OWINGS MILLS — The epic clashes of the past between the Baltimore Ravens and the Tennessee Titans featured two football teams vying for the Super Bowl as they engaged in one of the fiercest rivalries in the NFL at the launch of the new millennium.
It was more than a hard-hitting football game. It was akin to a heavyweight boxing match.
The AFC Central became a battleground when the Ravens and the Titans played twice per year. Their third encounter in the 2000 season was a playoff game that propelled the Ravens toward a Vince Lombardi trophy as middle linebacker Ray Lewis won yet another confrontation against running back Eddie George.
Although the old AFC Central no longer exists, the teams are in different divisions and Titans coach Jeff Fisher no longer has Brian Billick around to feud with, today still shapes up as a game of major interest, importance and intensity.
It’s like old times as the Ravens (2-1) take on the undefeated Titans (4-0) today at M&T Bank Stadium in a matchup between two of the AFC’s more surprising early-season contenders.
"Here we go again, here we go again," said Lewis, whose team was defeated 20-17 by
Coming off a 5-11 season and a last-place finish in the AFC North, the Ravens have exceeded expectations under new coach John Harbaugh and are one game behind the Pittsburgh Steelers in the division race. They’re keeping with tradition as the NFL’s top-ranked defense.
The Titans are off to an unprecedented start in franchise history, and are one of the only three unbeaten teams. They have an emerging running game spearheaded by speedy rookie Chris Johnson and burly tailback LenDale White with one of the league’s top defenses and arguably the best defensive line led by Pro Bowl selections Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch.
They have yet to trail in the second half this year.
"They’re a tough team," linebacker Bart Scott said. "They’re pretty much like ourselves: play solid defense, run the football, try to have a quarterback that manages the game. Our mission, of course, is trying to stop the run and try not to let Albert Haynesworth run crazy on us."
The Titans, who lead the NFL with 12 takeaways, are intent on pressuring Ravens rookie quarterback Joe Flacco into miscues.
"Their defense is playing at a high level, causing problems," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said.
Flacco delivered his first touchdown pass during a 23-20 overtime loss to the Steelers on Monday night, but was sacked five times and lost a critical fumble that was returned for a touchdown in a momentum-changing third quarter.
"We’ll have a nice, big
However, Flacco hasn’t displayed any evidence that his stoic composure can be shaken. He responded to the fumble by leading the Ravens on a game-tying scoring drive.
The first-round draft pick has characteristically declined to point out that he was correct in his self-assessment that he would improve by playing, not watching.
“No, there’ s no, ‘I told you so,’" Flacco said. "I’m just glad to be out there playing and helping the team out. There are going to be good times, and there are going to be bad times. It’s been pretty good so far.
"We’ve had a lot of different learning experiences where we’ve been successful, and we’ve had some bad times. It’s all good for us as a team to grow and learn from it. I think later in the season we’ll benefit from a lot of these things that are going on.”
Meanwhile, the Ravens’ defense is allowing just 186.7 yards per contest, nearly 50 yards fewer than the Steelers.
They’ll take their NFL-best streak of 22 consecutive games without allowing an opposing runner to rush for 100 yards into this game. Johnson is averaging five yards per carry and has gained 337 yards while White leads his team with five touchdown runs.
"Running on any defense is the main challenge and when coaches go into the game plan and say we can run on this team, they’re telling you that they are basically going to out-physical the team," Lewis said. "That’s why it’s always personal. Anytime somebody buckles up their chin straps and say we’re going to run the ball 30 or 40 times, then they’re telling you that we feel that our offensive line can get to our defensive line and we can get to your linebackers.
"It’s personal, it’s personal. It’s just the bottom line. Every new person who comes in here, the first thing I say is: ‘There’s something we don’t do, and that’s we don’t let people run the ball.’"
Kansas City Chiefs runner Larry Johnson was the last one to gain 100 rushing yards against the Ravens back on Dec. 10, 2006.
With aggressive, athletic linebackers in Lewis, Scott, Terrell Suggs and Jarret Johnson and a strong defensive line led by Haloti Ngata and Trevor Pryce, the Ravens are giving up just 69.7 rushing yards per game to rank second in the league. Since 1999, the Ravens have allowed just 18 100-yard rushers for the fewest in the league over that span.
“We play techniques different than every other team in the league," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "We’re set up, the way we play our techniques, to stop the run, and we do have excellent players. When you play with good technique and you’ve got great players, you have a tendency to be pretty good at stopping the run.”
It has been rumored this week that Fisher, who used to exchange backhanded remarks with Billick that stoked the fires of the rivalry, acknowledged after the Titans’ win over the Minnesota Vikings that he hates the Ravens.
Outside linebacker Keith Bulluck said it was actually him who expressed his disapproval.
"I miss the Billick and Fisher rivalry just because they usually take good shots at each other during the week," Bulluck said.
Just because Billick is gone, though, doesn’t mean the hostility has ended.
At least not according to Titans safety Vincent Fuller, a
"It’s always a rivalry anytime we play each other," Fuller told