Why the Ravens will win: Linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed lead a ball-hawking defense that is intimidating and believes it can win anywhere, anytime. The Ravens not only are bent on creating turnovers, they turn them into touchdowns. Reed has the ability to take over a game like he did against the Dolphins last weekend (intercepting two passes and returning one for a score). Baltimore will try to funnel the Titans' passing game inside to Reed by overplaying Tennessee's outside receivers, knowing quarterback Kerry Collins likes to check the ball down to his backs and tight ends. Like the Titans, Baltimore has a smashmouth running game and likes to pound it with running back Le'Ron McClain. That sets up the play-action game for rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, who has the big arm to make explosive plays downfield. Flacco is no longer spoon-fed the offense. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron trusts him more and more.
Why the Titans will win: Coach Jeff Fisher's team used the bye week to heal injured defensive linemen Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch, who combined during the regular season for 12 sacks and six forced fumbles. The Titans have homefield advantage throughout the playoffs because they are the best team in the AFC. Tennessee will run the ball right at the Ravens' Ray Lewis because its best chance to win is to control the clock with running backs Chris Johnson and LenDale White. Veteran quarterback Kerry Collins has big-game experience and understands how to protect the ball; the Titans committed 17 turnovers during the regular season. Collins also will have receiver Justin Gage, who did not play against Baltimore in the regular season. The Ravens lost to Baltimore in the 2000 AFC division playoff game. Not many players remain from those teams, but it is another rallying cry.
Matchup to watch: Titans C Leroy Harris vs. Ravens NT Haloti Ngata. Tennessee starting center Kevin Mawae is out with a right elbow injury, and Harris got all the reps in practice during the week. Against the blitz-happy Ravens, it's a bad time for the Titans to lose the player who makes all the offensive line calls. And lack of playoff experience could be a concern for Harris. Ngata can control the line of scrimmage, allowing the Ravens linebackers to run to the ball.
Quotable: "We were mediocre, and then we were worse than mediocre. It was a long, hard process to get back here. I take a lot of pride in helping us get back in this situation." — LB Keith Bulluck, Tennessee's first-round draft pick in 2000
Number of the day
15 Rushing touchdowns for Titans' LenDale White in the regular season, in 200 rushing attempts.
Stephen F. Holder's prediction: Ravens 20, Titans 16
Rick Stroud, Times staff writer