NASHVILLE, Tenn.—The Ravens beat the Tennessee Titans as much on memory as they did on willpower yesterday.
It was a game of deja vu for tight end Shannon Sharpe, redemption for wide receiver Patrick Johnson and sheer joy for quarterback Trent Dilfer, all of whom had been down this road before.This time, a nine-play, 70-yard touchdown drive in the last two minutes delivered a dramatic 24-23 victory for the Ravens in the bubbling caldron that was Adelphia Coliseum.
Trailing 23-17 after a Dilfer interception was returned for a touchdown by Perry Phenix, the Ravens had the ball on their own 30 with 2:18 on the clock.
Reminiscent, Sharpe thought, of his career in Denver, where he helped Broncos quarterback John Elway become the NFL's comeback king.
"I told the defense: `When I come back, I'm coming back with seven points,' " he said later. "A situation like that, they don't believe you."[But] I've been in situations like this so many times with John."
Nine plays later, Johnson made amends for dropping an almost-certain long touchdown pass by catching a game-winning 2-yard throw from Dilfer with 25 seconds left.
It was left for kicker Matt Stover to add the biggest extra point of his season - after Tennessee's Al Del Greco missed his and a subsequent 43-yard field-goal try at the gun. The Ravens' drive may prove to be the biggest of the season, for what it accomplished and what it meant.
"Shannon was so calm in the huddle," said Johnson, the Ravens' third-year wide receiver. "It was amazing to see how calm he was. Trent was poised and calm. They really led us down the field."
The victory boosted the Ravens to 7-4 and within 1 1/2 games of the first-place Titans (8-2) in the AFC Central. It was Tennessee's first-ever loss at Adelphia after 12 straight wins. But more importantly, it stamped Baltimore as a viable playoff team in the AFC.
The Ravens will play four of their last five games at PSINet Stadium, a reward for their arduous early-season road schedule.
At the least, the Ravens are armed with newfound confidence for the stretch run.
"This is a tad bigger than [September's comeback victory over] Jacksonville just because of the situation we're in," said defensive end Michael McCrary. "This is no longer the old Ravens, where we'd lose a game like that at the end. For our offense to be able to keep its poise and patience twice this year is absolutely amazing."
Dilfer was a big part of the poise equation. The seven-year veteran hit 23 of 36 passes for 281 yards, including a perfectly timed, 46-yard touchdown strike to Qadry Ismail in the first quarter.
"Poise has a lot of different faces," Dilfer said. "For some, it's that bland stare and undying confidence. For others, it's an absolute will.
"For me, poise is just trusting the people around me. I've lacked poise in my career because I didn't trust what's going on around me. I told these guys I've worked my whole career to play with a bunch of guys like this."
Dilfer had a sense of deja vu, too. With the score tied at 17 in the fourth quarter, linebacker Peter Boulware had stripped Titans quarterback Steve McNair of the ball. Defensive end Rob Burnett recovered at the Tennessee 22.
But on third down from the 19, with the Ravens positioning for a Stover field goal, Dilfer threw an interception that was returned 87 yards by Perry Phenix for a go-ahead touchdown. The intended receiver was Johnson.
"I've done that four times in my career," Dilfer said, shaking his head. "I've been picked four times on that exact same play, once against Arizona in an identical situation.
"I thought I got 35 [Phenix] to move just enough to get the slant in behind him. You do stupid things once in a while. That was a terrible time to do it."
When Del Greco inexplicably missed the extra point, the six-point deficit hung on the scoreboard as enticement to the Ravens.
"I couldn't believe something that good happened to me," Dilfer said.
He regrouped on the bench with a prayer, and then answered one for the Ravens. The pass that got the Ravens into Titans' territory was an ad-lib scramble that became a 36-yard pass to Sharpe.
Flushed out of the pocket to his right on third-and-five, Dilfer found Sharpe on a sideline adjustment to the Tennessee 29.
"Shannon's sense of timing when a quarterback is out of the pocket is like nothing I've seen in my life," Dilfer said. "It's like we're reading each other's minds."
Although Sharpe made the catch and rolled out of bounds on the play, officials at first ruled him down inbounds. Because he had not been touched before going out, the ruling was corrected and the Ravens regained not only five seconds on the clock, but their second timeout as well.
From there, there was a 3-yard toss to Jermaine Lewis out of the backfield, a 5-yard pass to Sharpe and an incompletion in the end zone. On fourth-and-two from the 21, Dilfer lobbed a fade pass for Ismail at the goal line. The ball fell incomplete when Dainon Sidney ran into Ismail, and the ensuing pass interference call gave the Ravens first-and-goal at the 2.
After a no-gain run by Jamal Lewis (99 yards on 23 carries), Dilfer stopped the clock at 29 seconds with a spike. Then Ravens coach Brian Billick called a "Change Left Zeke, Quick Sprint Right 17," with Johnson as the primary receiver.
It was double redemption for Johnson, who not only dropped a would-be touchdown throw earlier in the game, but dropped another one in the end zone a year ago here in a 14-11 loss to the Titans.
"It was the exact same scenario as last year," Johnson said. "I had to face my demons from last year, too. I can't believe I had the opportunity to make another play."
Johnson lined up in the slot to the right, inside Ismail. While Ismail drove to the corner of the end zone, taking cornerback Denard Walker with him, Johnson raced toward the sideline with Samari Rolle in pursuit.
Rolle tangled momentarily with Johnson, who made the catch and managed to get both feet down in bounds in the end zone.
The Ravens still had to survive one last challenge from the Titans. A kickoff return to the Tennessee 44, an 11-yard pass and a 20-yard scramble by McNair set up Del Greco for a 43-yard field-goal attempt to win the game. Del Greco was wide right, turning Tennessee's cheers into tears.
Right tackle Harry Swayne isn't sure the Ravens have seen the last of the Titans - or Adelphia - this season.
"I wouldn't be surprised if we have to come back here for the playoffs," Swayne said. "If that's the case, it'd be like we've been here, let's do it again."