Game 12: Titanic effort sinks doubts

This time, there were no excuses.

There was only one turnover and no fourth-quarter collapse. The receivers got open, and the inconsistent quarterback was consistent. A running back rushed for 100 yards, and the team passed for more than 300 yards.Finally.

On a day when the fans cheered wildly in the final quarter, the Ravens (5-7) turned in their best effort of the season in a 41-14 win against the Tennessee Titans (9-3) yesterday before 67,854 at PSINet Stadium.

Yes, it was a blowout. The Ravens scored 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, thanks to Jermaine Lewis' 39-yard touchdown reception and a 47-yard interception return for a touchdown by safety Rod Woodson in the last six minutes, to secure their first victory over a winning team this year and end the Titans' 13-game win streak against AFC Central opponents.

And for the first time in four years, one could sense a maturity in the Ravens' locker room after a big win. There wasn't any talk about playoffs or gloating, just a team celebrating a victory, almost as if the Ravens expected to win.

The confidence is growing.

"Sometimes, we have just talked too much," said Ravens defensive end Michael McCrary, who had 3 1/2 sacks. "We talked about being a great defense, but for the last three or four weeks, we couldn't make a big play when teams drove on us in the fourth quarter. Usually, before a game, we're in here talking, trying to get everyone hyped up. This time, we were quiet, like a storm.

"Instead of guys worrying about stats and tackles, we made plays today. This was a long time in coming. Maybe we have turned the corner. Our offense made plays, gave us a lead and let the defense pin their ears back in the fourth quarter. Thanks, offense."

An offense that has been much maligned most of the season produced 447 total yards, the third-most in team history. Ravens coach Brian Billick has wanted "explosive plays" of 25 yards or more from his team all season, but yesterday was a breakout day for several players.

Besides his 39-yard touchdown catch that put the Ravens ahead, 34-14, with 6: 02 left in the game, Lewis was involved in a 40-yard pass interference call that gave the Ravens possession at the Titans' 1 early in the third quarter. Three plays later, quarterback Tony Banks threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to slot receiver Justin Armour.

The Ravens also got big plays out of receiver Patrick Johnson, who had a 76-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter, receiver Qadry Ismail, who had a 54-yard reception, and halfback Priest Holmes, who had a 72-yard run and 100 yards on nine carries while filling in for starter Errict Rhett, who bruised his ribs on the second play of the second quarter.

But the day may have belonged to Banks, who completed 18 of 31 passes for 332 yards and four touchdowns. He fumbled only once, when he was stripped in the pocket by defensive end Jevon Kearse with 13: 32 left in the third quarter to end a Ravens possession at the Titans' 23, but that yielded no Tennessee points.

All was forgiven.

"I've long been a believer in big plays," Billick said. "If you plan to go far in the playoffs, you'd better have some explosiveness. You hope this is a springboard game. Now we have a real chance to step in and do things against teams in similar situations [Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Cincinnati, New England]. Everybody kind of stepped up today. When everyone kind of has his finger in it, it's good.

"I'll tell you what Tony Banks did well: He checked us into some pretty good things today," said Billick. "They were moving people around. You've got to be assertive. You've got to be sure of what you're doing. He sees things. He's got a good football mind and internalizes the game plan well. He prepares."

Billick has been gradually giving Banks more control of the offense. He gave him a license to change plays yesterday, because the Titans like to gamble with blitzes, often leaving cornerbacks Denard Walker and Samari Rolle one-on-one. The Titans paid for it yesterday.

"The last couple of weeks, he has given me some freedom to get into some plays that I like," said Banks. "The receivers got good separation for me. They came out with a lot of fire. Their confidence in me is amazing; my confidence is growing in them every week. We've practiced just great this week, and it transpired over onto the field. I don't think I've practiced this well in my career."

Johnson got the Ravens' offense started with his long touchdown catch down the right sideline that put the team ahead, 7-3, with 3: 12 left in the first quarter. Banks lofted the ball, which Johnson snatched away from Walker and then hobbled the final 40 yards with a strained right calf.

Johnson said he sensed the Titans wouldn't be at the top of their game while watching them on television recently. He said they came out flat in the first quarter.

"They came out with no energy against Cleveland," said Johnson. "I felt that if they came out that way against us, we would beat them because we have a lot of energy. They came out that way, and we jumped on them."

The Ravens went up 14-3 on a 6-yard touchdown pass from Banks to Lewis with 11: 42 left in the half, but then the Ravens' defense started caving in to Tennessee. The Titans started completing 17- to 20-yard passes over the middle against the Ravens, much like the Jacksonville Jaguars did a week ago.

Tennessee had drives of 76 and 55 yards in the second quarter and pulled to 17-14 at halftime.

"Did we?" responded Woodson when he was asked if the players yesterday thought about the previous defensive collapses in the second quarter. "Yes. After looking at the Jacksonville game last week, we were sick. We just gave them the game, if you ask me. Fortunately, we didn't play well in the first half against Tennessee, but we played much better in the second."

It may be a sign that the team is maturing. Tennessee had 243 yards of total offense in the first half, but only 110 in the second. The Titans were 5-for-10 on third-down conversions in the first two quarters, but 1-for-6 in the last two. The Ravens didn't have a sack in the first half, but five in the second.

The only substantial drive the Titans had in the second half ended with Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister picking off a Steve McNair pass intended for receiver Kevin Dyson in the end zone with 5: 42 left in the third period. Tennessee also didn't help itself by giving the ball to running back Eddie George only eight times for 32 yards during the game.

"We obviously got outplayed today by an improving football team," said Titans coach Jeff Fisher. "We got outplayed in the passing game down the field. We didn't make plays. They made the runs when they needed to do it, and they kept the ball when they needed to. We didn't play well."

The Ravens sealed the game with big plays from Woodson and Lewis in the fourth quarter. Then it was time to celebrate. The fun probably lasted all night, but Billick and Woodson suggested it would be time to move on this morning.

"We've got good personnel on this team," said Woodson. "We have proven we could play with anybody in this football league. These last two weeks have been a pretty good test for us with Jacksonville and Tennessee. Next week, it's Pittsburgh."

Billick said: "Obviously, it was a big game for us. It's never easy. It wasn't perfect. But the key for us, as much as we enjoy this, we have to move on. We're saying we've got to build from this."