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Strong Titans expose Ravens' weaknesses

THERE WAS smash-mouth football played at M&T; Bank Stadium yesterday, but this time it was the Ravens who were shoved around, and then exposed.

If the Ravens wanted to make a statement in the postseason, it came through loud and clear. This team has too many problems, including a glaring one at quarterback, to make it through the playoffs. The Ravens aren't ready for prime time.

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As kicker Gary Anderson's 46-yard field goal sailed through the uprights with 29 seconds remaining to give the Tennessee Titans a 20-17 opening-round playoff win, it ended a game in which most of the Ravens' problems this season were fully on display.

Besides their quarterback problem, the Ravens had no receivers who scared the Titans' secondary, or at least enough to force them off the line of scrimmage. A lack of discipline resulted in eight penalties for 70 yards, and the Ravens' offensive brain trust started to panic in the third quarter.

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There was more. Hot-and-cold punt returner Lamont Brightful was cold, and a small defensive line that had relied on quickness and athleticism for most of the season wore down and was pushed around by a bigger offensive line.

"It's hard to talk about it right now," Ravens tight end Todd Heap said of the loss. "Not too many words can describe. ... We're hurting right now. We're not feeling too good about ourselves. We never really got it going today. Give a lot of credit to the Titans. They played a great game. They deserved to win probably more than we did."

The Ravens were fortunate to hang around until the end. They got a 56-yard interception return for a touchdown from safety Will Demps in the first quarter, and a 35-yard touchdown pass from Anthony Wright to Heap in the fourth quarter to tie the game at 17-17 with 4:30 remaining.

But other than that, the Titans controlled the pace of the game. They had 324 yards of offense, compared to 255 for the Ravens. They had nearly an 11-minute advantage in time of possession as Tennessee ran Eddie George, and the Ravens couldn't run Jamal Lewis. Totals for Lewis: 14 carries, 35 yards. Totals for George: 25 carries, 88 yards.

Tennessee crammed eight players near the line of scrimmage and held gap control to contain Lewis, which was nothing new for the Ravens. But Tennessee also has a shut-down cornerback in Samari Rolle, and the one opposite of him, Andre Dyson, isn't bad either.

No team, with the exception of the Ravens, has these type of cornerbacks in the AFC North, which is why the Ravens were able to get away with receivers like Marcus Robinson, Frank Sanders and Travis Taylor. Not yesterday.

"You have to make some plays on the outside for this thing to soften up," said Lewis, referring to his wish for next season. "I hope we will be able to throw the ball outside a little bit more and be able to catch the ball downfield, and do what we have to and not worry about denying me against the 10-man fronts."

So, with Lewis out of the way, the Titans forced Wright to beat them. That's a good idea. Wright can't carry the Ravens, or any other team. He completed 20 of 37 passes for 214 yards, but he had two interceptions, one resulting in Anderson's 45-yard field goal.

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You have to ask yourself what it would have been like if the Ravens had acquired a veteran like Mark Brunell during the offseason to go along with those eight Pro Bowl players.

But it wasn't all Wright's fault. Ravens coach Brian Billick and offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh panicked in the second half. What else is new? The Ravens led 10-7 at the end of the half, but they came out throwing on four of their first six offensive plays in the third quarter.

After Tennessee went ahead 14-10 on a 49-yard touchdown pass from Steve McNair to Justin McCareins, the Ravens threw on five of their next six plays during their next two possessions.

The team with the league's No. 1 running game and the top running back quickly lost its identity and any semblance of balance.

If you're going to lose, you should lose with Lewis, not Wright.

"I knew they were going to soften up sooner or later," Lewis said. "I think they did soften up a little bit in the fourth quarter, but we just didn't stick with it. We didn't pound it like we should have in the fourth quarter."

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While the Ravens were losing their identity, the Titans were finding their own. Entering the game, they were a team that took chances. But with the Ravens showing no signs of offensive life, Titans coach Jeff Fisher went conservative.

Seven times on third down in the second half, the Titans ran the ball, basically taunting the Ravens to beat them. Tennessee had 165 yards rushing on 40 carries, and the Titans kept running off tackle behind Brad Hopkins and Fred Miller, who overpowered Ravens defensive linemen Marques Douglas and Tony Weaver.

"Take no credit from Tennessee. They had a good game plan and came out and executed it against our defense. I take my hat off to them," Weaver said. "Their runners were cutting back a lot, and their linemen were strong. I'm not going to lie to you - they came pretty straight at us."

The Titans could do what they weren't successful at for most of the season. Tennessee could mount a drive, or at least gain enough yardage to win the field-position battle. The Titans didn't commit dumb penalties. The Ravens were penalized three times for false starts. Right offensive tackle Orlando Brown had a personal foul penalty and an unnecessary roughness penalty, the last one resulting in the Ravens punting from their 20 instead of their 35 on their next-to-last possession.

Tennessee started the game-winning drive on its 37 with 2:44 left in the game after Brown was penalized.

Said Billick: "It's unfortunate. In the heat of battle, things like that will happen. Those things usually cost you like that."

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It has been happening most of the season. It's a lack of discipline, and it has to come from the coaching staff. Something needs to be done, whether it's a fine or a benching. Maybe the Ravens need to snap the ball on the count of one all the time because they apparently can't count past two.

Some of the same mistakes were recycled yesterday. There were two or three times Brightful cost the Ravens field position inside their 20 because he failed to catch a punt and allowed it to roll.

All of the Ravens' mistakes throughout the season seemed to pile up yesterday. For most of the season, they had been lucky enough to get away with them. That can happen in the AFC North. The Ravens almost got away with it again yesterday.

But they didn't. Tennessee took the Ravens' old-school approach and beat them by bringing all of their weaknesses to the surface.


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