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With a new chapter looming, looking back at Ravens-Titans playoff lore

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Ravens-Steelers has become an NFL legacy rivalry over the last two decades.

No team had more January success against Tom Brady’s New England Patriots in Foxborough than Baltimore.

But the Ravens’ first true rivalry was with the Tennessee Titans as there was no love lost between these teams that rose to prominence at the turn of the century. There were a handful of future Hall of Famers and numerous Pro Bowl players involved, including a few who would eventually switch sides. Realignment put these adversaries in different divisions beginning in 2002, but the intensity would linger as the Ravens and Titans continued to cross paths in the postseason, meeting three times in a nine-year period.

After an 11-year January lull and substantial cooling of the memories from those old AFC Central days, the rivalry was renewed as the teams met in the playoffs last year. With Baltimore and Tennessee set to clash in the postseason for the second straight year and fifth time in the last 21 seasons on Sunday, let’s take a look back at Ravens-Titans playoff lore:

2000 DIVISIONAL ROUND – JAN. 7, 2001

Seeds had been planted the previous year as the Ravens handed the Titans their only loss in the second half of a season that ended with them playing in the Super Bowl, but the rivalry exploded in 2000 and continued in the divisional round.

The road team had won each of the two regular-season meetings with Trent Dilfer and the Ravens coming from behind to hand the Titans their first ever loss at Adelphia Coliseum in mid-November. By season’s end, Tennessee (13-3) had secured the No. 1 seed in the AFC while 12-4 Baltimore settled for the top wild-card spot and a return trip to Nashville — after topping Denver in the opening round — despite having not lost a game since late October.

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It was a war between the two best defenses in football as each team managed only a single offensive touchdown. The Ravens offense was particularly brutal with just six first downs and five plays gaining more than five yards for the entire afternoon.

But special teams had been an adventure with the Ravens having two punts blocked and Titans kicker Al Del Greco having a field goal try blocked and missing another over the final three minutes of the first half to keep the score tied 7-7 at intermission. Hoping to atone for his earlier miscues, Del Greco lined up for a 37-yard try to break a 10-10 tie early in the fourth quarter.

What happened next was the surest sign yet that the Ravens were a team of destiny.

Courtesy of NFL/CBS Sports

Reserve defensive linemen Keith Washington blocked another low kick from Del Greco before backup safety and former NFL Europe player Anthony Mitchell plucked the ball out of the air and returned it 90 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, stunning the 68,527 in attendance. With the Ravens leading 17-10 with just over 12 minutes to go, all that was left was for Ray Lewis and the defense to make their final statement as the league’s superior unit.

After the teams exchanged three-and-outs, two Steve McNair completions to Derrick Mason put the Titans at midfield with less than seven minutes to go. As McNair dropped back and threw behind running back Eddie George, Lewis, the league’s Defensive Player of the Year, put the final nail in the coffin with a 50-yard interception return for a touchdown, silencing a crowd that had such high hopes entering the day.

Courtesy of NFL/CBS Sports

The combined 140 yards on those two returns were more than Baltimore gained on offense (134) all day, but the Ravens were moving on to the AFC Championship. Head coach Brian Billick’s post-game comments reflected the intensity and disdain between two teams so similar in style.

“Folks, when you go into the lion’s den, you don’t tippy-toe in,” Billick said. “You carry a spear, you go in screaming like a banshee, and you kick whatever doors in and say, ‘Where’s the son of a bitch?’ If you go in any other way, you’re going to lose.”

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That game might as well have been the true Super Bowl that year as the Ravens disposed of Oakland the following week and then crushed the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV for their first NFL championship.

2003 WILD-CARD ROUND – JAN. 3, 2004

The 2003 Ravens had won five of their last six games to rebound from a 5-5 start and win their first AFC North division championship while the Titans (12-4) lost the AFC South tiebreaker to Indianapolis and were forced to go on the road as a wild card to face a team they hadn’t beaten in their previous five tries.

Having become the fifth man in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season six days earlier, Jamal Lewis would find very little room against a Tennessee defense that had allowed the fewest rushing yards in the league. Lewis finished the night with just 35 yards on 14 carries, meaning the game was largely in the hands of quarterback Anthony Wright. The 27-year-old backup had played respectably taken over for injured first-round pick Kyle Boller midway through the season, but the Ravens just weren’t equipped to win games through the air and managed just one scoring drive through the first three quarters.

On the flip side, a superb Baltimore defense that had lost Pro Bowl outside linebackers Peter Boulware and Adalius Thomas late in the season struggled to stop the run, surrendering a combined 149 rushing yards to George and rookie Chris Brown. But a Will Demps interception return for a touchdown had helped keep the Ravens in the game as they trailed just 17-10 late in the fourth quarter.

Needing a touchdown to save the season, Wright connected on back-to-back 10-yard completions to Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap to put the Ravens in Tennessee territory. Heap had gone to the sideline after busting his nose on that second catch, but he quickly returned as Baltimore faced a second-and-10 from the Titans’ 35 with 4:37 remaining.

Courtesy of NFL/ESPN

Lining up out wide as he was apt to do with the shortage of wide receiver talent on the roster, Heap reined in a deep pass for a touchdown over Titans safety Tank Williams to tie the game. A frenzied sellout crowd at M&T Bank Stadium got even louder moments later when Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister caught the third McNair interception of the night to give the Ravens the ball back with under four minutes to go.

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That would prove to be the last bit of magic for Baltimore, however, as Wright and the offense would go three-and-out. Making matters worse, mercurial right tackle Orlando Brown was flagged for his second 15-yard penalty of the night after Wright’s third-down incompletion, pushing back the Baltimore punting unit and ultimately giving the Titans the ball at their own 37 with under three minutes to play.

Looking to exorcise the demons of their playoff loss three years earlier, McNair — the co-NFL MVP with Peyton Manning in 2003 — and George led Tennessee into field-goal range and set up a 46-yard try for Gary Anderson. The 44-year-old hadn’t made a kick longer than 43 yards all season, but Titans head coach Jeff Fisher trusted his seasoned right foot in such a critical spot to break the 17-17 tie.

Courtesy of NFL/ESPN

Anderson booted the ball just over the crossbar and sent the Ravens into the offseason. A kicker had gotten the job done for Tennessee this time around.

The Titans would fall to New England in the divisional round the following weekend, but they would take satisfaction in eliminating their old rivals. Meanwhile, the Ravens would wait another five years for their next playoff win.

2008 DIVISIONAL ROUND – JAN. 10, 2009

Much had changed by the time these teams next met in the playoffs in the 2008 divisional round.

McNair and George were long gone from the Tennessee side while Billick had been fired at the end of the previous season. Former Titans stars Mason and Samari Rolle had been Ravens for four seasons. First-year head coach John Harbaugh and rookie quarterback Joe Flacco had helped an elite defense still led by Lewis and All-Pro safety Ed Reed to an 11-5 record and a convincing first-round playoff win at Miami. One of those regular-season losses had come against the Titans in Baltimore in early October as 38-year-old quarterback Kerry Collins had surprisingly led Tennessee to a 13-3 record, the No. 1 seed, and home-field advantage.

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Many names and faces had changed, but the circumstances were similar to that classic 2000 meeting.

This one’s remembered by many as a defensive slugfest because of the final score, Lewis’ violent hit on fullback Ahmard Hall (below), and the accordion-like tackle of Tennessee rookie running back Chris Johnson that contributed to his early exit from the game, but the Titans had moved the ball at will with 256 yards in the first half, 100 coming from Johnson. Three turnovers in scoring position — two coming late in the first half — and Johnson’s ankle injury were the difference between what could have been a comfortable Tennessee lead and the close game we instead witnessed.

Courtesy of NFL/CBS Sports

Having done little offensively beyond Flacco’s 48-yard touchdown pass to Mason late in the first quarter, the Ravens managed a field goal for a 10-7 lead early in the final period. Following their third backbreaking turnover of the night on the ensuing drive, the Titans regrouped for a quick stop and a Rob Bironas field goal to tie the game at 10-10 with 4:23 remaining.

With their run-first approach having been smothered all night, the Ravens had no choice but to lean more on Flacco, who faced a third-and-2 from his own 32 with just under three minutes to go. As — or was it after? — the play clock expired, the rookie from Delaware threw one down the seam to Heap for 23 yards into Tennessee territory as the Titans understandably argued for a delay of game penalty.

Courtesy of NFL/CBS Sports

A couple Willis McGahee runs and a Flacco completion to Mark Clayton helped set up a 43-yard field goal try for Matt Stover. Remembering what had happened years earlier with the Titans owning the top seed against Baltimore, fans in Nashville could only sigh to themselves, “Please not again.”

The Ravens kicker since the inaugural 1996 season, Stover didn’t have the same leg strength, but the 40-year-old wasn’t going to shy away from the biggest kick of his long career to send Baltimore back to the AFC Championship for the first time in eight years.

Courtesy of NFL/CBS Sports

Making what would prove to be his final field goal as a Raven with room to spare, Stover celebrated the 13-10 lead on his jog toward the sideline. Baltimore would put down Tennessee’s final desperation drive in the final minute to continue a magical run that would ultimately end in Pittsburgh the following week, but it was another improbable outcome in Ravens-Titans playoff lore.

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2019 DIVISIONAL ROUND – JAN. 11, 2020

The 2019 Ravens were the best team in football and the best team in regular-season franchise history by a wide margin.

Led by NFL MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson and 12 other Pro Bowl selections, Baltimore (14-2) had set numerous league and team records, hadn’t lost a game since late September, and sported the best point differential the league had seen since the 2007 Patriots team that had gone undefeated in the regular season. In short, the Ravens had looked virtually unbeatable for the better part of three months while the 9-7 Titans had squeaked into the playoffs before beating a fading New England team the previous week.

Coming off just the third first-round bye in team history and having rested several key starters in Week 17, the Ravens started slowly as a Jackson downfield throw bounced off tight end Mark Andrews’ hands for an interception to end a promising opening drive. The Titans took advantage of the turnover with a touchdown drive to take a 7-0 first-quarter lead, but an unsettling start was about to get worse.

With the Ravens having gone 8-for-8 on fourth-and-1 situations in the regular season, Harbaugh electing to go for a fourth-and-1 from his own 45 on the opening play of the second period wasn’t surprising. The Titans stuffing Jackson was, however, as quarterback Ryan Tannehill and the Tennessee offense now took over in Baltimore territory.

Taking a deep shot on the very next play against the blitz, Tannehill threw a perfect 45-yard touchdown to Kalif Raymond. For the first time since Week 4, the Ravens trailed by multiple scores in a game.

Courtesy of NFL/CBS Sports

Even after their ugly first 16 minutes of play, the out-of-sync Ravens had managed two field goals for a 14-6 deficit at halftime. They moved into the red zone on the opening drive of the second half before facing another fourth-and-1 situation at the 18.

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Surely this mighty offense wouldn’t be stopped again, right?

Courtesy of NFL/CBS Sports

Instead of slivering straight ahead, Jackson moved laterally and didn’t come close to the first down as panic began setting in at M&T Bank Stadium. Even with the nightmare end to that drive, the Ravens still had a chance for a three-and-out as Tannehill handed off to 6-foot-3, 247-pound running back Derrick Henry on third-and-1 from his own 26.

Courtesy of NFL/CBS Sports

His 66-yard run sucked the remaining life out of the Ravens and the 71,254 in attendance as Henry himself would throw a short touchdown pass three plays later to give the Titans a 15-point lead. That advantage would soon grow to 28-6 after Jackson was stripped in the pocket on the ensuing series and Tannehill’s 1-yard touchdown run finished off a short scoring drive.

Not built to come from behind with their historic run-heavy attack, the Ravens would gain a bunch of meaningless yards and manage a touchdown over the final 20 minutes, but the game never felt close again. You could point to those failed fourth-down tries, three turnovers, the inability to stop Henry in key spots, and several dropped passes as reasons why the Titans were finally able to give Baltimore a taste of its own medicine by knocking off the heavily favored No. 1 seed in its own stadium.

The following week, Tennessee would jump out to an early 10-0 lead in the conference championship game before eventual Super Bowl champion Kansas City regrouped to prevail 35-24 against second-year head coach Mike Vrabel and one of the better underdog stories in recent memory.

For the Ravens, the 28-12 final was arguably the most disappointing loss in franchise history. And it’s one Jackson and the 2020 team hope to avenge in Nashville on Sunday afternoon.

At the very least, the shocking result reignited a rivalry that had been dormant for the better part of a decade.

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