In heavyweight battle, Ravens pull no punches

The Baltimore Sun

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Peering up at the goal posts as hostile fans screamed and waved blue towels in the background, Matt Stover did what he always does. He took a deep breath and calmly kicked a 43-yard field goal with 53 seconds left in the game, giving the Ravens a dramatic 13-10 victory over the Tennessee Titans and sending them to the AFC Championship game.

They will face either the San Diego Chargers or Pittsburgh Steelers next Sunday on the road in a game scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. Those teams play today in Pittsburgh.

A team that was 5-11 last year is now just one win away from the Super Bowl.

In a game reminiscent of the one the Ravens played in Tennessee during their Super Bowl march eight years ago, the Titans won most statistical categories, but the Ravens prevailed. Yesterday they did it with a rookie head coach and a rookie quarterback, but the same stinging defense.

"It's just exciting the way this team has made up its mind to fight for 60 minutes," said Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, one of two Ravens remaining from the Super Bowl squad (Stover is the other), after the game.

It was a brutally physical game played in rainy and windy conditions with star players for both teams often limping off the field. Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs (shoulder) and cornerback Samari Rolle (groin) were sent to the sideline and did not return. Also knocked out of action was Tennessee running back Chris Johnson, who rushed for 72 yards in the first half but sat out the rest of the game with an ankle injury.

The Titans gained almost twice as many yards as the Ravens, 391 to 211; Tennessee more than doubled Baltimore's first downs, 21-9, and the AFC South champs drove the ball into Ravens' territory on seven possessions but managed just one touchdown and a field goal.

However, the Ravens forced three Tennessee turnovers, didn't give up any and made the most of their scoring chances.

The Ravens became just the second sixth seed in NFL playoff history to upset a top seed.

"We played bend-but-don't-break mentality against a good football team," Lewis said. The Titans "came out and gave us everything they had."

The Titans scored first on an eight-yard run by Johnson in the first quarter. But Baltimore answered with a 48-yard touchdown pass from rookie Joe Flacco to wide receiver Derrick Mason.

For most of the second and third quarters, the Ravens' defense held off the pressing Titans and maintained the 7-7 tie, and Stover put Baltimore ahead, 10-7, with a 21-yard field goal early in the fourth period. Tennessee kicker Rob Bironas tied it with his own 27-yard field goal with 4:23 left in the game.

Flacco led the Ravens on a nine-play, 51-yard drive that ended with Stover's eventual game-winner.

While the partisan LP Field crowd of 69,143 remained noisy throughout the afternoon, Ravens fans were conspicuous.

Ravens linebacker Bart Scott, who helped force a key Titans fumble from the hands of Titans tight end Alge Crumpler that halted a Tennessee drive inside Baltimore's 5-yard line midway through the fourth quarter, noticed the Baltimore fan support.

"They did a tremendous job of giving us a sense of home and coming out and supporting us. You saw them walking up in the streets and things like that," said Scott, who saluted the fans after the game. "They're in a hostile environment as well. They take a lot of flak up there in the stands. I just wanted to let them know I appreciate their effort. I appreciated them spending their hard-earned money to see a good football game."

Ryan Michaelis, a real estate agent from Baltimore, and friend Joel Colley were two fans who had driven 11 hours to get to Nashville. Michaelis had his upper body decorated in purple body paint to resemble, fittingly enough, Stover's jersey. Colley had a painted Flacco jersey.

"It means everything, it gives people in Baltimore something to believe in, especially at a time when it's so hard for so many people to just get by," Michaelis said before the game of the prospect of the Ravens advancing. "This is something to believe in and helps you get by."

Michaelis said he had also attended the playoff game in Miami and looked forward to more road trips.

"We're willing to go anyplace else," he said.

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