|AFC Divisional Playoff Preview: Baltimore Ravens (12-5) at Tennessee Titans (13-3)
Jan 8, 2009
As the AFC South Champion Tennessee Titans prepare to take on the Wild Card Baltimore Ravens in an AFC Divisional Playoff game this Saturday, most fans will have a flashback to 2001. In that 2000 season, the Wild Card Ravens came to town to take on the AFC South Champion and #1 seed Titans and left a 24-10 winner and on the way to their franchise's only Super Bowl Championship. Though few players remain from that game, much of what was then remains now. Both teams are built around outstanding defenses and a strong running game. Both teams have QBs who are usually not asked to carry the offense but take care of the football. Both teams play the same high-intensity, smash-mouth style of football which made both teams successful eight years ago.
Though the scenario is almost identical from that game, Titans fans no doubt expect a different outcome while Ravens fans hope it is deja vu all over again.
Last week, the Ravens went to Miami and easily handled the Dolphins 27-9 in an AFC Wild Card game which included four Chad Pennington interceptions. The Titans, with a bye week as the #1 seed, focused on getting healthy. They will be hosting their first playoff game since beating the Steelers in a 2002 AFC Divisional Playoff.
When the Ravens have the ball
Rookie Joe Flacco improved throughout the season and ended the year with 2,971 yards, 14 TDs and 12 INTs. His 80.3 passer rating is almost identical to Kerry Collins. Last week, Flacco was 9-for-23 for only 135 yards but did run for a TD and took good care of the football. In their first meeting, Flacco was 18-for-27 for 153 yards and two INTs.
His top target is ex-Titan Derrick Mason who had a solid season with 80 receptions, 1,037 yards and 5 TDs. Mark Clayton (41 rec, 695 yds, 3 TDs) and Todd Heap (35 rec, 403 yds, 3 TDs) are his other options. Mason had 71 yards last week while Heap had a 31-yard reception. In their first matchup, the Titans held Mason to only 38 yards.
Le'Ron McClain and Willis McGahee have combined for 1573 yards and 17 TDs on the year. Both have a 3.9 yards per carry average. Against the 10th-ranked Dolphins run defense, McClain ran for 75 yards and McGahee 62. Rookie Ray Rice should return from a lingering calf problem and is a threat out-of-the-backfield in the passing game. In their first matchup, McClain and Rice combined for 115 yards against the Titans defense through there were a number of injuries on the defensive line for Tennessee.
Offensively, the Ravens rank 18th overall with 324.0 yards per game. Their passing game is ranked 28th and their rushing game 4th. They average 24.1 points per game which ranks them 11th in the NFL.
The Titans defense will see the return of Albert Haynesworth (51 tackles, 8.5 sacks) and Kyle Vanden Bosch (24 tackles, 4.5 sacks) though it's difficult to tell how much either will play. Haynesworth (knee) will be wearing a brace and Vanden Bosch (groin) may not know how explosive he can be until pre-game warmups. The Titans defensive line is deep with Tony Brown (52 tackles, 4 sacks) and Jevon Kearse (34 tackles, 3.5 sacks) starting and rookie Jason Jones (31 tackles, 5 sacks), Jacob Ford (26 tackles, 7 sacks), rookie William Hayes (13 tackles, 1 sack) and Kevin Vickerson (14 tackles, 2 sacks) seeing plenty of work in the rotation.
The Titans secondary is made up of Pro-Bowlers Chris Hope (4 INTs) and Cortland Finnegan (5 INTs) while Michael Griffin (7 INTs) and Nick Harper (2 INTs) have also been outstanding. The Titans linebackers are led by Keith Bulluck (98 tackles) with David Thornton (78 tackles) and Stephen Tulloch (84 tackles) having solid seasons.
Defensively, the Titans rank 7th overall allowing 293.6 yards per game. They are 9th against the pass and 6th versus the run. They have allowed only 14.6 point on average per game this season which ranks them 2nd in the NFL.
When the Titans have the ball
Kerry Collins ended the season 242-for-415 (58.3%) for 2,676 yards, 12 TDs, 7 INTs. He's done a good job taking care of the football and doing enough when necessary to win games. In their first match-up, he generated a game-winning 80-yard drive late in the fourth quarter but also threw two picks in the contest. Surprisingly, he'll be starting in his first playoff game since 2000 when he was with the Giants who eventually lost to the Ravens in the Super Bowl.
Justin Gage (34 rec, 6 TDs), Justin McCareins (30 rec) and Brandon Jones (58 rec, 1 TD) are the Titans best down-field threats but Bo Scaife (58 rec, 2 TDs) and Chris Johnson (43 rec, 1 TD) will likely be Collins top two targets Saturday. Alge Crumpler (24 rec, 1 TD) was on the receiving end of the game-winning TD in Baltimore in their first matchup and will be in the mix again Saturday. In their first match-up, the Titans TEs accounted for 10 of the team's 17 receptions but Gage was hurt in that contest.
The Titans offense starts with the running game and Pro-Bowl rookie Chris Johnson (1,228 yds, 9 TDs). Though he has had an outstanding season, he struggled in the first matchup against the Ravens generating only 44 yards. LenDale White (773 yds, 15 TDs) only had four yards on four attempts in that game.
The Titans offensive line has been solid but will be missing Pro-Bowl center Kevin Mawae with an elbow injury. Though Leroy Harris appears to be a solid backup, no doubt the OL will miss Mawae's leadership. Collins was not sacked in the team's first match-up in Week 5.
Offensively, the Titans rank 21st generating an average of 313.6 yards per game. They rank 27th passing and 7th rushing. They average scoring 23.4 points per game which ranks them 15th.
The Ravens defense continues to be the driving force behind Baltimore's success. They shut down the Dolphins Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown last week to the tune of 36 combined yards in addition to generating four turnovers. They are led by Ray Lewis (117 tackles, 3.5 sacks) and Ed Reed (41 tackles, 9 INTs in the reg. season) who are the best in the business. The supporting cast of Terrell Suggs (68 tackles, 8 sacks), Trevor Pryce (27 tackles, 4.5 sacks), Bart Scott (82 tackles, 2 sacks) and Haloti Ngata (55 tackles, 1 sack) are also outstanding. Reed is joined by ex-Titan Samari Rolle (23 tackles, 3 INTs), Fabian Washington (31 tackles, 1 INT) and Justin Leonhard (69 tackles, 1 INT) in the secondary.
Statistically, the Ravens defense finished 2nd in the league allowing 261.1 yards per game on average. They rank 2nd against the pass and 3rd against the run. They've allowed an average of 15.2 points per game which ranks them 3rd in the NFL.
Who has the edge?
The final analysis
How these teams got to this point is very different. The Titans started out strong and had the luxury of playing backups in their final regular-season game and having a bye week. The Ravens started as a very mediocre team, got hot late and appears to have peaked at the right time despite not having a bye week since mid-September. One has to wonder if or how much of an advantage the rest will give the Titans especially late in the game.
The Ravens like to pound McClain into the middle to soften up defenses
and then use McGahee to pop the big run. Expect to see some early carries at Haynesworth and Vanden Bosch to test them. No doubt the Titans defense will look to limit the run first and force Flacco to beat them with his arm and hopefully make some bad decisions. Flacco will work off of
play-action and use his big arm to find Mason or Heap. The Titans linebackers will need to find a way to support the run while keeping Heap in check. Generating a pass rush with the front four is key for the Titans defense. Finnegan and Harper need to repeat their performance on Mason they had in Week 5.
For the Titans, they must do a better job running the football than they did in their first match-up with the Ravens. Collins needs the run game to be good enough for play-action to effective and keep Lewis and Co. on their heels. Hopefully, Titans Offensive Coordinator Mike Heimerdinger can get the ball to Chris Johnson in space whether it be by the screen play or in the flat. Harris will need to step up big in place of Mawae because he'll have Bannon in his face all day. Look for the Titans to pass more on first down in this contest.
Collins will have to be sharp in the short passing game. He can't give Reed and the Ravens defense opportunities with deflected throws. The Ravens will be looking to do a better job in limiting Scaife and Crumpler which may open up some opportunities for the Titans WRs but, here too, Collins will have to be selective as to when he tests the Ravens secondary. Any turnover can be the difference in the game.
To say this game will be a low-scoring, intense, physical contest is an understatement. With the field wet and all or part of the game taking place in the rain, the team who can maintain the better field position and take care of the football will win. This places more emphasis on the Titans special teams. Bironas and Hentrich must be difference-makers. The Titans must avoid giving away cheap yards to the Ravens with penalties. Both teams will be looking to make a statement so there could be a few personal fouls early. The Titans must play physical but smart.
If the Titans can get an early lead and force Flacco to throw the ball more, it'll be a big advantage for Tennessee. However, the Titans offense has started slow in many games this season and may show a little rust early. If the Ravens get an early lead, this game may unfold like the first in Baltimore with the winner the team who makes the plays in the fourth quarter.
I truly believe there is a distinct advantage having the experience of Coach Jeff Fisher and Collins over a first-year coach and QB in this game. I also think the Titans offensive and defensive lines are not only better-rested but more talented and will eventually win the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.
For Titans fans, this is what it's all about. This game could be one we are talking to the grandkids about. In what will become a classic, I think we'll see the Titans take command late in this game with the result being they host the AFC Championship next Sunday for the first time in franchise history.
Prediction: Titans 20 - Ravens 13