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Ravens Are Prepared for New Experience

December 31, 2000|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BALTIMORE — The last time this city hosted an NFL playoff game, the home team was the Colts.

After 23 years, the Baltimore Ravens play the Denver Broncos in an AFC wild-card game today--the first playoff game here since the Oakland Raiders beat the Colts in overtime in 1977 on Ken Stabler's pass to Dave Casper.

The Ravens are in their fifth season after Art Modell moved the Browns from Cleveland in 1996, a dozen years after the Colts shipped out for Indianapolis one night. The team the Ravens (12-4) will face has far more playoff experience than they can fathom.

The Broncos (11-5) won Super Bowls in 1998 and 1999. Coach Mike Shanahan is 7-1 in postseason games.

Baltimore Coach Brian Billick's postseason record: 0-0.

Still, Denver's Super Bowls came with John Elway at quarterback and the big question today is whether Brian Griese or Gus Frerotte will start after Griese re-injured his shoulder when he tried to return in the final week of the regular season.

Shanahan said he wouldn't name a starter before today, and uncharacteristically kept practices closed to the media.

Billick expects to see Griese, who has the highest passer rating in the NFL but separated his shoulder against Oakland in the 10th game of the season, returning last week only for a 300-pound defensive lineman to fall on it.

Some of the Ravens seem to expect Frerotte to start, with Griese available as needed.

But it might not make as much difference as it would seem: The Broncos lost only one game after Frerotte took over.

The real issue is the clash between Baltimore's top-ranked defense and Denver's second-ranked offense.

The Ravens set an NFL record by allowing only 165 points in a 16-game season. But four of those games were against Cleveland and Cincinnati, and Vinny Testaverde briefly made the Ravens look vulnerable against a hurry-up offense in the New York Jets' loss last week.

With linebacker Ray Lewis at the heart of a run-stuffing defense, the Ravens gave up a little more than 10 points a game.

But the Broncos scored almost 30 a game.

"Our defense against their offense will be a wash," said Shannon Sharpe, the loquacious Raven tight end who will be going against the team he played with for 10 seasons.

So if the strengths cancel each other out . . .

"It's our offense against their defense," Sharpe said. "Whatever team wins that battle wins. It's that simple."

Sharpe's banter with former teammates such as linebacker Bill Romanowski figures to be one of the subplots.

"I am the CEO of trash-talk," Sharpe said. "Romo is only vice president."

A more substantive one involves the two rookie running backs.

The Broncos' Mike Anderson, the former Marine who is the fourth-leading rusher in the NFL, will be going against a rushing defense that hasn't given up a 100-yard performance in 33 games.

The Ravens have their own standout in Jamal Lewis, who has put to rest the questions about injuries that dogged him after his career at Tennessee.

And though the Ravens are rather inexperienced overall, they do have Sharpe, safety Rod Woodson and tackle Harry Swayne, each with more than 10 postseason games.

"Any time you've been some place before, that experience helps," said Billick, who acknowledged he has worried about Shanahan's considerable advantage.

"They're an experienced team, not only collectively, but individually. But my quarterback [Trent Dilfer] has been in a playoff game. Their starting quarterback, indeed if it's Brian Griese, has not. Now what does that mean? I don't know."

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