Saturday, January 10, 2009

Ravens-Titans Preview, Part 4: The Rundown

On the surface this seems like an easy game to pick for a Ravens fan. The Ravens are on a roll, and the Titans stumbled down the stretch. Moreover, the defense for Baltimore has been stellar while the offense has done just enough to win games. Following the dominating performance over Miami, Baltimore was drawing comparisons (albeit inaccurate ones) to the 2000 season merely because this was a winning Ravens team with a great defense. I will give you a hint- every Ravens team has a great defense, and that doesn’t mean it is the 2000 edition. That was something special, and it won’t be repeated- nothing in sports is repeated exactly the same as before and we shouldn’t cheapen it by trying to make it anything but unique.

After the bye week, people tend to forget that the top 4 teams in the NFL haven’t played yet. We remember the teams we most recently saw, not the ones that owned the NFL during the regular season and earned that week off. The result is a bit more enthusiasm for the visiting teams than might be due with a clear head and a decent memory.

However, that’s aside from the point. To me, this week comes down to two simple elements that point in different directions. First, the Ravens are a better team than they were in Week 5. The Titans are not. Can you tell me that the Titans’ running game has improved? No, but the Ravens’ running game has. Kerry Collins is the same Kerry Collins he was early in the season (and for that matter, probably hasn’t changed much in several seasons), but Joe Flacco is light years away from where he was in that disastrous performance in the first matchup. The Raven’s defense might be as good as it was back in Week 5, though minus Chris McAlister- but that is partially balanced out by the improved play of Fabian Washington and the emergence of Jim Leonhard at safety as a playmaker. The Titans shot out to a 10-0 start, and then sputtered out with halfhearted efforts with the exception of a must-win at home against Pittsburgh. If the question is momentum, the Titans don't have it.

But there is a second point that bears mentioning. The Titans, like the Ravens, are a hardnosed, bruising football team. They have had a week to rest their wounds, and will have a ravenous home crowd on their side that will make Dolphin’s stadium look like a library. The Ravens had an exhausting game last week in Miami, and it will be a task for that defense that was gassing in the 4th quarter to keep it up again for 60 minutes against an incredibly physical ballclub. Even without center Kevin Mawae, the Titans offensive line is a powerful unit that won’t be pushed around easily, and not if the Ravens are forced to shuffle more and more players through that defensive front to give the starters more time to rest. Don’t underestimate the extra preparation time, extra rest, and home audience that comes with that 1st round bye.

It is hard to say which point will have more impact, the improvement of the Ravens or the rested condition of the Titans. Frankly, this was the toughest prediction I have had to make. In the end, I say they make it past the #1 seed in the AFC and live to play another week.

The nod goes to the Ravens, 16-14

Just for a bonus, here is what my other optimistic compatriots predict:
Falco gives it to the Ravens, 17-14
Windsor gives it to the Ravens as well, 20-16

Photo Credit: (Doug Kapustin: Baltimore Sun)

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