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TBT: 2008 AFC Divisional Playoff

The Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans once held a fierce and premier rivalry in the NFL going back to the 2000 Super Bowl Season. Division realignment may have changed that in 2002, but the glimmer of a once ferocious divisional rivalry shined again in the 2008 playoffs, in a battle between NFL heavyweights.

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Recently, I delved into some painful memories of a game that quite literally bounced away, out of our collective grasp, in the 2006 AFC Divisional Playoff.

It seems only right then to look at a happier one – the 2008 AFC Divisional Playoff.

The 13-3 Titans were led by rookie RB Chris Johnson, veteran QB Kerry Collins – and former opposing QB of the Ravens in the 2000 Super Bowl – and a very solid defense.  They had raced out to an impressive #1 seed in a year in which the AFC overall was extremely strong (though missing Brady).  The Titans had been a playoff team in 2007 and yet just the third best team in the AFC South, which provided them a slightly easier schedule.

The Ravens were 11-5 on the backs of a vastly improved offense resulting from drafting Flacco, Rice, and featuring a three-headed rushing attack.  Improvement was almost a given because the 2007 Ravens possessed the worst lost fumbles rates in team history.  However, they did better than improve.   They were the second best team in the NFL statistically.

Despite their massive improvement, they would narrowly lose the division and a first round bye in the final minutes against Pittsburgh in a 13-9 loss.  Entering as a Wild Card, narrowly beating out the Patriots on tie-breakers, they suffocated the Wildcat-based Dolphins the week before in the first round of the playoffs.

Any team the Ravens play features elevated hostility (having a villainous image will do that) but LP Field in Tennessee is definitively more hostile territory than most.  Once a premier NFL rivalry, these teams stopped competing for a division together after the 2002 realignment, however, their playoff history remains a central component to what was once a really fascinating and brutal matchup year after year.

The Ravens had famously beaten the extremely strong Titans in 2000 in which Tennessee threw a pick six and missed several field goals – the Ravens would gain 14 points directly off those turnovers.  That team was, statistically and by their own admission, the best that they have fielded, better even than the 1999 Super Bowl team.  While the Titans would gain some measure of revenge in 2003, it remains true that 2000 was a year they felt was theirs.  That feeling was palpable in 2008.

Still, by 2008, the McNair/George era had ended.  Vince Young was seen as the future but had injured himself earlier in the season and Kerry Collins played very well in his stead.  The Titans would by a slim margin outplay the Ravens on offense and defense, but not on special teams.  Not only would those special teams plays prove big, but unlike 2006, this time some of the bounces inherent in any football game would go our way.

Let's look at some of those key plays and bounces.

First Quarter

1:28, 3rd and 13, TEN 48:  The first quarter was pretty non-descript with the exception of Chris Johnson running anywhere he wanted.  But late in the 1st quarter, Flacco steps up to elude a speed rush from the right side, where a back up Right Tackle was filling in for the just injured Willie Anderson, to land a perfect pass to ex-Titan Derrick Mason for a 48 yard Touchdown.  This is one of probably only two mistakes the Tennessee defense would make

Second Quarter

14:24, 3rd and 3, BAL 25:  Tennessee needs a first down or some yardage for a 42-yard field goal.  Instead, they throw a miserable checkdown to LenDale WhiteJim Leonhard makes a fantastic play with a blocker draped on him, and tackles White for a five-yard loss.  This costs TEN the ability to kick a field goal which would prove vital later.

14:00, 4th and 8, BAL 30:  Unwilling to kick into the open end of LP Field, Jeff Fisher elects to keep the offense out.  A bad snap sends the ball sailing into the backfield with Collins desperately chasing it.  Suggs slams him to the ground and the Titans still manage to recover for a turnover on downs.  BAL recovers with great field position instead of giving up points.  Turnover #1.

12:42, 2nd and 7, TEN 42:  Joe Flacco shows off his mobility skills, eluding rushers but gets hit from behind while on the move and trying to pass.  The defender, William Hayes, by the slimmest of margins narrowly misses the ball for a strip while it’s being brought up to throw and instead forces a harmless incomplete pass on the throwing motion, narrowly avoiding a fumble.

12:15, 4th and 7, TEN 42:  Sam Koch punts a beauty that drops like a lead anvil at the TEN 1, and bounces slightly backward to the 3.  Yamon Figurs is there for the stop but it doesn’t matter, the punt was textbook and the bounce just right.

11:00, 3rd and 10, TEN 1:  After narrowly avoiding two safeties on consecutive running plays (Chris Johnson narrowly juked a defender each time), TEN would convert the first down.  On the next play, Ray Lewis would nearly decapitate LenDale White in one of the biggest hits I’ve ever seen, as his helmet goes flying into the sidelines somewhere.  It’s not a penalty even by modern rules but the ferocity of the hit just sort of harkens back to the 2000 rivalry.

10:20, 1st and 10, TEN 13:  Chris Johnson makes some nice evasions of tacklers (he once was good at this sort of thing) but gets stood up by Raven defenders.  Ed Reed reaches in to strip him and winds up bending him in half backward.  A Titan defender comes to his aid and throws a forearm which causes TEN to take a roughing penalty.  Johnson would remain another series or so but eventually leave the game, after having a productive day and a TD.

4:37, 3rd and 8, BAL 28:  After driving 72 yards from their own 1, on 3rd and 3, the TEN center snaps the ball early leading to a penalty and a near fumble.  Replaying the down, Collins panics under a Rex Ryan all-out blitz and lofts up an easy Interception.  The play costs TEN at least another three points.  Turnover #2.

0:36, 3rd and 4, BAL 22:  Looking to convert a first down and push for a touchdown, TEN picks up the first down  on LenDale White’s carry but he takes a broadside shot from Jarrett Johnson who forces the fumble. The ball bounces right into Jim Leonhard’s hands, costing Tennessee points again.  Turnover #3.

Third Quarter

10:05, 4th and 7, BAL 33:  Failing to get a shorter kick after a bobbled pass is overturned on challenge, the Titans settle for a 51-yard Field Goal.  Bironas hooks it left never giving it a chance.  It might be harsh to call a 51-yard field goal a turnover, but the net effect is the same with Baltimore taking over at their 41.

1:41, 2nd and 10, TEN 41:  Flacco throws to Mark Clayton deep down the left sideline.  Clayton makes a nice double move spin and has a step on both the Cornerback and the Safety.  Flacco’s pass and Clayton’s route was clearly set up to hit him in the deep corner of the end zone but both ends of LP field are open ended.  As a result, the wind catches the ball up in the air like a hot-air balloon but the Titan defenders crash into each other.  Clayton makes the uncontested catch and probably scores but for his entanglement with the defenders.  BAL settles for three points.

Fourth Quarter

9:09, 2nd and 9, BAL 13:  Driving to take a go-ahead touchdown, Collins finds none of his first reads open, and dumps off to Alge Crumpler who takes a shot at the 3 and allows the ball to go flying out of his hands.  Fabian Washington recovers at the 1.  As I mentioned in the 2006 TBT, the play was a strange and eerie flashback of the Todd Heap Fumble in the 2006 AFC Divisional that happened the exact same way.  This would prove to be the decisive play in the game.  Turnover #4.

4:50, 3rd and 10, BAL 19:  Kerry Collins completes what feels like the 87th complete pass on a slant to Justin Gage, who had a great day yardage-wise.  Ravens defenders converge and put on a hugely important stop on Gage a half yard short of the first down.  TEN kicks to tie it up at 10.

2:52, 3rd and 2, BAL 31:  Snapping the ball literally within a hair’s breadth of delay of game, Flacco completes an incredibly clutch pass to Todd Heap, threading three defenders, for the first down and 23-yard gain.  Dierdorf spends a few minutes supposedly outraged in disbelief about the non-call but on replay and slow motion, the ball is clearly snapped within one second of the 0 on the play clock.  We know this because we can see the game clock at the same time.  That’s well within the margin allowed by the back judge to look down for the snap.  The call could have gone the other way in theory but it didn’t.  I am surprised that Baltimore doesn’t take a timeout here as even a 5-yard loss complicates the down immensely.

1:04, 3rd and 9, TEN 33:  Failing to land the dagger on a deep ball to Mason, the Ravens pick up a few first downs to set themselves up for a long field goal.  Needing extra yards of field position, BAL goes to the air completing a pass to Clayton one yard short.  Clayton seemingly fails to run the route past the sticks but regardless the yardage is key to set up a safer 43 yard FG for Stover rather than a 50 yarder for Hauschka.

0:45, 1st and 10, TEN 40:  the Titans call three brutally bad plays in a row, completing one five yard pass in the center of the field burning 15 seconds of clock, before two incompletions and nearly a game-ending INT.  The final play is a floater into the middle of nowhere.  The Ravens kneel for the win.

Post-Game Analysis

The Tennessee defense had a nice day, even though it had arguably a friendly matchup against a run-based offense and a rookie quarterback.  However, Chris Johnson’s exit was huge.  I could not discern how bad his injury was but the TV cameras showed him snuggled up in a jacket sipping a hot drink on the bench – not a good look for a first round pick in a playoff game.  In any case, his injury was very impactful.  LenDale White had a reasonably nice game in his place.  Collins played well for a wily old veteran as did Justin Gage.

The bottom line, as always, was turnovers.  These are decisive factors in playoff games and Tennessee committed bad ones, in Baltimore territory, that cost them between 6 and 14 points. The Ravens deserve credit for forcing these turnovers of course but overall they played well given the number of snaps they had to play.

The offense did not have a great day but what they did demonstrate is the value of a big play in the pass game.  Tennessee had moved the ball up and down field and yet had nothing to show for it.  What a pass game does with big plays is shorten the number of opportunities you have to screw up.  TEN could not hit a big play nor did they ever attempt one, unless Johnson was breaking off a long run.  It cost them.  They needed to be on point for at least seven or eight plays a drive to score points but instead would make a mistake despite leading a great sustained drive.  That is the great weakness of high efficiency offenses.  Deep ball passing teams are often criticized because they generate a lot of three and outs but then again, it’s been awhile since a high efficiency, short passing team won a ring.

Baltimore’s offense on the other hand, generated their points effectively on three plays:  The 48-yard Mason touchdown, the Clayton deep ball, and the conversion to Heap as the play clock expired.  The Ravens had been a run first team all year but it was these three pass plays that set up points after the run game got stonewalled.  It’s popular these days to completely devalue arm strength and maybe it’s not the most important attribute but it still matters.  Arm strength opens the door to challenge a defense where it fears most – deep.

Final Thoughts

The Ravens Defense, awesome all season, gave up yardage but were their stingy selves in the red zone and in generating clutch turnovers.  They led the league in several defensive categories:

  • Turnovers (34)
  • 1st downs allowed (228)
  • Interceptions (26), second best in team history only to the 2006 team (28)
  • Rushing TD allowed (4), one better than the 2000 defense
  • Rushing Attempts (366) [the 2000 team yielded 361 attempts]
  • Points per drive (1.08)
  • Plays per drive (4.9), the same as the 2000 team

2008 would be the last season in which Ray Lewis was definitively the Ravens best player on the season.  Lewis had possessed an absolutely staggering streak of six consecutive years as the Ravens best player by Average Value.

The game was a signature win over an extremely formidable opponent for Flacco and Harbaugh, but especially for Baltimore who had been in a seven year drought for a playoff win until 2008.  It was one of Baltimore's best teams and despite the surprise in the media at the turnaround, they had a magnificent chance to go all the way. It says a lot that a rookie coach and QB had a nearly identical chance as Pittsburgh to go the distance after this divisional game concluded.

This loss for Tennessee was a tough one to swallow.  Their #1 seed was highly unexpected especially given that they were starting their veteran backup.  The Titans’ play on the season would lead to Jim Schwartz getting a job with Detroit and Albert Haynesworth receiving $100 million from the Redskins.  Jeff Fisher would finish two more seasons in Tennessee before ultimately leaving over a dispute with management about Vince Young.  Fisher in my opinion has always been a very strong coach but has seemingly struggled to get it done when it counts the most – as evidenced by his two losses as a #1 seed to Baltimore.  Still, the Ravens are better off with Fisher in the NFC now because at one time, the Titans were perennial contenders under his effective leadership.