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Gut Check With points at a premium, the Ravens will find a way to squeeze by the Giants

Down they went, all those pretty faces, all the fancy offenses
with their genius coordinators. The Rams, the Broncos and the
Colts--with the No. 1, 2 and 3 offenses, respectively, in the
NFL--never got past the wild-card round. The fourth-rated 49ers
didn't even make the playoffs, and the conference championship
games took care of the Vikings and the Raiders, sitting fifth and

No Cris Carter and Randy Moss and Robert Smith to quicken the
pulses and light up the scoreboard at Super Bowl XXXV. No Daunte
Culpepper with his galloping scrambles, or Rich Gannon with his
twinkle-toed magic. Gone, all of them gone. The poor devils never
had a chance. Swept under by the Big D, as in DEE-fense.

It'll be Giants versus Ravens in the Super Bowl of the Uglies.
Yards will be bitterly contested. Quarterbacks will get sacked,
runners smacked, guys wearing the 50s and 90s will dictate the
tempo, or lack of it.

What's that, you say? The Giants gained 518 yards on the Vikings
in their 41-0 NFC title game victory, and Kerry Collins threw
five touchdown passes, establishing this club as an offensive
force. Oh, sure, but as New York left tackle Lomas Brown, the
16-year veteran, said, "I'm not so much in awe of the 41 as I am
of the zero. Zero points for Minnesota--with that offense they
brought in here!" A defense-oriented team got hot against a club
that had been struggling on defense--that explains what the Giants
did on Sunday.

The Ravens? Bullies of the league. Road warriors. Three
postseason wins, the last two on the road. They should have been
tired on Sunday, playing without a bye and coming off a game
against the Titans in which the defense was on the field for 81
snaps. Tired? Ask the Raiders, who picked up one first down and
38 yards in the first half and whose running attack, No. 1 in the
league, finished with 24 yards and an average of 1.4 per rush.

The Super Bowl has traditionally been the showcase for All-Pro
and budding Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Look at the roster since
1990: Joe Montana, Jim Kelly, Troy Aikman, Steve Young, Brett
Favre, John Elway, Kurt Warner. Now? Kerry Collins and Trent
Dilfer, two guys on the mend, both salvaged from the scrap heap.

Looking for stars at the so-called skill positions? You'll find
some willing workers, but no one on either team who got any Pro
Bowl mention. The big names are on the other side of the ball:
Ray Lewis, Jessie Armstead, Rod Woodson, Michael Strahan. Never
has a Super Bowl been so set up for a defensive guy to win the
MVP award.

But that's what makes this game so intriguing. A big play on
offense will really be big. A touchdown will be huge. Do you know
what the Ravens' record is in games in which they've scored more
than six points? It's 15-0, counting the postseason.

Baltimore doesn't figure to score much against New York, unless
its defense gets on the board a few times. And after they
squelched the Raiders so thoroughly, Ravens defenders admitted
they were quite pleased with the prospect of facing the Giants,
whose offense had struggled the week before against Philadelphia.
Lional Dalton, one of the six or seven players used so
effectively in Baltimore's defensive-line mix, echoed the
sentiments of his teammates when he said, "We feel the Giants are
going to play right into our hands. We've faced them in the
pre-season the last five years, and they play the kind of offense
we like to see. We love a team that tries to pound the ball. No
one's done it to us yet."

Ah, but did he see the NFC Championship Game? No, he admitted.
That might change the Ravens' perspective a bit.

Early in the season, Thunder and Lightning was the Giants'
trademark--the twin thrusts of Ron Dayne, the team's 253-pound
rookie running back, and Tiki Barber, a slasher who put together
a career year. But if you followed that duo through the season,
you saw teams load up to stop them, and their numbers hadn't been
impressive for more than a month. The Vikings figured to do
likewise, bringing their tackling machine, strong safety Robert
Griffith, up near the line and defying Collins to beat them.

So New York came out throwing. Four of the first five plays were
passes, and two of them went for scores. The Giants threw on 15
of 21 snaps in the first quarter, 34 of 45 by halftime, when the
score was 34-0 and Collins already had a record-breaking day with
338 yards and four touchdowns.

Still, the team the Giants will face in Tampa is a lot different
from the one they destroyed at Giants Stadium. Two Vikings
defensive backs were hurt, so when New York lined up with
multiple wideouts, Minnesota was hard pressed to put up a decent
nickel defense. When the Vikings had to send out another
defensive back, the guy who got the call was Don Morgan, who had
played in only two games during the regular season and had been
activated off the practice squad during the week. Plus,
Minnesota's pass rush was nonexistent, a result that could have
earned every one of the Giants' offensive linemen a game ball.

That unit has been the unwritten success story of the year.
"Going into the season, we didn't know what we had," said line
coach Jim McNally, who has done a terrific job molding a kind of
ragtag collection into a formidable unit. "We were just picking
up guys, but they were all hard workers, all very intelligent."

Brown, the 37-year-old left tackle, had been cut by Cleveland.
"Kind of the end of the line, huh?" he says. Left guard Glenn
Parker had been phased out in Kansas City. Ditto center Dusty
Ziegler in Buffalo. Right guard Ron Stone was the only holdover
at his position, and right tackle Luke Petitgout had flunked his
trial on the left side of the line. But the group has been
getting better every week--"kind of like a big surge," Parker
says--and now it's at the top of its game. That's where the real
action will be in the Super Bowl, because the Ravens' defensive
front has been annihilating people.

Baltimore's ability to rotate its linemen has kept all of them
fresh. The scheme has been well documented--monster tackles who
tie up blockers and clear the lanes for Lewis, the All-Pro middle
linebacker, and pass-rushing ends Rob Burnett and Mike McCrary.
Against the Raiders, though, the unexpected push came from the
inside, from 340-pound Tony Siragusa and 330-pound Sam Adams, who
collapsed Oakland's line and pushed the pocket into the
quarterback's lap, forcing him to hurry his throws.

It's unlikely that the Giants will come out running the ball. It
seems that their best chance is to go with multiple wideouts,
force the Ravens into nickel and dime packages and throw early
and often. A Baltimore attack that hasn't gained 300 yards in any
of its last six games doesn't figure to put much of a dent in New
York's defense, unless it has the luxury of a short field by way
of turnovers. During the regular season the Ravens led the league
with 49 giveaways, and they've collected another seven in the
postseason, including five on Sunday.

The best thing the Giants have going for them is that they're
peaking at the right time, on both sides of the ball. But
Baltimore's defense, which should have been heavy-legged against
Oakland and wasn't, will now have an extra week to rest.

The pick: Ravens 16, Giants 13, with turnovers deciding it.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHO RAVENOUS Lewis (52) and Siragusa (98) lead a defense that set an NFL record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season, with 165.

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS TURNAROUND The Giants will need plays like the interception that cornerback Emmanuel McDaniel (26) made in front of Carter.

The Ravens have won the last 15 times they've scored six or more