of scrimmage.
Unlike Washington's first blocked field-goal attempt of the day in the second quarter, which fell harmlessly to the turf, a Ravens defender was in the right place at the right time to make something happen.
A reserve free safety, Mitchell picked the ball out of the air at the Ravens' 10-yard line and headed toward the sideline. Titans tight end Frank Wycheck had a shot at him, but a late block downfield by cornerback Chris McAlister sprung Mitchell for the touchdown and opened up a 17-10 lead for the visitors. Del Greco could only trail hopelessly behind the play as Mitchell ran into the end zone.
"I tried to predict the trajectory of the ball, and I just went up and I got a piece of that one, but I thought it still might make it," Washington said. "But the second one I blocked, that was pretty clean. I got a nice piece of that. The first block, I got on the tip of my fingers. But the second one, I got with my whole hand."
Washington, defensive end Rob Burnett and reserve defensive tackle Lional Dalton all got a tremendous push on Tennessee's line, and Burnett had enough height on his jump that it appeared he may have blocked the low-flying kick if Washington hadn't.
"They had me lined up on No. 71 [Titans left tackle Fred Miller] because he was weak and he couldn't take a bull rush," Dalton said. "They set me up with him because I have a pretty good bull rush. This enabled Keith to swim right through and block the ball."
"It's the bounce," Titans head coach Jeff Fisher said. "As a rule, if the ball goes across the line of scrimmage, you let it lay. They picked it up and ran back for a touchdown. We had two behind the line of scrimmage. We couldn't get a bounce."
After a three-and-out and another short series that brought the ball to midfield, it was time for Baltimore's opportunistic defense to strike again. And this bounce ended the season for Fisher and the Titans.
Titans running back Eddie George released out of the backfield into the right flat, and Steve McNair hit him in the hands, though the pass was thrown slightly behind George and caused him to stumble and lose his stride. Two bounces later, NFL Defensive Player of the Year Ray Lewis caught up to George, picked the ball out of the air and raced 50 yards down the left sideline to put the Titans away.
"It was a good football play by Ray Lewis," Fisher said. "The ball was a little bit behind [George], and Steve was under pressure. We just did not get a bounce against this club. In a lot of ways, that is a compliment to them. You need to make plays like that. You need to get a bounce here and there in a game like this to have a chance to win, and they did."
Lewis' first career interception return for a touchdown was punctuated by an end zone shimmy that signified the Ravens' ascension to the dominant team in the AFC Central.
"It came at the right time," Lewis said. "It was a good play. I just broke on the ball, saw him bobble it and grabbed it. Then I saw the end zone. I was tired but I got there. It was just a great feeling."
George didn't blame a slightly off pass from McNair, knowing that it is a catch that he needs to -- and usually does -- make.
"It bounced off my hand and hit my shoulder pad," George said. "I should have made the play."
Tennessee forced 12 fumbles in the first two meetings with Baltimore this season, but recovered none of them. For the third time this season against the Ravens, lady luck was wearing purple and black.
"It was just freak plays," Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse said. "The interception that Ray Lewis had barely bounced out of Eddie's hand like he was handing it off to Ray."
"You knew it was going to come down to something like that," Ravens head coach Brian Billick said. "With two physical teams, you knew it was going to come down to something unique. We could do this nine more times, and we would win five and they would win five."