Vikings vs. Ravens; Tice vs. Billick

Interim head coach Mike Tice gets his chance to shine in the national spotlight tonight as he goes against a tough defense, the defending Super Bowl champs, former players and a former colleague in Brian Billick.

When the 2001 schedule came out, the matchup between the Vikings and Ravens on Monday Night Football was a game many fans felt denied of last January for the Super Bowl. However, the terrorist bombings in New York and Washington D.C. wiped that Week 2 matchup off the schedule and, in the intervening time, neither team has the look of half of the NFL's final four from last year.

While the Ravens need the win to be headed back to the playoffs, it will again have to be as a wild-card team, while we all know about the Vikings' fortunes in 2001. However, the Ravens that won the Super Bowl last year are vastly different from the team the Vikings will see to close out their 2001 campaign.

The changes are most evident on offense, where Elvis Grbac won a bidding battle with Brad Johnson to replace Trent Dilfer. Grbac has been under fire all season for not being in sync with the Ravens offense but has proved Brian Billick right over the last month, averaging 27 points a game since Thanksgiving. If Grbac should falter, Billick can turn to former Viking Randall Cunningham, who knows his offense as well as any player on the field and isn't a drop in talent or production.

The running game is familiar to Vikings fans but not what the Ravens envisioned in defense of their title. Gone is Jamal Lewis, who tore up the league as a rookie in 2000 but was lost for the season with a torn ACL in the preseason. Replacing him is a former Vikings trifecta — ageless Terry Allen, Moe Williams and Obafemi Ayanbadejo. Each of them performs a key role in the committee running game, along with fullback Sam Gash, and while a step down from last year, they have combined as capable replacements.

The receivers are also led by a former Viking, wide receiver Qadry Ismail. While a talented but underachieving wide receiver with Minnesota, he has emerged as a go-to guy with multiple quarterbacks in Baltimore. He is joined by second-year sensation Travis Taylor, who is close to having a breakout season, as well as speedster Brandon Stokley, versatile Jermaine Lewis and rangy Patrick Johnson. Perhaps the biggest threat of all is tight end Shannon Sharpe, who, while not the touchdown threat he was in previous years, remains one of the most dangerous tight ends in the game.

The offensive line suffered a serious blow when tackle Leon Searcy was lost for the year and forced the Ravens to shuffle the line. Guard Kipp Vickers was moved to right tackle and unknown rookie Bennie Anderson has been forced into duty at right guard. They join solid veterans in LT Jonathon Ogden, LG Edwin Mulitalo and C Mike Flynn on the offensive line, which will battle with the Vikings defensive front for control of the line of scrimmage.

When any pregame discussion of the Ravens comes up, it is always defense that is mentioned, but the Ravens are far from the dominating group that ran roughshod over the NFL last year. Seven teams were able to score 21 or more points in the first 14 games of the season, as opposed to just two of 20 opponents — both wins — in 2000. Of the seven teams that have scored 21 or more this year, five of them beat the Ravens — and some of the blame is being focused on the defensive front.

The Ravens still have an imposing front four with end Rob Burnett and tackles Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa, but the loss of Michael McCrary has taken away the team's best pass rusher. And Adalius Thomas, while playing well, hasn't been overpowering. In Week 15, Corey Dillon broke a 50-game streak of the Ravens not allowing a 100-yard rusher — another sign that the dominant team of 2000 isn't as overpowering this time around.

One area that hasn't been scrutinized is linebacker. Ray Lewis is a legitimate MVP candidate at middle linebacker and Jamie Sharper and Peter Boulware are active, heavy hitters who can turn a game around with an interception, a sack or a vicious hit. They will be looking to attack whichever player is quarterbacking the Vikings and will likely take away the intermediate passing game.

If the Vikings need to attack the Ravens defense, it will need to be deep. That, however, is easier said than done. While Duane Starks and Chris McAlister aren't the killer corners they were a year ago, they are both adept at man-on-man coverage and will dare the Vikings to throw long to Randy Moss and Cris Carter. If the Vikings attempt it, the cornerbacks will get solid support from safeties Rod Woodson and Corey Harris. While Woodson has lost a step, he is still tremendous in run support and playing quarterback in the secondary, while Harris has done an admirable job replacing Kim Herring in the secondary. Veteran James Trapp serves as the nickel back and will provide able backup when the Vikings are forced into passing situations.

For many fans of the Vikings, the end of the 2001 season is something seen with both dread and relief — a season that started in a hole and, despite a few bright spots, never fully recovered. This will be a game that will test the mettle of the Vikings, putting them in a position they've never been in the last decade coming into a game — a spoiler that has nothing to lose. VU


Mike Tice vs. Brian Billick —
While Vikings players have little to play for in terms of playoffs and the Ravens need the game to enter the playoffs, it will be the first game as head coach for Mike Tice. And it will be the first time the Vikings face their former offensive coordinator Brian Billick. In his short stint as a head coach of the Ravens, Billick already has what ex-Vikings coach Dennis Green doesn't — a Super Bowl ring.

Green never attempted a fake field or punt, but Tice may be willing to do so to keep Billick guessing. And Tice, who spent one year as tight ends coach and two years as offensive line coach while Billick was offensive coordinator in Minnesota, knows Billick's philosophies. Billick has tended to be flashier, but Tice could pull out the stops in order to help bring back excitement and hope for Vikings fans — and help his future coaching cause.

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