NASHVILLE, Tenn. – As grudge matches go, this was worthy of the WWE. The Baltimore Ravens survived 13-10 against the Tennessee Titans on Saturday thanks to Matt Stover's 43-yard field goal with 53 seconds remaining.
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, right, hugs fullback Le'Ron McClain, left, after the Ravens beat the Tennessee Titans 13-10 in an NFL divisional playoff football game in Nashville, Tenn., Saturday, Jan. 10, 2009.
(AP Photo/Joe Howell)
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.
And when Joe Flacco led a 51-yard drive in the dying minutes to set up Stover's winning kick, the Ravens (13-5) were headed to the AFC championship game. Led by the first rookie quarterback to win two playoff games, the Ravens will play at Pittsburgh or San Diego next week for the right to go to the Super Bowl.
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.
This victory was engineered by a brutal defense that forced mistakes by the Titans (13-4), who had the league's best record this season.
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 from the last member of the Ravens who played when the franchise was in Cleveland.
The 40-year-old Stover also made a 21-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter for a 10-7 lead.
Rob Bironas kicked a 27-yard field goal with 4:23 left in regulation to tie it at 10.
Then, the unflappable 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.
"We lost as a result of our own self-inflicted mistakes," he said. "We just didn't take advantage of our opportunities today."
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.
When their season was finished, veteran linebacker Keith Bulluck slammed down a few small metal barriers lining the tunnel leading to the Titans' locker room.
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. Just what should be expected from two such physically punishing teams.
Bironas missed a 51-yard field goal 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?