Ravens: 'We're on a mission'

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Lorenzo Neal exhaled deeply at his locker stall, balling up two fists as if he was bracing his body for another violent collision and then cracked a big smile at the prospect of one more impending chance to deliver some bone-bruising punishment.

The battle-scarred fullback has been through the epic playoff clashes of the past between the Baltimore Ravens and the Tennessee Titans, witnessing .. Ray Lewis stealing the football from an overmatched Eddie George, Al Del Greco's meltdown, Anthony Mitchell's scamper to the end zone and Brian Billick's trademark swagger and loquaciousness as the Ravens strutted out of Nashville, Tenn., along their road toward a Super Bowl championship.

Now, it's time to write a new chapter in the history of a fierce rivalry punctuated by high stakes.

For Ne al, who was on the losing side of the Ravens' divisional playoff victory over the Titans during the 2000 season along with fellow ex-Titans in wide receiver Derrick Mason and cornerback Samari Rolle now playing for Baltimore, it's time to earn some new dents on the helmet. It's time for the Ravens (12-5) and the top-seeded Titans (13-3) to kick off another AFC divisional playoff encounter today at LP Field with the winner advancing to the AFC title game against the winner of the Pittsburgh Steelers versus the San Diego Chargers on Sunday.

"We're on a mission," Neal said. "You're in our way. We're in their way. Both teams are in each other's way. If you can't get along, you might as well get it on. Let's go. It's one and done. If we lose it's over. There is no tomorrow.

"They say it's not always the crash that kills you. It's the sudden stop. We've got to match their emotions, go in their loud and proud and match their intensity from the jump. Like I said, let's get it on."

For the sixth-seeded Ravens, the parallels to the 2000 season are undeniable. Once again, the Titans are the top seed and the Ravens want to knock them off their pedestal.

Once again, the Ravens will be facing off with former New York Giants quarterback Kerry Collins, whom they victimized in Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa, Fla., which just so happens to be the Super Bowl site this year. For Lewis, though, dwelling on nostalgia has no purpose this week. Not with a potential trip to the Super Bowl only two wins away.

"For me to go back there, that's too far," Lewis said. "That would really take away from what we're trying to do this week. We're trying to go play a complete football game. We've got a totally different mindset.

"We're a totally different team than we were in 2000, and totally different people on their side as well. Our job is to stay focused on the now. Yesterday is gone. Let's leave it there."

Meanwhile, the Ravens have a chance to match the 2005 Steelers' unlikely path to the Super Bowl when they became the only sixth seed to ever topple a top seed by upsetting the Indianapolis Colts. With the exception of Pittsburgh, sixth seeds are 0-10 against top seeds in NFL playoff history with an average margin of defeat by 19.4 points.

"When it's rough and hard for everybody else, that's just how we like it," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "There's no half-stepping here. It's never supposed to be easy. You want to earn every meal you get."

The confluence of events and the Ravens looking to avenge a 13-10 loss to the Titans earlier this season in Baltimore has convinced Rolle that something's at work here beyond mere coincidence.

"Destiny, I believe," Rolle said.

"It's crazy, it's ironic," Neal said. "I didn't win my Super Bowl down there, so I might as well try to get mine up here."

Like Neal, Rolle has adopted the approach of if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

After being a salary-cap casualty years ago in Tennessee and overcoming a bout with epilepsy last year and neck surgery earlier this season, Rolle remembers the feelings of being on the losing sideline against the Ravens and is doubly determined to advance at his old team's expense.

"It hurt more than losing the Super Bowl the year before that, just because we knew whoever won that game would probably win the Super Bowl," Rolle recounted. "But they deserved it. That was the best defense in NFL history, and they outplayed us that day. I'm glad I'm on this side now."

One aspect of the rivalry that has become less spicy is the lack of trash talk other than a few barbs traded between linebacker Bart Scott and Titans running back LenDale White throughout the season.

Scott called the burly runner "plump" prior to the first meeting, and White responded by saying of Scott: "He talks a lot for no reason. It's one thing to talk when you win, but when you talk and lose, it makes no sense ," adding that "Scott has popcorn muscles, too."

Yet, this week the Ravens and Titans' locker rooms have been devoid of those kinds of inflammatory comments.

Regardless, the Titans have circled free safety Ed Reed's bold declaration after he intercepted two passes in a 27-9 victory over the Miami Dolphins last week where he exclaimed: "Here we come, Tennessee, the team you don't want to see."

That definitely caught Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse's attention.

"One of their players said, 'We're coming, Tennessee. We're packing our backs. We're coming,'" Kearse said. "I'm like, 'You need to enjoy this win first,' and we'll get to that when it happens."

After winning 10 of their past dozen games, the Ravens are riding a crest of momentum. They aren't intimidated by the Titans, who hold the best record in the NFL.

It has been a tense series with 10 games decided by four points or less.

"The history is definitely there," Ravens kicker Matt Stover said. "We've had some nail-biters, and that's what you like to see out of two proud football teams."

Ultimately, the outcome of this game is likely to be determined by which team has made the greatest strides since their Oct. 5 meeting at M&T Bank Stadium when the Ravens were narrowly edged after dominating the game for nearly four quarters only for the second-ranked defense in the NFL to be improbably outdueled by Collins at the end. Collins overcame a pair of interceptions20to engineer a game-winning drive capped by his touchdown pass to tight end Alge Crumpler after a controversial roughing-the-passer penalty was assessed on Suggs to keep the Titans on the field.

"Yeah, it left a sour taste in our mouths," running back Willis McGahee said. "So, we're looking forward to it."

Since that loss and a subsequent 31-3 defeat against the Colts, the Ravens have been on an impressive roll. So have the Titans, who feature an intimidating defensive line led by Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch as well as a strong running game headlined by swift Pro Bowl rookie Chris Johnson and a hard-running inside runner in White.

"I think both teams are a lot better at this point," rookie quarterback Joe Flacco said. "It's the playoffs now, so it's going to be a little bit different kind of atmosphere. We're going to go out and play our game. We're going to try to win by as many points as possible, but we're going to be prepared if it comes down to the end like that.

"I think we're playing with a lot of confidence. We have been for a while know. We'll go in there and have the same confidence that we've had the last handful of weeks."

If that continues to be the case with Flacco, who has improved markedly since the first Titans game to emerge as a dangerous passing threat, then the Ravens could find themselves back home Sunday waiting to learn whether they'll be preparing for a third game against=2 0the AFC North champion Steelers after losing to them twice this year or heading to the West Coast to play the surging Chargers.

"Look at Joe's personality, he has the personality to come up big in a playoff game," offensive tackle Willie Anderson said. "He has a great demeanor for the playoffs. He's ready for this. We're ready for this. It's time to get excited."

Notebook: Ravens' line faces stiff test against Titans

Heap questionable with back injury, Reed, Lewis, McClain named to All-Pro squad

By Aaron Wilson NASHVILLE, Tenn.-- Just hit rewind of the video tape for a convincing reminder that the Baltimore Ravens' offensive line is capable of stonewalling a formidable Tennessee Titans defensive line.

Go back to Oct. 5 when the Ravens held the Titans to no sacks in a 13-10 loss at M&T Bank Stadium as the most prolific front four in the league was silenced for just the second time this season.

Against a front seven headlined by intimidating defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and relentless defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, the Ravens more than held their own as rookie quarterback Joe Flacco was hardly even touched.

"We like our offensive line," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We think their defensive line is maybe the strength of their team. They've got a great defensive line, so we've got our hands full."

This week marks the return of Haynesworth and Vanden Bosch from the injured list. And they're licking their chops at the chance for another shot at the Ravens.

"I've been in hibernation for a month," Haynesworth told Tennessee reporters. "The grizzly's hungry and he's ready to heat. We've got to get after Flacco. We've got to hit him as many times as we possibly can. We've got to make him uncomfortable. We've got to make him realize he ain't welcome in our stadium and just knock him down as many times as we can."

Of course, Haynesworth was practically shut down by Ravens left offensive guard Ben Grubbs in that first meeting.

Flacco doesn't sound worried about pass protection, not after not being sacked in the Ravens' 27-9 wild-card victory over the Miami Dolphins to open the playoffs.

"Our offensive line has been doing a great job all year, and they were doing a great job heading into that game," Flacco said. "I wasn't really surprised by it. We've been impressed by these guys all year, a young group of guys that have gone in there and just fought and came out on top week in and week out."

IT'S UNANIMOUS: Ravens free safety Ed Reed was the lone unanimous selection on the Associated Press' All-Pro squad, garnering all 50 votes from a nationwide panel of reporters who regularly cover the NFL.

Reed led the NFL with nine interceptions.

"My teammates are the ones that you have to worry about," Reed said. "It's not just me out there on the field by myself. You've got guys doing some amazing things. The coaches are in the lab always drawing up great things for us to execute."

Added Harbaugh: "Tremendous feel for the game, very, very intelligent player. Studies it as well or better than anybody. And he's a highly disciplined player. He plays his position as well as anybody I've ever seen."

Reed was joined on the All-Pro team by middle linebacker Ray Lewis and fullback Le'Ron McClain. They received 39 and 38 votes, respectively.

McClain led the Ravens with 902 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns.

"We're just happy with the way he's played so far, but we know he can be a lot better," Harbaugh said. "He's physical. He runs north-south. He's got a lot of strengths. Watch the tape, you'll see it."

Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata received six votes, punter Sam Koch got five, and linebacker Terrell Suggs had two with Grubbs and inside linebacker Bart Scott claiming one vote apiece.

TRAINING ROOM: The Ravens listed eight players as questionable on the final injury report, including tight end Todd Heap with a back injury. He didn't practice this week and is regarded as the team's biggest question mark. Heap has insisted he'll play, but seems to even be having trouble walking without pain. Several teammates have noted that Heap's injury seems to be fairly serious.

Meanwhile, Reed (knee, illness), defensive tackle Justin Bannan (foot), linebacker Jarret Johnson (calf), wide receiver Derrick Mason (dislocated left shoulder), cornerback Samari Rolle (hamstring), kicker Matt Stover (sprained right ankle) and cornerback Fabian Washington (neck) are all questionable and expected to play.

QUICK HITS: The Ravens are wary of the Titans' ability to stretch the middle of the field with tight ends Bo Scaife and Alge Crumpler. Scaife leads the Titans with 58 catches for 561 yards. "They have two good tight ends," strong safety Jim Leonhard said. "Bo Scaife is a huge target and Alge has been a good tight end for a long time. They love to get them the ball in crucial situations. We have to be aware of them because they're a big part of their offense and we know it's a priority to get them the ball." ... McClain doesn't sound concerned about the pressure of the postseason. "This is the environment: win or go home," McClain said. "That's the mentality, so you do whatever you have to do to win. We treat it like it's just another game, but we know the stakes. If you lose, you go home, and I'm not trying to go home anytime soon." ... Stover is accustomed to having to make game-winning kicks, and has envisioned converting another last-minute field goal. "You have to understand and embrace the pressure," Stover said. "You have to be emotionally and mentally=2 0ready. All week, I visualize it and I've pretty much already kicked in that situation before it happens." ... Harbaugh was on the Philadelphia Eagles' staff when Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse's career began to fade, but Kearse looks revitalized now that he's back in Tennessee with four sacks and three forced fumbles. "Jevon Kearse is a great leader, being around him, great competitor," Harbaugh said. "He's playing outside, coming off the edge, which is probably his strength. And he looks like he did way back when. He's playing at a really high level." ... McClain and former starter Willis McGahee have contrasting running styles. McGahee tends to try to avoid defenders while McClain usually initiates contact. "Once I'm running, bang, I want to hit the guy," McClain said. "Willis slashes and uses his speed to get to the edge and get up the field." ... Harbaugh has just one playoff game under his belt as he faces off with Titans coach Jeff Fisher, the longest-tenured coach in the NFL. "It seems like they have a great, experienced leader over there," Suggs said. "We've got a new young guy who's hungry and he's a very energetic leader over here."

Baltimore Ravens' scouting report

By Aaron Wilson

NICKEL PACKAGE 1. How will rookie quarterback Joe Flacco handle the pressure?

As the Baltimore Ravens (12-5) take on the top-seeded Tennessee Titans (13-3) in an AFC divisional playoff game today at LP Field, Flacco already has one playoff victory under his belt. He has made steady progress since early in the season when the Titans intercepted him twice in a Ravens defeat at M&T Bank Stadium. Against the Miami Dolphins, Flacco had a healthy lead generated by free safety Ed Reed's interception and the running game. If the Ravens fall behind or the running game falters, they'll need to count on Flacco more heavily this time. Plus, he may not have tight end Todd Heap at full strength due to a painful back injury. Flacco has been up to the test all season, but will need to remember the lessons he learned during his first game against the Titans when he failed to look off defenders and stared down his primary read. The Ravens may need some big plays out of Flacco and the passing game if the running game is halted by a stout Titans front seven. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron may need to open up the playbook and be more aggressive.

2. Can the Ravens take advantage of center Kevin Mawae's absence?

Mawae is a seven-time Pro Bowl selection who's expected to be out today with a right elbow injury. Second-year lineman Leroy Harris will be making his second career start and will be paired against Haloti Ngata and Justin Bannan. The Ravens will try to make the most of this lopsided matchup. And the Titans are liable to shift over extra blockers to help Harris. That could open up opportunities for Trevor Pryce and Terrell Suggs rushing off the edge. The Titans gave up the fewest sacks in the NFL during the regular season, allowing 12, but gave up three in Harris' lone start against the Indianapolis Colts.

3. Can the Ravens duplicate their five turnovers from last week?

Much like the Dolphins, the Titans are a careful offense. However, the Ravens forced five turnovers, including four interceptions with two by Reed against Chad Pennington last week. The Titans tied for the third fewest turnovers allowed during the regular season. The Ravens forced two or more turnovers in nine of their dozen wins and led the league with 34 takeaways. During the first meeting, Kerry Collins overcame throwing two interceptions to engineer a game-winning drive. Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger is a sharp play-caller.

4. Can the Ravens shut down the Titans' running game?

The Titans are extremely run-centric with Chris Johnson and LenDale White and are 9-0 this season when they rush for more than 100 yards as team. Only two teams have eclipsed that century mark against Baltimore this season, and the Ravens own the longest streak in t he NFL of not allowing an opposing running back to gain 100 yards in the past 35 games.

5. Can the Ravens finish the game on defense and avoid penalties?

The Ravens allowed 80 of the Titans' 210 yards of total offense during a game-winning drive that followed a controversial roughing-the-passer penalty on linebacker Terrell Suggs that kept the drive going. Baltimore committed a season-high 11 penalties during the first meeting with the Titans, a 13-10 loss.

INSIDE SLANT: KEY MATCHUPS

Baltimore Ravens DT Haloti Ngata and NG Justin Bannan vs. Tennessee Titans C Leroy Harris

The glaring absence of Titans Pro Bowl center Kevin Mawae due to an injured right elbow could prove costly against Ngata, a massive defensive lineman considered one of the most destructive interior forces in the NFL. Ngata isn't just big at 6-foot-4, 345 pounds, he's also extremely athletic. Although the Titans are accustomed to blocking big defensive tackles, Harris has virtually no experience with one career start and Mawae is a seven-time Pro Bowl blocker. So, Harris will require assistance from the guards and fullback Ahmard Hall. Bannan is extremely underrated, possessing ideal upp er body strength, a nasty streak and a relentless nature in pursuit. Harris will have his hands full against a Baltimore defense that has been aware for several days that Mawae's unavailability would create an opportunity to exploit a potential mismatch inside.

Baltimore Ravens FS Ed Reed vs. Tennessee Titans QB Kerry Collins

Reed has been on fire, intercepting 10 passes over the past seven weeks, including at least two interceptions in each of the past three weeks. He's the consummate dynamic playmaker, anticipating quarterbacks' intentions and making them pay by baiting them into turnovers. Despite a painful nerve impingement that has limited his capabilities in run support and in blitz packages, Reed has impacted the game. Just as Miami Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington, who watched as Reed zigzagged across the field for an electrifying 64-yard interception return for a touchdown last week. Like Pennington, Collins only threw seven interceptions in the regular season and has been very smart with the football. He has only been picked off four times in the past 11 games. The Ravens led the NFL with 26 interceptions and 34 takeaways. Once again, something has to give.

THREE DOWNS WITH ..

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco 1. On what he remembers about the f irst meeting with the Titans: "It was a tough game. I turned the ball over more than what I would've wanted to. It was a tough, hard game. I think both teams are a lot better at this point. We're ready to get out there. It's the playoffs now, so it's going to be a little bit different kind of atmosphere.

"Yeah, a couple of those in that game, I don't even know what I was thinking, kind of just bonehead throws, kind of gave them one real easy, but you definitely learn from it. There are times where you've just got to throw the ball out of bounds and live for the next down. That's what I took out of those."

2. On his confidence to win on the road: "We don't question that we can do it on the road. It's no big deal to us to go on the road and play a football game. We know that we have to do it for the rest of the season anyway. We all understand that it's about going out there and executing the plays that are called, and that's what we're going to do this week.

"I think we're playing with a lot of confidence. We have been for a while now. I don't know if it's going up at all. We'll go in there and have the same confidence that we've had the last handful of weeks."

3. On the pressure of playing quarterback: "Yeah, but it's not about me as much as it's about our team. It's about how con fident we're playing as a team right now. As long as we go out there and we do what we're supposed to do, then we feel like we have a good enough team to win the games. That's all we've got to think about."

THREE DOWNS WITH ...

Tennessee Titans quarterback Kerry Collins 1. On if the Ravens' defense brings back 2000 memories: "They're similar, yes. It's hard to say that any defense is better than the one I played in the Super Bowl in 2000. They were phenomenal. This defense is certainly very good in their own right, but that defense I think will be the best I've ever played. "It was a long time ago, but obviously there are some connections there. It is what it is. But, regardless of what happened in the past, I think everybody is focused on what we're=2 0trying to accomplish this weekend."

2. On if he tells the young players not to take the playoffs for granted: "Yeah, that's definitely a message. I remember my second year I went to the NFC championship game and I thought, ‘This is going to happen every year.' And, it doesn't happen that way. So, the veterans definitely try to convey that message around here."

3. On Titans coach Jeff Fisher: "I think guys like playing for him. He's very player-friendly. He gives the opportunity to be professionals and to do your job, and he takes care of us. I think more so than any coach in the league. He's aware of the longevity of the season and what it takes to play at your best week in and week out and gives us the opportunity to do that."


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