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NFL SCOREBOARD: Preview
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Baltimore at Oakland
Posted: Sunday January 14, 2001 06:24 AM
Baltimore Ravens
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OAKLAND, California (Ticker) -- Jon Gruden and Brian Billick did not take long to bring a pair of storied franchises back to the AFC championship game.

On Sunday, the Oakland Raiders host the Baltimore Ravens with a trip to Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa on the line.

In his third season as coach, Gruden has the Raiders in the AFC championship game for the first time since January 1991.

Billick needed just two years to take the transplanted Ravens to the AFC title game. Known as the Cleveland Browns before long-time owner Art Modell moved the team to Baltimore in 1996, the Ravens knocked off the defending AFC champion Tennessee Titans, 24-10 last week.

Modell saw his old Browns lose in all three of their AFC championship games to the Denver Broncos in 1986, 1987 and 1989 and has never been to a Super Bowl.

Raiders owner Al Davis has three Super Bowl titles, with the last coming in January 1984, a 38-9 rout of the Washington Redskins.

But Davis would rather forget Oakland's last appearance in an AFC title game, a 51-3 disaster against the Buffalo Bills 10 years ago.

Both Gruden and Billick developed reputations as offensive strategists while part of the San Francisco 49ers' Super Bowl legacy. Gruden worked under George Seifert and Mike Holmgren, and Billick under Bill Walsh and Dennis Green.

But the Ravens are here because of their defense, which set an NFL record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season with 165.

Last week, NFL Defensive Player of the Year Ray Lewis returned an interception 50 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter to seal the win over Tennessee.

On Sunday, Lewis and the rest of the Ravens defense match up against the NFL's No. 1 rushing offense. The Raiders averaged 154.4 yards on the ground with Tyrone Wheatley and Napolean Kaufman providing the contrasting styles in the backfield.

Quarterback Rich Gannon bolstered the attack with 529 rushing yards, averaging 5.9 yards per carry, and ran for critical first downs in last week's 27-0 rout of Miami. But Baltimore is the league's best team against the run, yielding just 60.6 yards per game.

"It will be a great challenge for us," Gruden said. "We have to move the pile and be as aggressive and assertive as we can. And we'll have to be creative as well."

The "creative" part may involve reverses, but Gruden will likely rely on Gannon more than usual. With the ability to roll out and effectively throw in the pocket, Gannon passed for 3,430 yards and 28 touchdowns this season.

"I would say of the four teams left, Oakland is the most balanced and Gannon is probably the best quarterback," Billick said. "He is the most experienced and has been very consistent for them."

Tim Brown is Gannon's chief target, catching 76 passes for 1,128 yards and 11 touchdowns.

The role of Baltimore quarterback Trent Dilfer is quite different. He has completed only 14-of-30 passes for 247 yards and one touchdown in playoff wins over Denver and Tennessee, but did not commit any turnovers.

Baltimore's defense and special teams outscored the offense, 14-10, in the win over Tennessee. Rookie Anthony Mitchell returned a blocked field goal 90 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter to give the Ravens their first lead before Lewis sealed the win with his interception.

Against the Titans, Dilfer made only one big play -- a 56-yard completion to tight end Shannon Sharpe -- which set up a one-yard touchdown run by rookie Jamal Lewis.

"They said we couldn't beat Denver with Trent, and look what we did against Denver," Sharpe said. "They said we couldn't beat Tennessee with Trent, and we did."

The Raiders will key on Lewis, who rushed for 1,364 yards this season but was held to 47 yards on 17 carries by Tennessee.

Oakland recorded the first playoff shutout in its history last week against Miami and held 1,000-yard rusher Lamar Smith to four yards on eight carries.

Nickel back Tory James had two interceptions, including one he returned 90 yards for a score.

The teams are meeting for the just the third time since the Ravens relocated from Cleveland. Baltimore won the previous two, including a 13-10 victory in November 1998 on a 30-yard field goal by Matt Stover with nine minutes left.

Ravens defensive end Michael McCrary matched a career-high with four sacks in that game. On Sunday, he will match up against Raiders second-year tackle Barry Sims.

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