NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP)—A not-so-raw rookie and a trustworthy veteran lifted the Baltimore Ravens to the brink of the Super Bowl.
With the help of a brutal defense that knocks opponents silly, of course.
After all, these are the Ravens, who love nothing more than to win grudge matches. And, this one was worthy of the WWE.
The unflappable Flacco was certain the 40-year-old kicker would get his team into next weekend’s AFC title game at either Pittsburgh or San Diego.
“I just watched on the big screen,” said the first rookie quarterback to win two playoff games. “I didn’t watch it live for whatever reason.”
Maybe Flacco’s reason was simply that he never flinches. Nor does his team, which took the wild-card route to the NFL championship in 2000 and just might do it again.
“We’ve been confident in ourselves all year,” the first-round draft pick from Delaware said. “It seems like we’ve been on the road for the longest time. It doesn’t matter to us. We’re going to go out there and battle the crowd, battle the other team, and give it our best.”
Their best has them at 13-5 after Stover, the last member of the Ravens who played when the franchise was in Cleveland, nailed his field goal.
“I would say this would be the No. 1 (kick in my career),” Stover said, then added, “but we’ve got some more kicks, too. So let’s just be humble about that.”
Humble after a rumble.
Two teams with an extreme dislike for each other never stopped pounding it out in the wind and rain.
The difference: Baltimore forced three turnovers and never gave away the ball.
“We just continued to fight and refused to let them in (the end zone),” linebacker Bart Scott said. “We made the plays we had to … the ball came out. We’ll take it any way we can get it.”
Baltimore’s postseason run looks eerily similar to when it won the championship after the 2000 season. Back then, it also was a wild card and also won in Tennessee on the way to the title.
“It’s great to make our own history, our own path,” Scott said. “That team has its own identity and we’re trying to create our own.”
It was so rugged that the highlight-reel play was All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis’ explosive second-quarter hit on Titans fullback Ahmard Hall near the sideline. Hall’s helmet flew off and both players began jawing at each other.
The nasty words never stopped flowing. But the Ravens backed it up with just enough points, climaxed by the winning kick.
“It’s a little shocking,” said Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck, who slammed down a few small metal barriers lining the tunnel leading to the Titans’ locker room at the end. “You go out and play defense the way you did. At the end of the day, realistically you have two, three turnovers inside the 20, you’re not supposed to win.
“Playoff football, those are the mistakes you can’t have as a team.”
The 40-year-old Stover also made a 21-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter for a 10-7 lead.
Rob Bironas’ 27-yarder with 4:23 left in regulation tied it at 10.
Then Flacco connected with Todd Heap on a 23-yard pass on third down, eventually leading to the winning kick.
Flacco almost had a major blunder on Baltimore’s next-to-last series when he nearly stepped out of the back of the end zone while passing. Few replays were shown at LP Field, and Titans coach Jeff Fisher dismissed the play afterward.
“I wasn’t out because they didn’t call it,” Flacco said.
Tennessee, a plus-14 in turnover margin while winning the AFC South, wasted a half-dozen scoring opportunities with errors. One came on Samari Rolle’s interception at the Ravens 12 on a popup Kerry Collins threw under pressure from a blitz in the second period. Another was Collins’ fourth-down fumble in Baltimore territory, which the quarterback recovered. The third was LenDale White’s fumble at the Baltimore 17 in the final minute of the half.
White was in for rookie Chris Johnson, who left with his right ankle wrapped late in the first half. Without Johnson, the Titans moved well through the air, with Justin Gage making 10 receptions for 135 yards.
But they couldn’t finish.
“We really have no one to blame but ourselves,” Collins said. “This one’s going to hurt for a while.”
Baltimore led the league with 34 takeaways, won the turnover battle last week in a 27-9 wild-card victory at Miami, then did so again Saturday. Perhaps the biggest Tennessee turnover came with about 9 minutes to go when Alge Crumpler fumbled near the Baltimore goal line. Fabian Washington recovered, preventing the Titans from taking a late lead.
With Johnson dominating early, the Titans went on top 7-0. Collins hit all three passes on a 65-yard drive that was helped by an illegal contact penalty on former Titans cornerback Rolle.
Johnson, the only rookie in the Pro Bowl, covered 28 yards with a screen pass, and Collins hit Gage for 20 yards before Johnson surged right and dived into the end zone for a 7-0 edge.
Flacco, who struggled in a 13-10 loss to the Titans on Oct. 5 in Baltimore, matched that touchdown with a 48-yard throw down the right sideline to another former Titan, Derrick Mason.
The second quarter was scoreless, but very confrontational, with as much pushing, shoving and yelling as catching and tackling.
Bironas missed a 51-yarder midway in the third period despite having the wind at his back, adding to Tennessee’s litany of blunders. And when Jim Leonhard returned a punt 29 yards to the Titans 41, Baltimore finally had good field position.
A 37-yard pass to Mark Clayton on which two defenders missed the ball got the Ravens to the 4. Stover’s 21-yard field goal 50 seconds into the fourth quarter gave the Ravens their first lead.
His 43-yarder moved them within one game of the Super Bowl, and considering how the Steelers and Giants won the big game via that route in recent years, who can bet against them?