First playoff win since '01 ripples across NFL

The Baltimore Sun

MIAMI - As if his play yesterday wasn't statement enough, Ed Reed stood behind a bouquet of microphones and fired a warning shot that surely echoed from South Beach to Tennessee.

"Here we come," said Reed. "Here come the Ravens."

Actually, it probably wasn't a warning as much as it was a promise. With their dominant 27-9 win over the Dolphins in yesterday's opening round of the playoffs, Reed and his teammates sent a message not just to the Tennessee Titans, next week's opponent, but to the entire league. It didn't always look this way, but the Ravens are suddenly a team built for a playoff run. They're Super Bowl-caliber. And they're capable.

Not everything clicked perfectly yesterday, but enough went right to dispel many of the doubts surrounding the Ravens. Would postseason pressure buckle the rookie quarterback's nerves? Would a hostile road crowd drown their ambition? Could the offense do enough to light up the scoreboard? And would they even have to?

Take note, Titans: These aren't the Ravens you narrowly beat, 13-10, back in October - a point the Ravens are quick to point out.

"We're much better," wide receiver Derrick Mason says. "When you get to the playoffs, things change. Cards are not the same as they were in the regular season."

That's true. The tiny things that seem to decide each game swell with importance in January, which is why the Ravens feel so good about yesterday's win. If you look at the defense, at the turnover battle, at the starting field possession, how can Coach John Harbaugh and his players not feel confident heading into next week's game? And how can the Titans and other surviving playoff teams not realize that even though most of the names, faces and characters have changed since the Ravens won the Super Bowl, their chances actually feel much better at this point in the playoffs?

Just like in 2000, the road to the Super Bowl runs through Nashville, Tenn. (Also for your consideration, if you're the sort who swallows happenstance as prophecy: For the first time since the Ravens hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, the Super Bowl will be played again in Tampa.)

The championship Ravens team, just as this year's, had to face the Titans on the road in the second round of the playoffs. Here's the biggest difference in the two groups: This year's team is more well-rounded.

Sure, the Ravens slipped by Tennessee then, 24-10, but their offense had only six first downs and 134 yards of offense in that game.

Quarterback Joe Flacco wasn't exactly giving measurements for a Hall of Fame jacket yesterday, but he showed again that his offense can be expected to contribute. Given the masterpiece performance the defense put on yesterday, the most important figure on Flacco's stat line was zero interceptions.

"I think Joey played like a veteran," Harbaugh said, "a veteran in the playoffs."

Even if the defense matches its intensity next week and beyond, Flacco and the offense shouldn't settle with minimizing mistakes. They have to make plays, too - especially against the Titans. In the previous meeting, Flacco had no touchdowns, two interceptions and 153 yards on 18-for-27 passing. This season, Tennessee's defense allowed fewer points than every team in the league except the Steelers.

Some players say they were aided yesterday by playing Miami earlier in the year. The Dolphins surprised them by offering similar looks and play-calls as that regular-season meeting. They don't expect the same familiarity next week.

"That game was way too early," defensive end Trevor Pryce says. "They weren't completely set, we weren't completely set. I think you'll see two different football teams."

What the Ravens know they'll get: a hungry team with postseason experience, a steady quarterback and a relentless defense. The Titans are a team that takes care of the ball - but then again, so were the Dolphins.

Miami tied an NFL record in the regular season, committing only 13 turnovers. But they had five yesterday. That's the difference in the regular season and playoffs, especially when you're facing a defense that pounces like a pack of starved lions when it smells blood.

The Dolphins also had the best turnover margin of any team - plus-17. The Titans are second - plus-14.

"They're going to be rested and fresh," linebacker Bart Scott said of the Titans, who had a bye this week and finished with the league's best record. "We're going to have to match their intensity."

With a short week to prepare, the Ravens wasted no time. Harbaugh said his staff had begun breaking down the Titans long before the Dolphins kickoff. When they arrived in Baltimore, yesterday's win was already just a small dot on the rear-view mirror. They know they have no time to bask in their first playoff victory since the 2001 season. Their sights are set on something bigger.

"We don't want the road to end here," Terrell Suggs said. "We don't want the Ravens story to end here. We've got to go play some more football still."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad