It’s appropriate that fifty seasons after the “Greatest Game,” the Ravens beat Tennessee in the “Toughest Game Ever Played” in NFL playoff history to advance to the AFC Championship Game next Sunday.
The bodies were stacked up like cordwood on both sidelines, the temperature was dropping along with the rain, and Baltimore imposed its collective will on a proud Titans team that was the AFC’s No. 1 seed.
It wasn’t Yankee Stadium in 1958, but the thousands of Ravens fans who made the trip to Nashville will remember the 60 minutes of bumps, bruises and a single lone kick into the night by Matt Stover at LP Field that provided the winning points with just under a minute to play.
Joe Flacco, whose ice-covered veins must have felt at home in the cold late afternoon, did his best Johnny Unitas imitation on a nine-play, 51-yard march as the fourth-quarter clock wound down.
Flacco found Todd Heap — who found the will to play in the game despite being hurt — for 23 yards on the final drive to convert a third-and-2 play to the Titans 45. Maybe the play clock stood at 0 for just over a second when Flacco called for the snap. Maybe in a strange way, the lack of a delay penalty made up for a key unnecessary roughness call on Terrell Suggs in Week 5 that kept Tennessee’s game-winning drive going.
Five plays after Heap’s catch, Flacco found Mark Clayton for 8 yards to the Tennessee 25, and Stover trotted out for a 43-yard dead-straight kick to put Baltimore 60 minutes from the Super Bowl.
Suggs was one of the many Ravens who spent time writhing on the turf after he had the only sack of the game for either team. He and the rest of the defense were tested by Kerry Collins’ veteran passing performance. The Titans had the ball for over 18 minutes in the first half, but the Ravens got a pair of turnovers to stop Tennessee drives, including one that went from the Titans 1 to the Ravens 32 late in the second quarter. The defense just kept hitting in the second half, including the biggest play of the game.
The usually sure-handed Alge Crumpler, who made a good living as Michael Vick’s go-to receiver in Atlanta, coughed up the ball when Jim Leonhard whacked him at the Ravens 6 with 14 minutes to play, when the Titans looked to take the lead. Then the Ravens had literally no room for error as they had the ball at their 1 after recovering the loose ball.
But they survived to punt the ball safely out of the end zone. Tennessee got good field position anyway, but the Ravens defense stiffened for a game-tying Rob Bironas 27-yard field goal with 4:23 to play. It made up for his 51-yard miss in the third quarter — a kick that never hooked back between the uprights.
Once the Ravens had the lead, a last defensive stand, where Collins could not find his receivers downfield, sealed the victory.
The hug between Ravens coach John Harbaugh and his father on the sideline was a touching scene of relief, and the handshakes between the opponents after Flacco’s final kneel-down were one of grudging respect between two teams that gave everything and left nothing.
It’s another step — “looking forward” in the words of Harbaugh after the game, who included a line about “having enough bodies to play” next week.
Now, it’s Pittsburgh as the next destination for Baltimore. No matter what the outcome might be, or what victory there would mean, the Ravens will never win a tougher game in their history than they did in Nashville.