Exasperated and exhilarated, his clothes sopping with Gatorade and his voice reduced to a forceful rasp, Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick strode into delirium's center and asked to be heard. Though their astounding 24-10 AFC divisional playoff win over the Tennessee Titans had ended just moments earlier, the Ravens brought their joyous locker-room cacophony of whoops and hollers to a halt. Billick scanned the room. The players hung on his next word. First, however, there was a bit of business to attend to.
"Turn off all the cameras, now!" Billick said to the film crews that were recording the scene, and given his recent experience with taped postgame speeches, who could blame him? Not after a video montage, prepared by the Titans' marketing staff, had whirred to life on the Adelphia Coliseum Jumbotron moments before the two blood-feuding Central Division rivals squared off on Sunday. As Tennessee fans showered them with boos, the shocked Baltimore players and staff looked on as the video—entitled A Special Message from Brian Billick and the Baltimore Ravens—showed Ravens celebrating on the sideline following their 24-23 upset of the Titans on Nov. 12 and culminated with locker-room footage of Billick waving a copy of SI, which had Tennessee running back Eddie George on the cover with words proclaiming the Titans the league's best team. "Maybe that's true," Billick crowed on the screen, in reference to the headline, "but not today!"
Now, in the aftermath of Baltimore's latest win, Billick had something else to say, something intended for his Ravens' ears only. According to one player, Billick smiled, and everyone leaned close. Then Billick said, "F—- the Tennessee Titans!"—and the noise in the locker room returned to its frenzied pitch.
In front of the lockers along the far wall, a group of players as motley and mostly unheralded as it is dominant screamed louder than the rest. All season Baltimore's defense had built a case for being ranked among the game's alltime best. Yet, because of the eclipsing star power of All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis (SI, Jan. 8), the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year, no other member of the unit, except perhaps strong safety Rod Woodson, who had earned his future Hall of Famer reputation during 10 seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, received much acclaim.
The Ravens' defenders talked a lot of trash about the Titans leading up to the game and then backed it up by walloping Tennessee on the field. "Facing our defense is like having 11 billiard balls thrown at you," says defensive end Rob Burnett. "Eventually, you're going to get hurt and lose your will. Imagine what it's like to finish a run against us, and look up and see seven or eight purple jerseys standing over you."
In light of his game-high 12 tackles and second-quarter hit on Titans quarterback Steve McNair—who briefly left the game woozy and was mostly ineffective thereafter—Lewis remains the undisputed soul of the Baltimore defense. His frequent collisions with George, who bore the brunt of the Ravens' pregame smack, set an intimidating tone and helped Baltimore stay in the game after Tennessee's impressive 68-yard opening drive for a touchdown. Later, Lewis's 50-yard interception return for a touchdown, with 6:41 remaining and the Ravens holding a 17-10 lead, was the crushing blow. "Ray is our leader, no question," says second-year cornerback Chris McAlister, "but it's not like we have any weaknesses."
Indeed, as good as Lewis is, he benefits from a scheme that funnels ballcarriers right to him, a master plan made possible by a front four that is the AFC's best. Stalwart tackles Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams, a free-agent pickup last April from the Seattle Seahawks, are expert run stuffers who occupy blockers. On the outside, Burnett and end Michael McCrary are speed rushers who force the action back inside while repeatedly getting to the passer. Meanwhile, the secondary, anchored by Woodson and featuring the dynamic duo of McAlister and third-year corner Duane Starks, makes throwing on the Ravens a formidable task.
"After the Titans' first drive, we made adjustments and put the clamps on them, and I love these guys for that," the chatty Siragusa said of a defense that allowed only three points in the game's final 52 minutes, a field goal that came after Tennessee had blocked a punt and recovered the ball at the Baltimore 27. "Everyone wanted to make so much of which team had the better defense, but the guys in this locker room know who the best is."
Of course, given the players under discussion, Siragusa's statement begs the question: best at what? At the fine art of holding court, the voluble Siragusa, a mammoth (6'3", 340 pounds) 11-year veteran, is king. The most underrated of the bunch is Burnett, another 11-year man who, with kicker Matt Stover and defensive tackle Larry Webster, is one of only three holdovers from the days when the Ravens were the Cleveland Browns. Slow to recover from a 1996 left knee injury, Burnett established career highs in 2000 for tackles (97) and sacks (10�). As for Baltimore's best cornerback, it's too close to call. McAlister, the 10th pick in the '99 draft, has followed a stellar career at Arizona with exceptional play, but his four interceptions during the regular season were second on the team to six by Starks, the 10th player selected in '98, out of Miami. "I guess some people consider ours to be among the NFL's best defenses," says four-year outside linebacker Peter Boulware, "but there's Ray and then just a lot of hard-hat-wearin' guys here. We're not that flashy."
Nor are they fashion plates, as evidenced by the fatigues that hung in the lockers of the Ravens' nine defensive linemen on Sunday. A visit to an army-navy surplus store—Adams's idea—got the group properly, if not attractively, outfitted for what Adams called "the war that we all expected today. These were two of the best going head-to-head, so we wanted to look the part."