Ravens-Titans will be physical again

We're on to round two of the playoffs, and it will be nothing short of a heavyweight fight when the Baltimore Ravens show up in Tennessee to play the Titans on Saturday.

These teams have faced each other 17 times since 1996 and the Titans hold a one-game lead in the series, 9-8. What is certain when these teams collide this week is there will be lots of hitting and very little scoring. In the 17 previous games, the Ravens averaged 19 points and the Titans averaged 17 points. Tennessee won the regular-season meeting this year in Week 5, when Kerry Collins drove 60 yards for the game-winning touchdown in a 13-10 battle.

When these teams meet, penalty flags usualy fly; there were 21 penalties in the Week 5 matchup. Heck, there were seven penalties in the first 15 plays to start the game. Both teams expect their defense to stuff the run and score points.

I talk to a number of players on both teams as well as their head coaches every week and neither side concedes a thing when it comes to which team is more physical, hard-hitting, sure-tackling and downright nasty.

The last time they played

Back on Oct. 5, the Titans went to Baltimore and squeezed out a three-point win. Baltimore rookie Joe Flacco had thrown a mere 79 passes in the NFL heading into that game and was coming off a five-sack game in Pittsburgh. The Titans were 4-0, had given up just 46 points thus far, and were settling in after switching to veteran Kerry Collins as the starting quarterback. It was set up to be a very tough day for Flacco.

So what happened? The Titans never sacked Flacco and only got one hit on him in 27 pass attempts. Flacco did throw two interceptions, but the Ravens defense stiffened and only surrendered one field goal off the two turnovers. Collins also was not sacked in that game and threw two interceptions -- and the Ravens offense also came away with just a field goal off the turnovers.

In the fourth quarter, Collins did what many thought couldn't be done to the Ravens (especially at home): He orchestrated a 13-play, 76-yard drive for a field goal and came right back with an 11-play drive for a touchdown. In the end, the Ravens defense had to look in the mirror and realize it got beat. The Ravens won the time of possession by nine minutes and had eight more first downs than Tennessee. Some interesting things are revealed when you break down the down-and-distance tendencies of that game. For example, Baltimore had 10 rushing first downs to just one for the Titans. The Ravens never threw the ball once on second-and-6 or less. On second-and-7 or more, Flacco did a nice job of dink-and-dunk passing, completing 7 of 8 attempts.

When the Titans have the ball

The last time these teams met, the Titans', who did not have the services of wide receiver Justin Gage, passing game featured the tight ends. In the game-winning drive Collins threw six passes to either Bo Scaife or Alge Crumpler, completing 5 for 52 yards and a TD to Crumpler. The Ravens linebackers, especially Ray Lewis in the middle, are usually very good in the underneath coverage. They must do a better job this time around.

The Titans will pound the run even though they know Baltimore is going to make it tough sledding all game long. Chris Johnson didn't like the way the Rookie of the Year voting turned out and he has a chance to make his statement in this game. The last time he played the Ravens, Johnson had 18 carries for 44 yards (2.4 per carry) -- he had eight carries for 32 yards in the first half but was held to 12 yards on 10 carries the rest of the way. Last week, Miami's Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams could only manage 2.5 yards per rush at home against Baltimore. Tennessee may not have All-Pro center Kevin Mawae (questionable, elbow) and, with Haloti Ngata moving over to nose tackle, the Titans running game may really struggle inside. If there is any success to be had, it should be the outside run game or possibly the draw. After watching Baltimore's last two games, my suggestion is to spread out the Ravens defense and work the outside passing attack between the numbers and the sideline.

Tennessee better be very careful about the deep middle passing attack, with safety Ed Reed lurking. He had two picks last week and returned one for a touchdown (the Ravens are 6-0 when Reed returns an INT for a TD). Collins is going to get off 30 passes in this game. Collins is tough to bring down, he gets sacked just once every 53 pass attempts. At home, with a turnover or two by the Titans defense and a short field to work with, Tennessee should be able to muster 17 points on Saturday.

When the Ravens have the ball

The Ravens offense has grown since the Week 5 matchup against Tennessee. Flacco has thrown 13 touchdowns to eight interceptions, he operates well from the shotgun and will use some no-huddle. The most interesting package Baltimore has developed is the "Big" package. They send a third tackle into the game, along with 260-pound running back Le'Ron McClain and fullback Lorenzo Neal. If Titans defensive linemen Kyle Vanden Bosch and/or Albert Haynesworth are out or limited due to their injuries, I expect a solid dose of this offense. McClain is headed to the Pro Bowl as a fullback, but he made his reputation running the ball in this set.

Pat Kirwan chat

"The one thing the Dolphins were not able to do was spread out the Ravens' defense. They only had three WRs active for the game. Tennessee will take a lesson from that and be prepared to spread them out. Kerry Collins is smart enough to throw the ball quickly and neutralize some of the Ravens defense." Read more from Kirwan's chat ...

The last time these teams met, the Ravens had 16 runs of four yards or more; that's all they're hoping for this time. They absolutely need the threat of the run to keep the pressure off Flacco, who has been sacked once every 14 pass attempts. Even though he never got brought down in the win over Miami last week, he needs the run game this time around.

There has been no receiver in the NFL more deserving of a toughness award than Derrick Mason, who has been playing with one arm dangling down by his side yet still makes the big catch when Flacco needs a completion. He had five receptions in the first meeting against his former team and I expect an even better day in this game because Flacco is a much better QB now.

The bottom line

The Ravens could be the 2008 version of the New York Giants, coming from a wild-card seed and getting to the Super Bowl. It's a tall order for a rookie QB to go into Tennessee, but Flacco has the composure to handle the pressure.

The Ravens must do a much better job against fourth-year return man Chris Carr. In October, Carr had a punt return for 33 yards and a kick return for 49 yards. Two weeks ago, he popped a 50-yard return against the Colts. This is going to be a field position game, so a big day by a return specialist can spell doom.

It is a short week for the Ravens, but John Harbaugh told me his team was relatively healthy off the Dolphins win. The Titans, meanwhile, have three big question marks with their guys in the trenches (Haynesworth, Vanden Bosch and Mawae). I'll pick the game on Friday after I see the final injury reports, but I am leaning toward Baltimore. Keep in mind: In the past three years, home teams in the divisional round of the playoffs are 5-7.

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