It was a sad day when the NFL shipped the Titans and Colts off to the AFC South. Although it made sense to move the two franchises that themselves had moved into this new division, longstanding rivalries were lost. For the Titans, the two key ones were with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens.
In Nashville, it’s been a one-sided rivalry. In the 2000 regular season, an Al Del Greco missed extra point was the margin of victory as Trent Dilfer led the Ravens to a win. The Titans used Brian Billick’s smug postgame speech as inspiration leading into the Divisional playoff game. Sadly, it wasn’t the Ravens’ all-time defense that won the game. It was Tony Siragusa’s QB belly flop, which he did to remove Steve McNair from the game and Rich Gannon from the AFC Championship game. It was Del Greco missing two field goals and having a third blocked and returned for a TD. It was Ray Lewis taking a screen pass that bounced off Eddie George’s hands for the clinching TD.
In 2008, it was the same scenario. The Titans took an early 7-0 lead and stopped taking chances, the Jeff Fisher special. He settled for field goals, and once Ed Reed twisted Chris Johnson’s ankle in the pile to remove him from the game (sense a pattern?), the Titans’ offense struggled. On a fourth and one, trailing by three, Fisher took the field goal. Thanks in part to the refs not seeing that the play clock had expired before Joe Flacco threw the pass to Todd Heap that got the team in field goal range, the Ravens won.
I’d say that fans have a bit of a complex. The Ravens exorcised their playoff demons last week, obliterating the hated Steelers 35-7 in the opener. Ever since 1999, the Ravens have lived on a reputation for opportunistic defense and a solid run game. They’ve been looking for a playmaking, field-stretching wideout as long as the Titans have. Much like the Texans, this team was anointed as a favorite to win the AFC and get to the Super Bowl.
On the other side, you had the Titans, who came out as uninspired as I could remember in giving up an early two-score deficit to the Jags and being unable to come back. Chris Johnson couldn’t get free. Hasselbeck couldn’t move the offense consistently. Ed Reed loomed. Old man Ray Lewis loomed. It was going to be ugly.
It started on the opening drive. The Titans shut Ray Rice down and got the Ravens to go three and out. The defense was the story. Last year, the defense was bend but not break for the first half of the year and break break break in the second. On Sunday, they barely buckled for four quarters. The Ravens had two solid drives all day. Ray Rice, other than on one Beast Mode reception for a touchdown, was ineffective. Flacco looked tentative in the pocket all day.
There were two plays in which the Titans could have folded. Play one was on the second drive, that started in Ravens territory. Hasselbeck’s pass was tipped at the line and caught by Terrell Suggs. We groaned, a familiar sinking feeling that we’ve had for two years. The defense shut the Ravens down. The second was the Beast Mode play. The Titans were outplaying the Ravens, but Bironas missed a short field goal and the Ravens took a 7-3 lead. It could have been the beginning of the end. The Titans responded with a Britt TD at the end of the half.
The play of the game was on the first drive of the second half. It was fourth and 1 at the 10. Chris Johnson was out. Javon Ringer was in. It was gut-check time for Munchak. He chose to go for it, and the Titans ran what looked like the exact fourth-down play they completed to help defeat the Steelers in the last significant home game for the Titans in 2008. Fake to the fullback, pitch outside, touchdown. If Chris Johnson had been in, I’m not sure if he would have succeeded. Ringer put the ball in the end zone and the Titans were never threatened again.
The Ravens dared the Titans to throw. The Titans accepted the challenge. Hasselbeck made some great downfield throws and Britt, Washington, and Cook were up for the challenge. Even Lavelle Hawkins made a few catches, and Quinn Johnson, the new, barely used fullback got a fourth-down catch on the clock-killing drive.
Beating the Ravens is a big deal. Showing up after an opening-weekend fizzler was a big deal. I walked out of the stadium happy and hopeful. I was less so since my dad beat me in fantasy for what seems like the 40th time in a row. Otherwise, it was a perfect Sunday. Titan fans have a reason to smile.