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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 model defensive power, blanking three opponents and playing 2-3 football through a five-game stretch 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 to upset even the playoff-bound Tennessee Titans (8-2), 24-23.
The catalyst was, improbably, Dilfer, who, through a stormy seven-year NFL carrer, has inspired more abuse from more critics than perhaps any other contemporary quarterback.
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That's 2 for Troubled Trent
During the first two months of the season, Raven Coach Brian Billick, an offensive expert, apparently agreed that Dilfer's many querulous critics had a point.
In any case, he kept Tony Banks at quarterback in a punchless offense that continuously disheartened Baltimore's defense--the league's best--until, finally, successive defeats lowered the Ravens' won-lost record to 5-3.
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 cornerback intercepted Dilfer during a furious 17-17 fight in the fourth quarter--and returned the ball 87 yards for what seemed to be the winning touchdown--you could hear the anti-Dilfer fans 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 were unheard-of during all but 78 of the NFL's 81 years when, in large part, the old Chicago Bears and the old Green Bay Packers made pro football what it is.
The game also matched two of this year's four best pro clubs--placing St. Louis and Oakland in that company.
Indeed, if the Ravens are going to be respectable offensively now with their new one-two punch--Dilfer and rookie running back Jamal Lewis--they have defense enough to hold off any opponent.
Much the same can be said for the Titans and their one-two weapons, 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 to run 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 fast start, when, as the Titans grounded out, the Ravens went overhead to jump ahead by 14 points.
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Titans' Mason Best Yet
Measuring the NFL's 31 teams strictly on the quality of their players, the Titans seem far ahead with McNair, George, defensive lineman Jevon Kearse, safeties Blaine Bishop and Marcus Robertson, offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, and their many other gifted people.
This week's Exhibit A in the Tennessee talent survey is wide receiver Derrick Mason, a fourth-round draft choice in 1997 who has been often overlooked on a team that has lost so many good wide receivers to injury this season--starters Kevin Dyson and Yancey Thigpen among them--that some of its best friends doubted whether it had a championship chance.
Yet when the Titans discovered in the Baltimore game that they had to pass to compete, Mason was there to catch the McNair passes that scored or set up all but 6 of their 23 points.
Moreover, on punts as well as kickoffs, Mason looked like the best kick runner in the nation.
Some of us think of him as the best two-way returner of all time.
Primarily, punt returners need the ability of a superior running back whereas kickoff returners need something else--speed, above all--plus great courage.
And to double effectively in the two roles, Mason, who weighs 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, never underestimate 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 have won it, and should win it this time.
But there's a difference between last season and this for the Titans, namely, they have a dangerous contender in their own division now.
Accordingly, the Titan requirement this year is to run the table--against Cleveland, Jacksonville, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and, finally, Dallas Christmas Night--to win the AFC Central from Baltimore, which will also be favored all the way 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 offense in the playoffs to overcome the opposition he could run into there: opponents like Indianapolis, Oakland, possibly Denver, probably Baltimore and in time St. Louis again--all of 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 games this winter by noting how often and how well they pass in the regular-season stretch against 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 lose their entire backfield to injury--along with a kicker who rates in the league's kicking elite--and continue to win?
Conceivably, the Rams, who will be seen against Washington Monday night, are the only defending champion in NFL history to be stripped of the backfield of the year--in this case quarterback Kurt Warner, running back Marshall Faulk and fullback Robert Holcombe--and keep on ticking.
Most recently, to beat the New York Giants, 38-24, the Rams played impressively with backup quarterback Trent Green, backup running back Justin Watson--and several backup fullbacks--who joined in Coach Mike Martz's wide-open offense to again produce the day's record number of NFL points.
Green isn't as nifty as Warner in the pocket and he doesn't scramble as well, nor is he quite as accurate throwing long, but he is clearly one of the NFL's finest.
He and Green Bay's Matt Hasselbeck are two backups with the talent to win elsewhere in a league that numbers few great quarterbacks; and next year, no doubt, both will be starters somewhere.
Meanwhile, the question is why the Rams keep winning so easily with backups.
Often cited are their great speed, their quickness, their solid 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 keep throwing the ball.
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Virtual Rookie Helps Vikes
It is Daunte Culpepper, the virtual rookie, who keeps the Minnesota Vikings in contention.
He proved it again the other day when Minnesota mastered the Arizona Cardinals, 31-14.
Thus, unlike most young passers, Culpepper has already learned a lot about how to pass.
When throwing into the center of the field, for example, he typically 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, the low pass is hardest to intercept.
On outside plays, the wide one is hardest for a would-be interceptor 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 even for 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 the season.
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 an up-and-rising team with more talent than it has shown in a 3-7 start, which, in 2000, is only 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 scrambler who can throw with above-average accuracy.
In Michael Pittman, they have a running back who is more gifted than his team's record implies.
In sophomore David Boston, they have at least one helpful receiver.
And in Marc Trestman, they have a capable offensive coordinator.
Moreover, to move into contention someday in that division--against the likes of the Giants, Cowboys, Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles--doesn't seem that difficult.
In truth, the toughest Eastern contenders in a year or two could well be the Cardinals and Eagles.
As always, against leaders like Jerry Jones of Dallas and Daniel M. Snyder of Washington, the won-lost issues will be resolved in the front offices.
And in the Phoenix office, as you know, the big desk belongs to William V. (for Victory) Bidwill.