As 40-year-old kicker Matt Stover booted a game-winning 43-yard field goal with 53 seconds remaining to forge a 13-10 victory over the top-seeded Titans on Saturday at LP Field that launches the Ravens into the AFC title game, it revived eerie memories of the Ravens and the Titans’ tradition of grudge matches with high stakes.
After dispatching the Titans in an AFC divisional playoff, as the Ravens did at the exact same venue and stage of the 2000 season prior to claiming the Vince Lombardi trophy, Stover pointed to the sky and jitterbugged off the field. He was celebrating an epic win manufactured by the Ravens’ tradition of a brutal defense, an offense that provides just enough points when it counts and a resilient nature as Baltimore avenged an early-season loss to the Titans in Baltimore by reversing the 13-10 score from the first meeting.
"It was a heavyweight fight," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "It was a dogfight and there was a lot of bloodshed."
Despite the obvious parallels, Baltimore (13-5) is forging its own new identity as it will face off next week at the winner of today’s Pittsburgh Steelers-San Diego Chargers game for the right to advance to the Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla. It’s the same site as the Ravens’ Super Bowl XXXV win over the New York Giants.
The Ravens became the second sixth seed to topple a top-seed in NFL history, matching the 2005 Steelers’ feat that propelled them toward a Super Bowl run.
"It’s great to make our own history, our own path," linebacker Bart Scott said. "That team was great. We can’t be compared to that  team. That team has its own identity and we’re trying to create our own. We’re not through yet."
No, they’re not.
Especially since the Ravens’ stingy defense bent, but didn’t break against Titans quarterback Kerry Collins by forcing three turnovers as the offense never relinquished the football once.
Six times after allowing a first-quarter touchdown the Titans marched deep into Ravens territory, but only managed one field goal. The Ravens won despite being outgained 391-211 in total offense and had a dozen fewer first downs.
Strong safety Jim Leonhard’s huge hit on tight end Alge Crumpler when the Titans threatened to score in the fourth quarter made Crumpler cough up the ball with cornerback Fabian Washington recovering at the Ravens’ 1-yard line.
"We knew what kind of men we had on our football team: warriors, mighty men, all those things that you guys chuckle about," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Those things are all true. That was a knockdown, drag-out battle.
“At the end, our guys found a way to win. Like they won the first game, we found a way to win the second game."
Leonhard’s big hit, which combined with Scott on the tackle, allowed the Ravens to preserve a 10-7 lead a few drives prior to Titans kicker Rob Bironas’ game-tying 27-yard field goal that preceded Stover putting the game away for good.
"We gave up some yards and some big plays, but we did whatever we had to do," Leonhard said. "We feel like this wasn’t our goal just to win this game. Our goal was to go to the Super Bowl and win it. This is a stepping stone to get there."
Rookie quarterback Joe Flacco engineered a 51-yard drive in the final minutes to set up Stover’s kick that silenced a raucous crowd, a drive highlighted by Flacco’s key 23-yard completion over the middle to tight end Todd Heap on third down.
Flacco completed just 11 of 22 passes for 161 yards, including a 48-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Derrick Mason in the first quarter, but never turned the ball over and came alive when it counted on the decisive drive.
"We had Todd go up the seam and make a big play for us, we did a good job of getting into field goal range," Flacco said. "We did a great job on that drive. You’re on the sideline and you see that you get the chance, and that’s all you can ask for. It’s the same as any other drive.”
Flacco is the first rookie quarterback to win two playoff games.
And the towering first-round draft pick’s composure was on full display in the huddle once again as the Ravens won for the 11th time in the past 13 games.
"You read his eyes and there’s nothing to read," Heap said. "You are looking at him and you are thinking, ‘Does anything faze his guy?’ That is the way he has been all year. People have been asking me if he’s going to be different in the playoffs, if this is going to be too big for him, how are things going to change.
"I just simply say they aren’t. He has been the same way since the first day of minicamps. Every game, he has had that demeanor about him on the field or off the field. You just know that he is confident and that just exudes confidence in the huddle."
The Ravens were relaxed when Stover lined up for the kick because the veteran is one of the most accurate pressure kickers in NFL history.
"I hit it nice and good," Stover said. "It was just about keeping the same tempo and keeping the ball straight. I knew it was good.
“I really hit it clean. You go back and look at the kick from beginning to end and it tracked straight the whole time."
The Ravens also had a bit of good fortune as the Titans hardly ever capitalized on prime scoring opportunities.
Plus, Flacco wasn’t assessed for a safety when it looked like he may have stepped on the back line of the end zone in the fourth quarter. Replays showed he got close, but didn’t touch the back line.
"I think my foot wrapped around and came back in bounds," Flacco said. "I almost pulled a Dan Orlovsky. I don’t think I was out. The only place I saw it was on the big screen and it’s not really zoomed in there. I wasn’t out because they didn’t call it."
Referee Terry McAulay affirmed to a pool reporter that he didn’t believe Flacco stepped on the line.
"In my opinion, he didn’t step on the line," McAulay said. "There was green or whatever the color was between the end line and his foot."
McAulay acknowledged that it was a close call on whether the play clock had expired prior to Heap’s key reception. It appeared that the clock had hit zero for a few seconds before the ball was snapped.
"The back judge is responsible for that, he has the clock," McAulay said. "There’s going to be a natural delay from zero to getting to the ball."
Beside the benefit of a couple calls, the defense tightened up after rookie running back Chris Johnson dashed for 72 yards on 11 carries in the first half before leaving the game with an ankle injury.
Middle linebacker Ray Lewis’ brutal second-quarter hit on Titans fullback Ahmard Hall caused the football and Hall’s helmet to tumble across the turf.
"I was here in 2000, it was physical then, it’s physical now," Lewis said. "Both ball clubs are built kind of similar. That’s why the game came down to what it was. We knew what a hostile game environment we were coming into."
In a key piece of strategy in the third quarter, Harbaugh opted to challenge whether tight end Bo Scaife had possession of the ball on a five-yard completion. Following an instant-replay review, the call was overturned.
It wound up being a boon for the Ravens as Bironas missed wide left from 51 yards out instead of attempting an easier 46-yard try.
Beginning a theme for the game, the Titans squandered several scoring chances in the first half.
First, Collins fumbled the snap on a 4th-and-8 at the Ravens’ 30-yard line and was tackled by defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.
Later in the series, Suggs sacked Collins from behind. He sprained his right shoulder on the play, though, lying on the ground before being helped off the field while holding his right arm against his body and didn’t return.
Then, Collins lobbed an ill-advised throw into heavy coverage apparently intended for Justin McCareins. The football was intercepted easily enough by cornerback Samari Rolle.
“We have a slogan here: They’re not in ‘til they’re in,” Scott said.
Once again, though, the Ravens couldn’t capitalize on the turnover.
They gained a total of no yards on three plays before Sam Koch boomed a 50-yard punt down to the Titans’ 38-yard line with 10 yards tacked on for Tennessee cornerback Cortland Finnegan’s holding infraction.
In the final two minutes, the Titans were threatening to score again with Collins operating the no-huddle offense. Collins completed passes of 17 yards to Gage, 14 yards to tight end Bo Scaife and 11 yards to Gage to set Tennessee up at the Ravens’ 22-yard line.
However, Tennessee blew its chances of breaking the deadlock.
Power back LenDale White got popped by linebacker Jarret Johnson, forcing a fumble recovered by Leonhard to squelch the Titans’ drive.
All told, the Titans came up empty on three occasions early in the game where they could have taken the lead.
By halftime, Collins completed 15 of 20 passes for 183 yards, no touchdowns and one interception for an 81.9 passer rating.
Conversely, the Ravens were limited to 26 rushing yards on 14 carries for a 1.9 average per rush.
Flacco completed just 3 of 8 passes for 68 yards, including a long touchdown pass, and no interceptions for a 108.3 rating.
The Titans set the tone for the game nearly immediately as Johnson served notice that he wasn’t intimidated by the Ravens’ stingy defense.
On the first play from scrimmage on their second drive, Johnson darted out of the backfield on a swing pass from Collins for a 28-yard gain as Scott flubbed an open-field tackle attempt.
Johnson was finally corralled at the Ravens’ 27-yard line.
One play after Collins hit Justin Gage for a 20-yard completion, Johnson’s speed was a factor again on an eight-yard sweep for a touchdown as he hurdled over cornerback Fabian Washington and bounced off defensive tackle Haloti Ngata’s hit to get into the end zone and stake the Titans to a 7-0 advantage.
The Ravens issued a swift rebuttal.
Flacco stepped up in the pocket to evade the pass rush, rolling to his right before heaving a flawless 48-yard rainbow spiral that hit Mason in stride for a touchdown.
Mason ran a simple fly pattern, accelerating past defensive backs for a score against his former employer.
Cornerback Nick Harper clearly released Mason thinking he had help over the top, but free safety Chris Hope was way too late to catch up with a streaking Mason.
"I may be 34, but I can still get behind you," Mason said. "I got behind the defensive back and Joe put it right on the money. After that, we were going back and forth. We just made plays when we had to make them at the end of the game."
Now, the Ravens are preparing for either Round III against the AFC North champion Steelers or a trip to the West Coast to take on the streaking Chargers.
"We don’t care who we play," said Suggs, who guaranteed he’ll play next week. "We’re going to challenge both teams. We’re coming. Like my man, Ed Reed, said, we’re the team nobody wants to see."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.