The road to the Super Bowl will go through the trenches in Oakland, where the Raiders' fleet-footed "Committee" faces Baltimore's ferocious front seven on defense on Sunday in the AFC Championship.
The Raiders (13-4)
How they got here: Clinched AFC West Beat Miami Dolphins 27-0 in divisional playoff
Oakland owns the NFL's No. 1 rushing attack, a group of five backs known simply as The Committee. Coach Jon Gruden barely looks old enough to drive but he's wise enough to know that having a quintet of able rushers is like having a Mercedes in the driveway and four more in the garage. When Napoleon Kaufman injured his knee, Gruden had four other backs to call on and never sacrificed depth in the backfield. Such depth also has kept defenses off balance because each rusher has a different style — Kaufman tends to be more speedy and fluid while Tyrone Wheatley powers forward, for example.
Still, The Committee needs to have one heck of a meeting on Sunday to beat a Ravens defense that hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 35 games. Baltimore middle linebacker and Defensive Player of the Year Ray Lewis picks up the play so fast and zeroes in on runners before they can see much daylight beyond the line of scrimmage. Oakland needs to be fairly merciless in its ground game to try and chip away at the Ravens with multiple running backs. Ideally for Oakland, the Raider rushers will be fresher come the fourth quarter than a tired Ravens defensive line.
The Raiders run by committee but pass essentially to one guy: Tim Brown. For Oakland to avoid a consistent stream of three-downs-and-we're-out, it will need to vary its passing game by incorporating its tight ends more and dumping the ball off to Andre Rison and James Jett occasionally to take the pressure off Brown.
A scrambling Rich Gannon is key to beating blitz-friendly Baltimore. The 13-year veteran quarterback won't have much time to unload the ball and will need to move a bit more in the pocket to elude Rob Burnett and Michael McCrary and to buy an extra second or two for other plays to open up. That puts extra pressure on the Raiders' offensive line, which allowed three sacks against a tough Miami defense last weekend.
The Ravens (14-4)
How they got here: Beat Denver 21-3 in wild-card game Beat Tennessee 24-10 in divisional playoff
Some football aficionados have already lumped the second-ranked Baltimore defense in the same group as such storied defenses as the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s and the 1985 Chicago Bears. While it might be a bit early for such accolades, the numbers are nevertheless impressive: Baltimore has given up just 12 touchdowns in the past 15 games and leads the league with 51 forced turnovers, including two takeaways that resulted in 14 points against the Titans.
The Ravens have given up an average of just 60.6 yards rushing per game this season. Tennessee's Eddie George had 91 yards rushing last week, which is better than most: 1,500-yard rusher Mike Anderson of the Broncos was held to 40 yards against the Ravens in the playoffs; and Cincinnati's Corey Dillon, an aggressive runner with 1,435 yards rushing, mustered 32 yards on 28 carries over the course of two games against Baltimore.
A defense that gang-tackles, forces fumbles and holds big-play players to small offensive contributions is worthy of praise. But while much has been made of the stingy Ravens defense that allowed a record-low 165 points over a 16-game regular season, Baltimore's ineffectual offense desperately needs a defibrillator — and a quarterback.
The Ravens scored just 333 points this season — including two victories by a 37-point margin over lightweights Cincinnati and Cleveland — for the third-lowest offensive output among the 12 playoff teams this year. It's one thing to run up the score against the Bengals, and it's something else entirely to beat the Raiders, who sacked and intercepted Miami quarterback Jay Fiedler three times each last week.
Just one of the Ravens' three TDs against Tennessee came on offense (one was on special teams and one was on defense), and Baltimore had just 134 yards of total offense last weekend. The Ravens know Trent Dilfer's arm isn't going to deliver them to the Super Bowl. The erratic quarterback has just one touchdown and 130 yards passing in two playoff games and has thrown almost as many interceptions (11) as touchdowns (13) this season.
The running game is key for the Ravens if they hope to make travel arrangements to Tampa. Rookie Jamal Anderson, who has been sluggish in the playoffs, needs to revert to form and show flashes of his speedy, punishing style that earned him 1,364 yards rushing in the regular season.
Oakland is 8-1 at home this season, and Baltimore should score quickly to try and take the crowd out of the game. A couple big plays on defense could help the cause.
Baltimore is 2-0 against Oakland, having won the last meeting in 1998 on a Matt Stover field goal.