|(DAVID J PHILLIP/Associated Press)|
Struggle has been titanic
Tennessee-Baltimore series tiebreaker on tap
NASHVILLE - As far as Jeff Fisher is concerned, it's time for a whole new chapter in his Tennessee Titans' rivalry with the Baltimore Ravens.
Brian Billick no longer coaches the Ravens and the teams haven't been division rivals since 2001. The rosters have changed so much that Baltimore has three players on its roster who were on the Titans the last time these teams played an AFC divisional playoff game - the Ravens snatched a win here on their way to the 2001 Super Bowl.
"There's been some great matchups, it's a great rivalry," Fisher said. "But those things that took place in the past really aren't going to have any impact on what's going to happen. Really, there were some great games and I guess I'm very fortunate to be able to stand up here and answer questions about those games because some of them were years ago."
With John Harbaugh now coaching the Ravens, it's been a quiet week full of compliments heading into tomorrow's AFC divisional playoff game with none of the trash-talking that preceded previous games.
"It was a tense, division rivalry," said Harbaugh, who has heard tidbits of history from linebacker Ray Lewis and defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. "I always respected it. Two very physical teams and all that stuff, I always respected the rivalry."
Does Fisher miss Billick, even a little bit?
"We were pretty quiet. We didn't have much to say back in that day. Most of the stuff came out of their locker room. We just tried to stay focused and play," Fisher said.
That's understating things just a bit in a series tied 9-all, a rivalry so tight that each team has won on each other's home field in the playoffs.
Billick waved a magazine calling the Titans the NFL's best and said, "Not today they weren't" after his Ravens became the first team to win on the Titans' new home field in 2000. The Titans then played the comments on their videoboards later that season when the teams met in the divisional playoff, which Billick called classless.
A few months later, Fisher told his Titans to play like they had 2-by-4s going into Baltimore. The Ravens won, 26-7, and Billick said they needed a bigger stick.
"I don't know what Jeff and Billick's relationship personally was," Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck said. "I think they always made for a great week leading up to the game. Jeff might say something, then Brian might respond. It always made it fun."
On the field, it was just as intense.
Lewis ripped a ball away from Tennessee running back Eddie George in that 24-10 playoff win Jan. 7, 2001, also stealing the Titans' chances at a second straight Super Bowl appearance.
"It hurt more than losing the Super Bowl the year before that, just because we knew whoever won that game would probably win the Super Bowl," said Baltimore cornerback Samari Rolle, one of three Ravens who played for the Titans in that game.
George got his measure of revenge in a 20-17 wild-card win Jan. 3, 2004, as he ran over Lewis after separating a shoulder.
Ten of these games have been decided by 4 points or fewer, not counting the wacky finish on Monday night in November 2001 when the Titans lost a touchdown, and the game, despite a do-over, because Ravens linebacker Peter Boulware was offsides.
Harbaugh is much more like Fisher, so no pointed comments this week.
Just like that 2000 season, the Titans are 13-3 with the NFL's best record and hold the AFC's No. 1 seed. Fisher chose to rest his Titans through a 23-0 regular-season finale loss to Indianapolis that was their first shutout loss since Nov. 7, 1999. The Ravens (12-5) have won 10 of 12, including their 27-9 wild-card win in Miami.
The Titans did find a little bulletin-board material from that game.
"One of their players said, 'We're coming, Tennessee. We're packing our bags. We're coming,' " Tennessee defensive end Jevon Kearse said. "I'm like, 'You need to enjoy this win first,' and we'll get to that when it happens."
On the other hand, Rolle sees it as only appropriate the Ravens must go through the Titans once again to reach only their second AFC Championship game.
"Destiny, I believe," Rolle said.