Exasperated and exhilarated, his clothes sopping with Gatorade
and his voice reduced to a forceful rasp, Baltimore Ravens coach
Brian Billick strode into delirium's center and asked to be
heard. Though their astounding 24-10 AFC divisional playoff win
over the Tennessee Titans had ended just moments earlier, the
Ravens brought their joyous locker-room cacophony of whoops and
hollers to a halt. Billick scanned the room. The players hung on
his next word. First, however, there was a bit of business to
"Turn off all the cameras, now!" Billick said to the film crews
that were recording the scene, and given his recent experience
with taped postgame speeches, who could blame him? Not after a
video montage, prepared by the Titans' marketing staff, had
whirred to life on the Adelphia Coliseum Jumbotron moments before
the two blood-feuding Central Division rivals squared off on
Sunday. As Tennessee fans showered them with boos, the shocked
Baltimore players and staff looked on as the video--entitled A
Special Message from Brian Billick and the Baltimore
Ravens--showed Ravens celebrating on the sideline following their
24-23 upset of the Titans on Nov. 12 and culminated with
locker-room footage of Billick waving a copy of SI, which had
Tennessee running back Eddie George on the cover with words
proclaiming the Titans the league's best team. "Maybe that's
true," Billick crowed on the screen, in reference to the
headline, "but not today!"
Now, in the aftermath of Baltimore's latest win, Billick had
something else to say, something intended for his Ravens' ears
only. According to one player, Billick smiled, and everyone
leaned close. Then Billick said, "F--- the Tennessee
Titans!"--and the noise in the locker room returned to its
In front of the lockers along the far wall, a group of players as
motley and mostly unheralded as it is dominant screamed louder
than the rest. All season Baltimore's defense had built a case
for being ranked among the game's alltime best. Yet, because of
the eclipsing star power of All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis
(SI, Jan. 8), the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year, no other
member of the unit, except perhaps strong safety Rod Woodson, who
had earned his future Hall of Famer reputation during 10 seasons
with the Pittsburgh Steelers, received much acclaim.
The Ravens' defenders talked a lot of trash about the Titans
leading up to the game and then backed it up by walloping
Tennessee on the field. "Facing our defense is like having 11
billiard balls thrown at you," says defensive end Rob Burnett.
"Eventually, you're going to get hurt and lose your will. Imagine
what it's like to finish a run against us, and look up and see
seven or eight purple jerseys standing over you."
In light of his game-high 12 tackles and second-quarter hit on
Titans quarterback Steve McNair--who briefly left the game woozy
and was mostly ineffective thereafter--Lewis remains the
undisputed soul of the Baltimore defense. His frequent collisions
with George, who bore the brunt of the Ravens' pregame smack, set
an intimidating tone and helped Baltimore stay in the game after
Tennessee's impressive 68-yard opening drive for a touchdown.
Later, Lewis's 50-yard interception return for a touchdown, with
6:41 remaining and the Ravens holding a 17-10 lead, was the
crushing blow. "Ray is our leader, no question," says second-year
cornerback Chris McAlister, "but it's not like we have any
Indeed, as good as Lewis is, he benefits from a scheme that
funnels ballcarriers right to him, a master plan made possible by
a front four that is the AFC's best. Stalwart tackles Tony
Siragusa and Sam Adams, a free-agent pickup last April from the
Seattle Seahawks, are expert run stuffers who occupy blockers. On
the outside, Burnett and end Michael McCrary are speed rushers
who force the action back inside while repeatedly getting to the
passer. Meanwhile, the secondary, anchored by Woodson and
featuring the dynamic duo of McAlister and third-year corner
Duane Starks, makes throwing on the Ravens a formidable task.
"After the Titans' first drive, we made adjustments and put the
clamps on them, and I love these guys for that," the chatty
Siragusa said of a defense that allowed only three points in the
game's final 52 minutes, a field goal that came after Tennessee
had blocked a punt and recovered the ball at the Baltimore 27.
"Everyone wanted to make so much of which team had the better
defense, but the guys in this locker room know who the best is."
Of course, given the players under discussion, Siragusa's
statement begs the question: best at what? At the fine art of
holding court, the voluble Siragusa, a mammoth (6'3", 340 pounds)
11-year veteran, is king. The most underrated of the bunch is
Burnett, another 11-year man who, with kicker Matt Stover and
defensive tackle Larry Webster, is one of only three holdovers
from the days when the Ravens were the Cleveland Browns. Slow to
recover from a 1996 left knee injury, Burnett established career
highs in 2000 for tackles (97) and sacks (10 1/2). As for
Baltimore's best cornerback, it's too close to call. McAlister,
the 10th pick in the '99 draft, has followed a stellar career at
Arizona with exceptional play, but his four interceptions during
the regular season were second on the team to six by Starks, the
10th player selected in '98, out of Miami. "I guess some people
consider ours to be among the NFL's best defenses," says
four-year outside linebacker Peter Boulware, "but there's Ray and
then just a lot of hard-hat-wearin' guys here. We're not that
Nor are they fashion plates, as evidenced by the fatigues that
hung in the lockers of the Ravens' nine defensive linemen on
Sunday. A visit to an army-navy surplus store--Adams's idea--got
the group properly, if not attractively, outfitted for what Adams
called "the war that we all expected today. These were two of the
best going head-to-head, so we wanted to look the part."
While countless comparisons of the two defenses percolated during
the week--Tennessee finished first in the NFL in fewest yards
allowed (238.4 yards per game) and pass defense (151.5); the
Ravens were tops against the run (60.6) and set a league record
for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season (165)--it was the
Baltimore defenders who set the contentious pregame mood. Burnett
said that even Jim Brown couldn't have run on the Ravens, while
reserve end Lional Dalton said that George should "take his
panties off" before Sunday's game. That was followed by
McAlister's bombshell that George had "folded like a baby" in the
Nov. 12 game, in which he ran for only 28 yards on 12 carries.
Ravens defenders said that George didn't like running against
Baltimore, and that the Titans didn't respect them, and whatever
else flashed through their minds last week. "We made those
statements knowing we would have to back them up," Boulware said
after Sunday's game, "and we did. We showed heart and guts, and
we dug deep."
No stranger to speaking his mind, Billick embraced his players'
liberal use of their right of free speech, knowing the Ravens
would not buckle under the weight of their own hype. That much
was learned in Baltimore's October crucible, when the Ravens went
five games without scoring a touchdown. The defensive players
held their tongues throughout the slump, refusing to even vaguely
criticize their offensive teammates. Many players point to
Billick's relentless spewing of his team-first philosophy and his
use of motivational speakers during training camp--including
Brown, former Baltimore Colts halfback Lenny Moore and Chicago
Bears Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary--for making the
Ravens resilient, selfless and unified. "We never flinched, and
that's because we resolved not to let outside circumstances
dictate how we lived with one another," said quarterback Trent
Dilfer. "Those guys on defense deserve so much credit for
sticking by us."
"Everything in the game tears at the heart and fabric of the team
concept," Billick said. "I wanted them to know that everyone in
the NFL is talented, well coached and deserving, and that the
difference [between winning and losing] is character and
chemistry. We endured the ultimate challenge: holding together
through an adversity that was ready to rip us apart. I know that
we're a better team now, having stared into that abyss."
Forgive the Ravens, then, if the pregame video did nothing but
stoke their fire. "We wanted to go out and back up what our coach
said about us," said Burnett. That they did, especially during a
four-minute span in the second and third quarters, when Titans
rookie wideout Chris Coleman twice blocked Kyle Richardson punts.
Despite the prime field position afforded by the blocks,
Tennessee had only three points and a 10-7 lead to show for the
those two possessions.
Ultimately, the game became a snapshot of Baltimore's season.
The defense kept the game close, overcoming an offensive effort
that can barely be described as adequate. The Ravens made only
six first downs; Dilfer completed just five passes (and only one
of note, a 56-yarder to tight end Shannon Sharpe early in the
second quarter that led to a Jamal Lewis--17 carries, 47
yards--touchdown); and Tennessee outgained Baltimore by 317
yards to 134.
That left the Ravens' defense on the field for more than 40
minutes, while the special teams turned the game in Baltimore's
favor. Reserve defensive end Keith Washington, swinging off bull
rushes by Webster and then Dalton, twice blocked Al Del Greco
field goal attempts, the second of which was returned 90 yards by
reserve safety Anthony Mitchell for the game-winning touchdown
with 12:12 left. "Nothing surprises me anymore about how we win,"
Billick, known for his skills as an offensive coach, said
afterward. "I've been pulled over to the dark side. We'll keep
winning with defense and special teams, and that'll be fine."
In the aftermath of the victory that sent the Ravens into this
Sunday's AFC Championship Game against the Raiders in Oakland,
Baltimore's defiant swagger was even more pronounced. Prickly
throughout his postgame address, Billick lashed out at Tennessee
over the pregame video, calling it "totally classless" and saying
he didn't believe that coach Jeff Fisher, general manager Floyd
Reese or president Jeff Diamond had anything to do with it--though
his tone and mannerisms suggested otherwise.
As the visitors' locker room slowly emptied, Ray Lewis, ever the
diplomat, had one last thing to say. "Every week we're the
underdogs, and every week we prove everyone wrong," he said, as
his rapt defensive mates stood beside him, their garish military
garb seeming an appropriate choice after all. "But the worst
thing anyone can do is piss us off."
COLOR PHOTO: COVER PHOTOGRAPH OF RAVENS SAFETY COREY HARRIS BY JOHN BIEVER COVER R Rated The Ravens' trash-talking bone-rattling defense
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB ROSATO MASON JARRED McAlister and Woodson never let wideout Derrick Mason and the Titans get untracked.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO ALLEY OOPS! When George let a pass slip away, Lewis came up with an interception and returned it for the touchdown that sank the Titans.
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO COLLARED As the game wore on, George, who ran for 91 yards, found the going tougher against Woodson and the NFL's No. 1 rushing defense.
"Facing our defense is like having 11 billiard balls thrown at
you," says Rob Burnett.
No stranger to speaking his mind, Billick embraced his players'
use of their right of free speech.