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Ravens gear up for payback time Team eager to atone for 'ugly loss' to Oilers


NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Center Wally Williams did not need to be reminded. Williams vividly recalled what happened the last time the Ravens met their AFC Central rivals from Tennessee.

That day of infamy was Oct. 11, and it began a midseason slide the Ravens have only begun to reverse. That game, an ugly 12-8 loss to the Oilers, featured a lousy showing on both sides -- non-stop penalties, non-existent offense.

It also sparked a four-game losing streak that pretty much killed Baltimore's playoff hopes.

The 5-7 Ravens are searching for payback against the 6-6 Oilers, who can ill afford to lose another game if they intend to play in January.

"This is kind of a redemption game for us," Williams said. "That first one was a very ugly game where nothing was accomplished. We didn't perform well. We kind of slid downhill after that loss. This could put us at 6-7 with an outside chance at the playoffs. And we want to beat somebody else in our [division] besides Cincinnati."

The Ravens, sporting a 2-5 mark against the AFC Central, have only a sweep of the last-place Bengals going for them. They already have been swept by Pittsburgh and Jacksonville. A victory today would pull them into a third-place tie with Tennessee.

A victory would also spell their first three-game winning streak since Sept. 21, 1997. That day, the Ravens played the most impressive game of their three-year history by crushing the Oilers on the road -- in Memphis -- by a 36-10 count.

Today, the Oilers are as banged up as they are desperate. Three starters, safety Blaine Bishop, offensive left tackle Brad Hopkins and wide receiver Yancy Thigpen, could return after missing substantial time with injuries.

Then there's quarterback Steve McNair, who has a left big toe injury that kept him in a boot splint last week.

A slower McNair certainly would help the Ravens. McNair basically won the first game on a busted play, which he turned into a 40-yard scramble through the heart of the Ravens' defense for the game's only touchdown.

One week after the 2-10 Colts shocked them by ringing up 540 yards of offense, nearly half of them courtesy of the remarkable Marshall Faulk, the Ravens also must contend with third-year star running back Eddie George. He ranks second in the AFC with 1,101 yards rushing. At least this time, the Ravens will have middle linebacker Ray Lewis on their side.

Lewis missed the first meeting against Tennessee with a dislocated elbow. The Ravens missed Lewis' presence on numerous successful draw plays by George, who burned them for 121 yards rushing. They sorely missed Lewis' speed on McNair's touchdown run.

"Ray Lewis plays like he's going to make every tackle if he has the chance to," Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher said. "There's not many people who can run -- with an [pursuit] angle or without an angle -- better than him."

"A lot of plays that should have happened in that first game didn't happen. The chemistry is going to be different this time," Lewis said. "My defense knows I'm going to be there [in the right spot]."

Besides tightening up their run defense, the Ravens also need a major rebound by cornerbacks Rod Woodson and Duane Starks, who turned in their worst collective effort of the year a week ago by helping Colts wide receiver Torrence Small look like Michael Irvin.

The difference in the game could come down to the veteran presence of quarterback Jim Harbaugh, who also missed the first Oilers game with elbow and finger injuries. That day, Tennessee dared backup passer Eric Zeier to beat them by loading up with eight-man fronts designed to stuff running back Priest Holmes.

The plan worked. Holmes gained only 29 yards, Zeier was overwhelmed by the constant blitzes on passing downs, and the Ravens' offense managed only two field goals. Unless Harbaugh keeps the Oilers honest, Baltimore's points could come in similar trickles.

Harbaugh got comfortable last week with a new set of receivers in Floyd Turner and James Roe, the same pair that will replace the injured Jermaine Lewis and Michael Jackson today. Turner and Roe each caught a touchdown pass against the Colts.

Special teams will figure prominently. Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda enjoyed the improved play of his special teams throughout November, when the Ravens went 3-2. Marchibroda sees field position and turnovers making the difference in a game between two evenly matched teams that figures to be close and low scoring. The Oilers are a bruising team on any

Sunday, and this is a win-or-watch-the-playoffs game for them.

"This is going to be a much tougher team than we've faced the last two weeks," said Marchibroda, referring to Cincinnati and Indianapolis. "It's a physical team and a talented team. Our guys better be ready."

NOTES: Ravens right defensive end Michael McCrary has lost the sacks lead in the AFC. The fact that his former teammate, Seattle's Michael Sinclair, has passed him makes it extremely tough for McCrary to take. Sinclair leads the AFC with 14; McCrary is second at 13.5. "The battle is on," McCrary said. "It's close. I knew it was going to come down to this." Fisher recalled the Oilers' first match with the Ravens. "It was unique," Fisher said. "We started the game on offense with a rookie right guard [Benji Olson]. We told the guy all week we were going to run the first play behind him, just to get his lip a little bloody and get him into the flow. So he jumps offsides on the first play. Two plays later, he gives up a sack [by Rob Burnett in the Tennessee end zone], and we're down, 2-0. We did some foolish things, and Baltimore didn't play well. We'll be in for a much better ballgame this time around."

Ravens today

Ravens at Oilers

Site: Vanderbilt Stadium, Nashville, Tenn.

Time: 4:15 p.m.

Line: Oilers by 6

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Pub Date: 12/06/98

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