Turnovers contribute to premature ending of season


Baltimore's big hits led to a pair of key fumbles that proved costly in Tennessee's 13-10 AFC playoff loss.
"That's finding a way, and I'm not apologizing for it, but we found a way and were very fortunate," Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said Saturday after his team won 13-10 at LP Field. "That was not a typical defensive performance from us, but we will take it. I'm proud."

So was Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.

"We did what we do: We kept the ball in front of us and out of the end zone, except for their early score," he said. "That's it. I credit Rex Ryan. I credit him for letting us just play and for our guys being flexible. We just lined up with what we had and made it work. We're moving on. It's always special when you're moving on in the playoffs."

On for the Ravens, out for the Titans, the NFL team that won the most games (13) in the regular season and held the AFC's No. 1 playoff seed. None of it mattered as the Titans' offense created ways to move the ball north, south, east and west against the Ravens' vaunted defense all game. The Titans rolled to huge advantages in offensive plays (71 to 52), first downs (21 to 9), total yards (391 to 211) and possession time (34:07 to 25:53). They looked like a team that spent plenty of time last week devising crafty ways to move the football against this brute Baltimore defense -- but not nearly enough time on what to do once in striking distance.

You see it often in the NFL, these crisp, imaginative, intricate, fanciful offensive game plans that churn out yards and cover so much ground from one end of the field to the other, only to sputter, only to crash in the red zone. The Titans kept doing it, once driving in the second quarter from inside their own 1-yard line to the Baltimore 32. A cunning, 13-play, 81-yard drive finished by a Samari Rolle interception of a Kerry Collins pass.

Two other colossal red-zone turnovers were forced by the Ravens' mighty defense. One was a LenDale White fumble recovered at the Baltimore 15 only 25 seconds before halftime. The other was an Alge Crumpler fumble that the Ravens recovered at their 1 early in the fourth quarter.

Not accidents. Not simply good fortune. The Ravens' defense put the wood on the Titans in each of those situations. Five Titans fumbles (two recovered by the Ravens' defense), that Rolle interception and constant pressure meant Tennessee had the yards, but Baltimore had the game.

And Ravens rookie quarterback Joe Flacco made sure of it with a 23-yard strike to tight end Todd Heap to the Titans' 45 on third-and-2, setting up Matt Stover's winning 43-yard field goal with 57 seconds remaining. Flacco also connected with wide receiver Derrick Mason on a 48-yard touchdown pass to tie the score at 7 late in the first quarter.

Cornerback Cortland Finnegan described the game as in-explainable, crazy, unbelievable.

White admitted, addressing his huge fumble, that "I didn't do the things that I had to do today. I'm going to probably be beating myself up until this time next year about that because you can't get this back. You never know what tomorrow is going to bring in the NFL."

Said Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck: "I'm a little dumbfounded. I've got to think of the location where I'm going to watch the Super Bowl."

The Ravens have no such problems. They're alive. They're four winning quarters from Tampa, Fla., and Super Bowl XLIII.

They won this game with tight end Edgar Jones forced to play defensive end as injuries sapped but didn't defeat the Ravens. They won it with several defensive players in unfamiliar positions and in unfamiliar packages. They knocked out their share of Titans, too, especially running back Chris Johnson, who had rushed 11 times for 72 yards before leaving for good midway in the second quarter because of an ankle injury. Johnson's 8-yard run with 4:38 left in the first quarter provided the Titans' lone touchdown. Tennessee missed his quickness, his shiftiness.

In a game of cruel knocks, of attrition and resourcefulness, the Ravens soared. They had their way.

Their coach, John Harbaugh, used words like "warriors" and "mighty men" to describe both teams and said, correctly, that his players made the key plays that won the game. The Ravens reminded everyone that football isn't a game of statistics. The Ravens lost the game in nearly every statistical category.

It's a game of making the big play, the key play, the difference-making play, especially in the playoffs.

That defined the Ravens.

Even in the end, when the Titans, after Stover's field goal, returned the kickoff to their 35, they had 47 seconds to move the ball into field-goal range. That isn't unrealistic. That isn't impossible. But the Ravens' defense allowed a five-yard Collins completion and then forced three straight dud passes. There were still 12 seconds left when the Ravens got the ball back, kneeled and ran out of the place with a victory in tow.

This was throwback football, and the Ravens' defense looked much like the one that reached Tampa and won Super Bowl XXXV to end the 2000 season. That team also upset the then-No.-1 seeded Titans on Tennessee's field.

That's eight turnovers now forced by this Ravens defense in two playoff games.

"Ten points is all they got," Rolle said. "That's not much. They ran some things on us that we hadn't seen, and they ran them well. But we got the last word."

Said Lewis: "We line up, we go for it. They got a lot of yards, but we took the ball when it counted."

It was a Ravens defense that did, indeed, bend -- but broke the Titans when everything mattered most.

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