Ravens Beat Titans, Advance to AFC Championship Game
Sunday, January 11, 2009
NASHVILLE, Jan. 10 -- They were shocked. They were tired. They were worn down and beaten up. One by one, the stars of the NFL's most feared defense fell wounded on the soggy LP Field turf Saturday evening, crawling, hobbling, sometimes holding onto shoulders. Down went Terrell Suggs, the daunting 260-pound linebacker with a shoulder sprain. Down went Samari Rolle, the cornerback they have come to depend on so much, his leg so sore he could barely walk.
The rest of the Baltimore Ravens limped and gritted through pain, having absorbed a blow from the Tennessee Titans they couldn't have seen coming. Suddenly ordinary, with Titans rolling up yards no one has gained against them this year, with backups to backups suddenly thrust into this AFC second-round playoff game, they would not crack in a 13-10 victory.
"Don't let them get over the goal line!" several Ravens players said they shouted to one another, as Tennessee, the holder of the league's best regular season record at 13-3, repeatedly pushed up against the end zone.
And again and again, Baltimore's defense would not let the Titans in, forcing fumbles, interceptions and a missed field goal to survive what had to have been its grittiest victory of the season. Because for once in this frantic postseason run, the Ravens would not be able to use their defense as their best offense. This time the defense didn't make the big tackles or sack the quarterback. This time the defense gave up 391 yards -- by far the most it allowed all year. This time the defense had to use something else.
"I call it resiliency," linebacker Bart Scott said as he stood in an empty Ravens locker room almost an hour after place kicker Matt Stover's game-winning 43-yard field goal had sailed through the south goalposts with 53 seconds left in the game.
Whatever the word, the game that put the Ravens within a win of the Super Bowl was very different than those they played this season or in 2000, when they made a similar run and won the Super Bowl. They did not dominate on defense. They did not make the Titans fear them. Instead they survived, either by the force of their will or by the Titans' sudden unfortunate habit of giving the ball away at the worst times.
"They were under pressure, too," Scott said of the Titans, who kept coming so close to the touchdowns that would have broken this game open. "They were fighting for every inch. Fighting to get in [the end zone], sometimes when you do that, you let the ball get exposed a bit."
Down a long corridor beneath the stadium's north stands, Tennessee running back LenDale White stood at his locker wearing giant sunglasses. His fumble on the 22-yard line just before halftime in a game tied at 7 might have been the most devastating of the Titans' mistakes. If he had held onto the ball, the Titans would probably have kicked a field goal to take a 10-7 lead before halftime that might have seemed like 20-7 to the exhausted Ravens defensive players.
"I should have done something to hold onto the ball," White said, his eyes still staring straight ahead through the glasses, even though the question came from his side. "If I hold on to the ball we are ahead at halftime and we win the game."
He shook his head.
"I don't fumble. I don't do that," he said.
But this is the thing about the Ravens' defense. Even when it isn't very good, even when the interceptions and fumble recoveries are made deep against its own end zone and come more from desperation than dominance, it has a magical ability to make teams break.
In the second quarter, after a nearly eight-minute drive downfield, Titans quarterback Kerry Collins appeared to panic in the face of a Baltimore pass rush and lobbed a ball toward the end zone. It landed in Rolle's arms at the 9-yard line.
Then came White's fumble on the 17.
After that was Tennessee place kicker Rob Bironas's missed field goal attempt from 51 yards.
Then came a fourth-quarter pass to tight end Alge Crumpler, who caught the ball on the Ravens 6-yard line, only to fumble when hit by Baltimore safety Jim Leonhard.
"I think, in the end, our guys found a way to win," Ravens Coach John Harbaugh said.
In some ways, it's hard to understand just how Baltimore's defense had come to be so dominant this year. The Ravens have been overwhelmed with injuries. Several starters, including Chris McAlister, one of the best cornerbacks in the league, have gone down. Many for the whole season. And yet somehow the Baltimore defense has grown stronger, not weaker. What is it that makes this group so different?
"I think our whole team is special," Scott said. "Two years ago, we had the best defense in the league, everyone thought we were going to go to the Super Bowl and Peyton Manning [and the Indianapolis Colts] beat us in the [same round as Saturday]. That was a record-setting defense, but it didn't get it done. This team is different because we went through last year and all the injuries we had. We went 5-11 but we learned how to play through it."
At one point Saturday, the Ravens' defense was so depleted that Edgar Jones, a tight end, was playing linebacker. And still it held.
Then, when the players filed into the locker room, former linebacker O.J. Brigance, a member of the 2000 defense who now is suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, addressed them.
"The mission is not complete," he said.
His words hung in the air.
"How can you not want to compete after that?" Scott asked.
And so they will for one more week, survivors of a game they probably never should have won.