Ravens-TItans rematch brings back memories

OWINGS MILLS -- The symmetry is eerily reminiscent to the ghosts of football past, an intersecting set of characters and circumstances that hearkens back to the Baltimore Ravens' vintage Super Bowl championship year. Once again, the Ravens' most formidable obstacle toward manufacturing another extended playoff run is the Tennessee Titans.

Eight years after the Ravens' 24-10 triumph over the Titans in an epic upset in the AFC divisional round in Nashville, Tenn., that propelled them on the road to claiming a Vince Lombardi trophy, Baltimore is primed for another opportunity to advance to the AFC title game.

The Ravens (12-5) are just two wins away from another Super Bowl bid and will need to successfully retrace their history Saturday against the top-seeded Titans (13-3) in the second round of the playoffs in Music City to keep up an impressive run that has seen them win 10 of their past 12 games.

Although Steve McNair and Eddie George are retired, coach Brian Billick has been replaced by John Harbaugh and rookie Joe Flacco is under center instead of Trent Dilfer, middle linebacker Ray Lewis still headlines the Ravens' defense that also features game-changing free safety Ed Reed, Matt Stover is still the Ravens' kicker and Jeff Fisher remains the Titans' long-tenured and well-respected coach.

Even the Super Bowl is being held at the same site where the Ravens won it all: Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.

"It does feel pretty familiar as far as all the historical stuff," said defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, who was the defensive line coach for the Super Bowl team when he coached Tony Siragusa, Sam Adams, Michael McCrary and Rob Burnett. "It gives you a lot to think about, but we're focused on today. .. We expect to win it all, but we'll see. We know we've got a tough one in Tennessee, but we ain't afraid of nobody."

Harbaugh was coaching the Philadelphia Eagles' special teams the last time Baltimore was in this position, and Flacco was a high school student in Audubon, N.J. So, channeling history wasn't on Harbaugh's agenda as the Ravens launched preparations Monday for Saturday's game at LP Field.

"Will I draw on that? I don't think so," Harbaugh said. "The guys who were part of that can draw on that. Rex has talked about that with me, and I've talked to Ray about that. I know they talk to different guys about it. It's neat.

"I think it's something t hat's positive, but this is a new year. That's a long time ago. This is two new football teams. We're different football teams from the first time we played them, so I don't think that will have any relevance in this game."

What hasn't changed about the Ravens and the Titans is their ultra-physical approach to the game, especially on defense.

The Ravens finished the regular season ranked second in total defense, establishing team records for opposing quarterback rating (60.6) rushing touchdowns allowed (four) and rushing first downs allowed (58). Baltimore led the league with 26 interceptions, and Reed has picked off 11 passes, including two interceptions and a 64-yard touchdown return in a 27-9 AFC wild-card win over the Miami Dolphins to open the playoffs.

"We have arguably one of the greatest players to ever play the game in Ray Lewis, and we do have the greatest safety in the game," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "He proves it week in and week out. Ed Reed can cover everybody on the field. When you've got a duo like that, scary things can happen."

After the Ravens thrashed the Dolphins behind the strength of five turnovers Sunday, including four interceptions of quarterback Chad Pennington, and caged their unpredictable Wildcat formation, Lewis marveled over the team's chemistry.

"Life kind of just takes care of itself," Lewis said. "It's almost overwhelming to come back where God actually started my journey years ago. It doesn't get any better a ll the way across the board. Every man looks at each other and asks a simple question, 'Are you fighting for yourself or are you fighting for the man beside you?' And that's the beauty of this team as well as this defense.

"We fight for each other. You take Ed Reed, you take Fabian Washington, take Jim Leonhard, take Terrell Suggs, take Samari Rolle, everyone on our defense contributed and that's what you need when you're trying to win a championship."

Eight years ago, the Ravens were piggybacked by one of the top defenses in league history. Now, this edition of the Ravens' defense is making a convincing argument for its own time stamp.

The Ravens are allowing just 261.1 yards per contest, an 81.4 rushing-yard average to rank third overall, a 179.7 passing-yard average to rank second overall and 15.3 points per game, third-best in the league. Reed has intercepted 10 passes in the past seven games, including two interceptions per game for the past three weeks.

"Our defense is one of a kind," running back Willis McGahee said. "I just can't explain it. We go against these guys every day, and we know what they can do. But when you sit back and watch what they do against other teams, it's ridiculous.

"Coach Rex is doing a great job with them. We have Ed Reed who is the best safety in the game right now and we have Ray Lewis who is the best linebacker in the game. We have a lot of weapons on defense."

Unlike the Super Bowl squad that went five games without scoring a touchdown during a memorable drought where Stover took care of all the scoring, this edition of the Ravens has an emerging young quarterback in Flacco. Like the Super Bowl team that bashed defenses with Jamal Lewis, this Ravens team has a bruising running game ranked fourth in the NFL and is led by Pro Bowl fullback Le'Ron McClain.

"We're not waiting on the defense anymore," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "We're looking to score points and set the tone."

Meanwhile, the Titans rank seventh in total defense led by defensive linemen Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch, linebacker Keith Bulluck and cornerback Cortland Finnegan.

Titans quarterback Kerry Collins, who was victimized by Baltimore in Super Bowl XXXV when he was with the New York Giants, has revitalized his career and threw a game-winning touchdown pass in a 13-10 win in Baltimore earlier this year. Plus, young running backs Chris Johnson and LenDale White have had strong seasons.

"They're good, you can go across the board," Harbaugh said. "What makes them so good is they've got great talent, they're well-coached and they play football the fundamental way. They're tough, they're disciplined, they run the ball, they stop the run, they play great defense, they play great special teams. They block, they tackle. They're just a good fundamental football team all the way across the board."

One common thread between the 2000 Ravens and this year's team is their shared ability to win on the road. The Ravens are 6-3 away from M&T Bank Stadium this season.

"Our guys love playing anywhere, anytime, anyplace," Harbaugh said. "If it's in a parking lot, our guys will play. That's just the kind of guys we have. They just love football, and they can't wait to play. They love to play the game, wherever it is."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

Notebook: Ravens not allowing coaches, scouts to interview for jobs until after playoff game

Reed passed over for NFL Defensive Player of the Year

By Aaron Wilson

OWINGS MILLS -- The Baltimore Ravens won't grant formal permission for the Cleveland Browns to interview Ravens director of pro personnel George Kokinis for their general manager vacancy until after the Ravens' AFC divisional playoff game Saturday against the Tennessee Titans. That organizational stance about maintaining focus solely on the next opponent and not concentrating on job-hunting also applies to defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, who has been contacted by the New York Jets and linked to the St. Louis Rams and Detroit Lions' head-coaching positions.

"We will not be granting permission for any interviews until after our game," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said Monday afternoon in a telephone interview.

Kokinis is heavily involved in helping the coaching staff and players get ready for games, sharing his knowledge about opponents' tendencies and personnel through his advance scouting. The Ravens have set aside Sunday as a possible availability for interviews.

The Ravens have also reportedly informed the Browns that Kokinis can only leave the team for a position that contractually gives him final-say authority over all football-related matters. Kokinis is close friends with recently-fired New York Jets coach Eric Mangini, a former Ravens assistant la beled as the leading candidate by Cleveland and national reports.

Kokinis, 41, worked for the Browns from 1991 to 1995 as a scout, spending the last 13 years with the Ravens.

Ryan, who interviewed for head-coaching jobs last year with the Ravens, Atlanta Falcons and Miami Dolphins, could be in good position to run his own team following this hiring cycle with so many openings.

For now, though, it's the Titans who are occupying all of his time and efforts.

"On a short week, I know this: Rex's complete focus is on getting ready for the Titans," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "If some of that stuff happens at some point in time, it will be secondary to getting ready for the Titans and that's how he wants it."

OVERLOOKED: Ravens free safety Ed Reed's strong finish to the regular season wasn't enough for him to claim the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, an honor bestowed on disruptive Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison.

Reed finished third in the balloting of a nationwide media panel of reporters who cover the NFL behind Harrison's 22 votes and Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware's 13 votes. A five-time Pro Bowl selection, Reed won the award in 2004 and received eight votes this time.

Reed led the NFL with nine interceptions during the regular season and picked off two passes against the Miami Dolphins in a 27-9 wild-card victory. However, the voting closed before the playoffs.

"I think Ed Reed deserves to be the Defensive Player of the Year, without question," Harbaugh said. "We've said it many times about all our guys. We think we have the best players in the National Football League. We know each other. We recognize each other and we're excited to play this week."

Even before Reed was snubbed in the voting, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs was bemoaning his teammate being overlooked after intercepting 10 passes in the past seven games.

"He's the greatest safety in the game and he's proven that week in and week out," Suggs said. "We as a team are disappointed that he didn't get the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, but then again we probably didn't want him to win it.

"Everyone who has won an individual award is either out of the playoffs or they didn't make it at all. We commend them on winning their individual awards, but we are trying to win a bigger award as a team."

INTERPRETING WILLIS: Harbaugh acknowledged that he met with disgruntled running back Willis McGahee last week after he made several mildly controversial comments in a national radio interview, including saying that he plays the game only for himself and subtly blaming the coaching staff for his injury-plagued, unproductive season.

"I know that Willis is a team guy," Harbaugh said. "That's something that he's said many times. If you look at his comments up until what he said last week, it was really clear. I think that what he was being pressed on was the fact of how his season has gone personally. And he tried to answer the question honestly, that personally he felt like he could have done better. He's said that many times before.

"Whether he prepared the way he wanted to prepare or could have done a better job or is looking forward to next season, that's kind of all what he was talking about. We talked about what he can do in December, what he did and what he can do in January. And he's doing those things. He's had a heck of a December. He's having a heck of a January. So, he's focused on this week right now."

BIG PLAY: Cornerback Frank Walker's blocked extra point in the second half prevented the Dolphins from making it a two-score deficit, and seemed to halt the momentum of their aborted comeback attempt.

"That play was huge that Frank made," Harbaugh said. "He got a great jump. He had been studying some tendencies and he got a takeoff right as the ball moved, Frank moved and he got around the wing and got it. It was just a tremendous play. It's not a play you're going to see very often."

Conversely, Walker was flagged for a personal foul for tackling a Dolphin out of bounds.

"The guy was a little out of bounds," Harbaugh said. "Frank didn't realize he was out of bounds, but he was out of bounds and he should have held up and let him go. That cost us some yardage. So, we were real happy with one play and I know Frank would like to have the other one back."

QUICK HITS: The Ravens and Titans combined for 21 penalties for 169 yards of infractions in the first meeting, a 13-10 Tennessee win in Baltimore, where there were several personal fouls and skirmishes. Wide receiver Derrick Mason and Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan were each fined by the league office for their feisty confrontation. When asked if he expected another chippy game, Harbaugh replied: "I don't get that sense from our side at all. That term, I would never use that term with our team because that's not us. We're classy. Our guys are a tough, competitive, classy outfit. That's the way we play, and that's how we'll play in this game." ... The Ravens didn't play rookie running back Ray Rice against the Dolphins even though he was active after not being healthy enough to play due to a shin contusion the previous three weeks. "We just didn't feel as the game was going on that we wanted to put him in," Harbaugh said. "Not that we couldn't have. He was ready to play, just the way the game went." Harbaugh said he expects Rice to play against the Titans, though. "We sure do," he said. "Ray is getting healthier, and he looked good toward the end of last week and we expect him to do well." ... Team spokesman Kevin Byrne said the Ravens were greeted at their training complex Sunday just after 10 p.m. by about 90 fans lining the driveway into the team's headquarters. "It was exciting, it was neat to see that the fans and the players could share the moment together," Harbaugh said. "That's kind of what it's all about, right? I know our guys enjoyed it. I know I enjoyed it." ... The Ravens resume practice today. When asked if he has had to motivate players to practice hard this year, Harbaugh replied: "On this football team, everybody gets everybody going. We don't have to talk our guys into practicing."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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