What We Learned
Three things we learned after the Ravens-Titans game
By Jon A. Dolezar, CNNSI.com
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Baltimore Ravens did it the old-fashioned way -- with defense and special teams -- to upset the favored Tennessee Titans at Adelphia Coliseum to advance to the AFC Championship Game. Here are three things we learned from Baltimore's 24-10 win against Tennessee.
1. A rivalry isn't a rivalry until the team that isn't supposed to win wins. Two Adelphia upsets later by Baltimore, welcome to the pre-eminent AFC rivalry, 21st Century style.
The former Browns and Oilers couldn't have seen this coming five years ago. Financial success was eluding Art Modell and Bud Adams as their ordinary teams played in their less-than-ordinary stadiums. On the verge of uprooting their franchises to medium-sized, blue-collar Baltimore and Nashville, the mediocre AFC Central teams couldn't have looked five years down the road and seen the best emerging rivalry in the NFL.
Pittsburgh ruled the roost, and expansion Jacksonville would soon come along and steal its thunder. But Cleveland and Houston ... hardly.
After laying down new roots, the teams slowly built their franchises into typical AFC Central-style teams -- Jacksonville being the obvious exception -- complete with a slow, methodical offense and a powerful, punishing defense.
"We came in here six weeks ago and we beat Tennessee," Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe said. "They didn't want to play us again. They were hoping the Broncos would beat us last week so we wouldn't have to come down here. ... No one thought we would beat them, but we had them [Sunday]. We came into their backyard with so much at stake and we beat them by two touchdowns."
Baltimore certainly had them, despite gaining just six first downs and 134 total yards. In the AFC Central, you don't need to score a lot to win, as the Ravens proved by going 2-3 during a five-game touchdownless streak in October.
"This is a pretty rough division," Titans wide receiver Yancey Thigpen said. "There aren't a lot of finesse teams in this division. In this division, it's all about making the big plays. We are going to pound you, so it's all about who can make the plays at the right time and one or two plays in a game can make a difference in this type of a division."
The Ravens made the keys plays Sunday, and in doing so invented a new kind of fuzzy math -- where No. 2 is actually better than No. 1. Despite finishing a game behind Tennessee in the division standings, Baltimore was clearly the stronger team top to bottom this season, its three-game October losing streak notwithstanding.
"They are the new team to beat in the AFC," Titans wide receiver Carl Pickens said. "They showed that [Sunday]. They are capable of winning on the road. They can win in a hostile environment. Obviously, it didn't affect them. They played great and they deserved it."
2. The Titans' offense slowed considerably after a quick start. Conservative play calling and the league's all-time best scoring defense combined to stop Tennessee's offense almost as quickly as it started.
After an impressive 68-yard, seven-minute, 17-second scoring drive to open the game, the Titans' offense bogged down once it reached Ravens territory and wasn't able to find the end zone again.
The Titans rolled up 317 yards against the league's No. 2 defense yardage-wise, but the end zone was evasive after Eddie George's 2-yard touchdown for a 7-0 Titans lead midway through the first quarter.
"I don't think we changed anything," Thigpen said. "I think they may have made some adjustments. You have to be able to make adjustments, not just at halftime, but right away. ... I don't know if we didn't make the adjustments, but they came out and did a great job on us for the remainder of the game."
The play of Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis may have had something to do with it, too. After recording one tackle on the opening drive, Lewis seemed to be everywhere, shadowing Titans running back Eddie George from sideline to sideline, punishing him with hard hits on runs and passes alike. Lewis rallied from a slow start to record 11 tackles in the remainder of the game, as well as the back-breaking interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
"Honestly, the only change we made [after the first drive] was tackling," Lewis said. "That first drive we missed a lot of tackles. But we came out in the second half and everybody made plays."
Tennessee used two tight ends for almost the entire second half, but even adding 6-5, 270-pound rookie tight end Erron Kinney to the blocking formations didn't spring any big runs for the Titans. Tennessee used tight end Frank Wycheck in the backfield in an H-Back role in an attempt to cross up Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis' troops. But Baltimore's defense hung tough against the run and the pass equally well, and Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger's wrinkle didn't move the ball any better.
"They made some typical adjustments, and when we opened it up, they started pressuring us," Fisher said. "If we were able to make a couple of kicks, we would have been able to run the ball more. We ran the ball as good as we've run against their defense."
Fisher was referring to the Titans' 47 pass attempts, well above their season average of 28.9 passes per game. George carried 27 times for 91 yards and a TD, but only 10 of those carries for 30 yards came in the second half, with Tennessee forced to pass once it fell behind in the fourth quarter.
3. Al Del Greco is a 76.7 percent kicker lifetime, but after struggling badly during the Titans' two home losses to the Ravens this season, Tennessee may be shopping for a kicker in the offseason.
Not even a miracle of Dysonian proportions could rescue the Titans from this mess. Despite two blocked punts, Tennessee's special-teams play ended up costing it the game, with Del Greco's faulty field-goal kicking at the heart of the matter.
Del Greco had two blocked, knocked one off the left upright and missed his first attempt of the game from 50 yards, though it was nullified by an offside penalty. However, that only served to add more embarrassment, as the subsequent 45-yard try was partially blocked by Ravens reserve defensive end Keith Washington.
"I never remember missing three in a day," Del Greco said. "I have never thought of that, much less had it happen. I wish I could change it all, but all I can do is my best. The way it is meant to come out is how it will happen. Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to happen for us."
Fisher refused to pin blame on Del Greco and wouldn't speculate as to whether the Titans would look for a kicker to bring in next season as a possible replacement for Del Greco or to compete with him in camp.
"I really couldn't tell you right now," Fisher said. "I'm an Al Del Greco fan. I have no other reason not to stand behind Al, so it's a little early for that."