With a new quarterback named Trent Dilfer, the Baltimore Ravens (7-4) have suddenly emerged as one of the NFL's quality teams on the eve of the easy section of their schedule, which continues against Dallas (4-6) Sunday and then Cleveland (3-8).
All season, the Ravens have been the league's modeldefensive power, blanking three opponents and playing 2-3 football through a five-gamestretch in which they failed to score so much as one touchdown.
Then they changed quarterbacks and changed direction,bursting forth this month as an offensive-defensive power with the all-around strength toupset even the playoff-bound Tennessee Titans (8-2), 24-23.
The catalyst was, improbably, Dilfer, who, through a stormyseven-year NFL carrer, has inspired more abuse from more critics than perhaps any othercontemporary quarterback.
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That's 2 for Troubled Trent
During the first two months of the season, Raven Coach BrianBillick, an offensive expert, apparently agreed that Dilfer's many querulous critics had apoint.
In any case, he kept Tony Banks at quarterback in apunchless offense that continuously disheartened Baltimore's defense--the league'sbest--until, finally, successive defeats lowered the Ravens' won-lost record to5-3.
At that juncture, Billick brought Dilfer in to beat Cincinnati, 27-7, as the Ravens scored their only touchdowns in six weeks.
But when, seven days later, a Tennessee cornerbackintercepted Dilfer during a furious 17-17 fight in the fourth quarter--and returned theball 87 yards for what seemed to be the winning touchdown--you could hear the anti-Dilferfans shouting, from living rooms all over America, "Same old bum!"
They were wrong about that.
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The Raven-Titan game matched teams with names that wereunheard-of during all but 78 of the NFL's 81 years when, in large part, the old ChicagoBears and the old Green Bay Packers made pro football what it is.
The game also matched two of this year's four best proclubs--placing St. Louis and Oakland in that company.
Indeed, if the Ravens are going to be respectableoffensively now with their new one-two punch--Dilfer and rookie running back JamalLewis--they have defense enough to hold off any opponent.
Much the same can be said for the Titans and their one-twoweapons, quarterback Steve McNair and running back Eddie George.
It was McNair who won the first Raven-Titan game in October,14-6, before Dilfer's accurate passing tilted the rematch Baltimore's way, creating first-half leads of 14-0 and 17-7.
The Titans, on their home field, had fallen behind trying torun the ball.
Suddenly, to compete, they had to pass.
The question of the day was, Could they do that?
McNair's answer: They could.
But in the end, McNair couldn't quite undo Dilfer's faststart, when, as the Titans grounded out, the Ravens went overhead to jump ahead by 14points.
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Titans' Mason Best Yet
Measuring the NFL's 31 teams strictly on the quality oftheir players, the Titans seem far ahead with McNair, George, defensive lineman JevonKearse, safeties Blaine Bishop and Marcus Robertson, offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, andtheir many other gifted people.
This week's Exhibit A in the Tennessee talent survey is widereceiver Derrick Mason, a fourth-round draft choice in 1997 who has been often overlookedon a team that has lost so many good wide receivers to injury this season--starters KevinDyson and Yancey Thigpen among them--that some of its best friends doubted whether it hada championship chance.
Yet when the Titans discovered in the Baltimore game thatthey had to pass to compete, Mason was there to catch the McNair passes that scored or setup all but 6 of their 23 points.
Moreover, on punts as well as kickoffs, Mason looked likethe best kick runner in the nation.
Some of us think of him as the best two-way returner of alltime.
Primarily, punt returners need the ability of a superiorrunning back whereas kickoff returners need something else--speed, above all--plus greatcourage.
And to double effectively in the two roles, Mason, whoweighs only 188 pounds, keeps displaying all three traits.
Still, he's only one of many Titans with extraordinary talent.
Although coaching decides most big NFL games, neverunderestimate the team that has the edge in personnel.
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Passing Drills for Titans?
Tennessee reached the Super Bowl a year ago, and should havewon it, and should win it this time.
But there's a difference between last season and this forthe Titans, namely, they have a dangerous contender in their own division now.
Accordingly, the Titan requirement this year is to run thetable--against Cleveland, Jacksonville, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and, finally, DallasChristmas Night--to win the AFC Central from Baltimore, which will also be favored all theway against San Diego, Arizona and the New York Jets after Dallas and Cleveland.
The Tennessee coach, Jeff Fisher, a running-play enthusiast,can probably prevail in the regular season running the ball.
But it seems likely that he'll need a polished pass offensein the playoffs to overcome the opposition he could run into there: opponents likeIndianapolis, Oakland, possibly Denver, probably Baltimore and in time St. Louis again--allof which can and do throw the ball successfully.
To beat Baltimore, Fisher's pass offense, assuming it was well enough designed, wasn't polished enough.
Thus, to insure his best chance in the playoffs, Fisher,surely, will have to practice passing in Tennessee's last six regular-season starts.
You can evaluate the Titans' ability to win playoff gamesthis winter by noting how often and how well they pass in the regular-season stretchagainst teams they could beat, it may be, without throwing the ball at all.
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Rams' Backup Backs Win
Of the pro clubs you've seen this fall, how many could losetheir entire backfield to injury--along with a kicker who rates in the league's kickingelite--and continue to win?
Conceivably, the Rams, who will be seen against WashingtonMonday night, are the only defending champion in NFL history to be stripped of thebackfield of the year--in this case quarterback Kurt Warner, running back Marshall Faulkand fullback Robert Holcombe--and keep on ticking.
Most recently, to beat the New York Giants, 38-24, the Ramsplayed impressively with backup quarterback Trent Green, backup running back JustinWatson--and several backup fullbacks--who joined in Coach Mike Martz's wide-open offenseto again produce the day's record number of NFL points.
Green isn't as nifty as Warner in the pocket and he doesn'tscramble as well, nor is he quite as accurate throwing long, but he is clearly one of theNFL's finest.
He and Green Bay's Matt Hasselbeck are two backups with thetalent to win elsewhere in a league that numbers few great quarterbacks; and next year, nodoubt, both will be starters somewhere.
Meanwhile, the question is why the Rams keep winning soeasily with backups.
Often cited are their great speed, their quickness, theirsolid blocking line, their receivers' ability to hold off-target passes in heavy traffic,even their improving defense.
The answer, however, is none of the above.
They keep winning because in the Martz system, they keepthrowing the ball.
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Virtual Rookie Helps Vikes
It is Daunte Culpepper, the virtual rookie, who keeps theMinnesota Vikings in contention.
He proved it again the other day when Minnesota mastered theArizona Cardinals, 31-14.
Thus, unlike most young passers, Culpepper has alreadylearned a lot about how to pass.
When throwing into the center of the field, for example, hetypically misses with low passes now, if he misses at all.
When throwing to the wide part of the field, if he misses,he misses wide.
Culpepper has learned, clearly, that on inside plays, thelow pass is hardest to intercept.
On outside plays, the wide one is hardest for a would-beinterceptor to reach.
Not that Culpepper misses that often, but against Arizona,again, he threw a bundle of passes--34 this time--with but one interception.
He was playing against an Arizona team that held him evenfor a quarter, 7- 7, on a day when the Vikings led by only 10-7 at the half.
To win big, they had to play their best second half of theseason.
That suggests they had some competition that day.
And that might be.
The Cardinals are in the care of a new coach, Dave McGinnis,their former defensive coordinator, whose good first half seemed to verify that this is anup-and-rising team with more talent than it has shown in a 3-7 start, which, in 2000, isonly good for last in the NFC East.
Behind even Dallas.
The Arizona talent begins in the most necessary places.
In quarterback Jake Plummer, the Cardinals have a scramblerwho can throw with above-average accuracy.
In Michael Pittman, they have a running back who is moregifted than his team's record implies.
In sophomore David Boston, they have at least one helpfulreceiver.
And in Marc Trestman, they have a capable offensivecoordinator.
Moreover, to move into contention someday in thatdivision--against the likes of the Giants, Cowboys, Redskins and PhiladelphiaEagles--doesn't seem that difficult.
In truth, the toughest Eastern contenders in a year or twocould well be the Cardinals and Eagles.
As always, against leaders like Jerry Jones of Dallas andDaniel M. Snyder of Washington, the won-lost issues will be resolved in the frontoffices.
And in the Phoenix office, as you know, the big desk belongs to William V. (for Victory) Bidwill.